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Thursday, October 13, 2005
A-Rod, Unit missing something

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

I am a non-Yankees fan trapped in Manhattan. I live here because I work here, but I can barely live with the fan and media overreaction to Yankees win! or, now, Yankees lose!

Now Torre has lost his fastball. Now Bernie got old, and Matsui got tired. Now the bullpen (save for Mariano) is nothing but bull, and Cashman must go.

Now -- I've actually read this in newspaper columns and heard this from talk-show hosts and callers -- A-Rod was just trying too hard. Hey, Alex Rodriguez said so himself.

I'll take "laughable excuses" for 252 million, Alex.

Yet as much as I'm loving the fact that the Yankees lost, I find I'm hating it, too. As crazy as I'm driven by all the off-target excuse-making, I'm missing the Yankees more and more with each sleepy inning of the Angels vs. White Sox.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod couldn't get the job done when it counted most, again.
Nothing against those teams, which proved to be better teams than the Yankees or Red Sox. Fewer weaknesses, better chemistry.

Much lower watchability -- save for Wednesday night's third-strike, ninth-inning controversy that allowed the White Sox to steal Game 2.

Oh, how I miss the Yankees and the Red Sox and the beyond-Hollywood drama they routinely gave us on and off the field. This had become the best rivalry -- and show -- in sports. You can have "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." Give me Steinbrenner's misguided millions vs. the ghost-busting world champions.

But please, Yankees fans, do not pelt me like the recent relentless New York City rain with silly excuses. Get real. Boil it down. Understand why the Red Sox won last year, and why your Yankees aren't really Yankees anymore.

It's simply because your owner, George Steinbrenner, bet two tons of fool's gold on two superstars whose intangibles will never measure up to their best-in-baseball bodies and talent. The Yankee Stadium stage will always be too big for A-Rod and Randy Johnson.

In pinstripes, A-Rod turns into C-minus-Rod in October. As the ace of the Yankees, the Big Unit came up small (but not Aaron Small) in the pivotal Game 3 against the Angels.

Predictably simple.

If you could pour whatever is inside Derek Jeter into A-Rod, you would have the greatest baseball player ever.

But something has always been missing in A-Rod's makeup: mental toughness, guts, whatever it is that allows Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez to make entire teams better. A-Rod doesn't seize the biggest moments. They seize him, often by the throat.

If you could pour whatever is inside Curt Schilling into Randy Johnson, even at 42, you would have the most dominating left-handed pitcher ever.

But something has always been missing in Johnson's makeup -- big-game confidence, emotional control, whatever it was that Schilling provided Johnson when he pitched the tone-setting games ahead of Johnson as the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. In the biggest moments, Johnson too often has been a psychological powder keg with a short fuse.

The two main reasons the Red Sox finally reversed the curse last season were: (1) they signed Schilling to be their ace and driving force, and (2) they had Ramirez batting cleanup behind David Ortiz.

Yes, Ortiz has become baseball's most talked-about clutch hitter -- while Manny remains the most chuckled-at goof. But would most pitchers rather pitch to Ortiz or Manny? The answer is Ortiz, who takes amazing advantage of the many mistakes made by pitchers fearing the "goof" on deck.

Ortiz put up a little better numbers this season than Manny -- 148 RBI to 144, and 47 homers to 45. DH Ortiz obviously deserves to be an MVP candidate, even though he rarely plays defense. But in beyond-numbers impact, Manny has always been Boston's MVP.

The shrewdest move the Yankees could make right now would be pulling off a trade for Manny. Imagine the back-page headline in New York: MANNY-HATTAN. The Red Sox would be crazy to do it, unless maybe the Yankees would give up Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang, but acquiring Manny could shift the balance of power dramatically.

So could trading for Bonds and DHing him every night.

Yet who will win the AL MVP? The same phenomenally gifted player who was least valuable to the Yankees in the playoffs. In the regular season, A-Rod's 48 homers, 130 RBI and probable Gold Glove at third base helped carry the Yankees from an 11-19 start to a tie with Red Sox for the best record in the AL East.

But the Yankees won the tiebreaker by winning the season series against the Sox. The biggest reason? The 6-foot-10 Johnson went 5-0 against Schilling's team -- while Schilling wasn't quite the same after offseason ankle surgery. Schilling marginally replaced an injured Keith Foulke as closer, then failed to rediscover himself as the No. 1 starter.

I don't know how many times after Yankees-Red Sox games I read in New York papers about how A-Rod or the Unit had earned his pinstripes and proved himself as a "true Yankee."

Randy Johnson
The Big Unit couldn't keep his good September going in October.
That, obviously, can be accomplished only in October. Johnson was Mr. September, holding the American League to a .167 average in the final month of the season. Yet Steinbrenner paid him $16 million mostly to win series-turning playoff games.

With the Yankees and Angels tied at one win apiece, Johnson took the mound Friday night at Yankee Stadium. Here was his "true Yankee" moment. A three-hit shutout probably would have slammed the psychological door on the Angels with another game to play at Yankee Stadium.

But Johnson wasn't just hit, he was rocked, allowing nine hits and two homers. In one of the most stunning sights of the season, Randy was turned into just another Johnson.

He was gone in the fourth inning, down 5-0, with fans chanting "Aa-ron Small, Aa-ron Small." Yes, it came to this for the Unit: Yankees fans chanting for a journeyman pitcher who came from nowhere (Triple-A Columbus) on July 17 to go 10-0.

In the first round of the playoffs, Johnson is 0-7 with a 5.33 ERA in his last eight starts. Yes, the Yankees rallied to take a 6-5 lead, but pounding the Unit had done wonders for the Angels' confidence. Their next victim was reliever Tom Gordon. They won 11-7.

Johnson's partner in Yankee crime? C-minus-Rod, who gave the Angels life in Game 2 by blowing as easy a play as a third baseman can have -- a point-blank Sunday hopper. Yes, it's possible he lost it in the lights. But has Jeter ever lost a high hopper in the lights?

Meanwhile, A-Rod went 2-for-15 in the series with no homers and no RBI. That makes him 4 for his last 32 in the playoffs, counting last season's collapse against Boston.

A-Rod's reaction? He "left it all out on the field," he said. He tried his hardest, maybe too hard. He apologized to his teammates.

These are the words of a player who has no idea what it takes to win. This is a freak of a 6-foot-4, 230-pound specimen who hit the most awe-inspiring home run of the season -- a rare opposite-field, upper-deck blast. This is a slugger who has never been suspected of being A-Roid -- one who eventually could wind up with more career homers than Bonds or Hank Aaron.

Yet this is a guy you wouldn't want in your October foxhole. C-minus-Rod finally made Yankees fans long for the days of a far less talented -- but far more clutch -- Scott Brosius.

So should manager Joe Torre be blamed for the failings of A-Rod and the Unit? Please.

I've been saying for a month what Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said Wednesday as he left the clubhouse, probably for the last time: "I've been here with Joe for 10 years, and this has been by far the toughest year for him, and it's the best job he's done."

Yes, the best regular-season job. Given all the injuries and aging suffered by his Old York Yankees, Torre deserves consideration for manager of the year.

But of course, how much compassion can you have for a man managing a $200 million-plus payroll?

And how can you heap all the blame on general manager Brian Cashman? Right on time, he called up Wang, then Cano, then Small. Just when the team needed it most, Cashman acquired Shawn Chacon for the rotation.

Or was it Cashman who closed that deal? With this operation, you never know what or whom to believe.

But believe this: Steinbrenner still has the final say on every significant move.

Steinbrenner pushed for -- and absurdly overpaid for -- three premier free agents without championship intangibles. First it was Jason Giambi, then A-Rod, then Johnson.

One, two, three strikes, you're out of luck, George. You built your kingdom on their October quicksand, and now you're paying for it.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.