Pressure to be immense
The impending Alex Rodriguez deal to the Yankees would take the fiercest rivalry in sports to a new level.
The Alex Rodriguez deal would jack up the pressure on the Yankees -- and the Red Sox -- in a way that probably has never been seen.
An executive who knows Rodriguez says the infielder has absolutely no idea what type of burden he will assume in New York. He's played in a small media market in Seattle, and when he went to Texas, the Rangers always were the story played below the newspaper fold, under the breaking story of the latest Cowboys long-snapper. If the Yankees win championships, A-Rod's stardom could transcend baseball. But if the Yankees lose, he will stand in the crosshairs of blame, in the most demanding market in the game.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner already expects his team to win every World Series, and now he is assuming the biggest contract in sports and about another $20 million in luxury tax. If this team -- with A-Rod, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter -- fails to win 11 out of every 10 games, he will inevitably breathe down the neck of the players, demanding results -- and the fans in Yankee Stadium will reflect Steinbrenner's moods with their visceral reactions.
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It's certainly within the realm of imagination that Steinbrenner will create a prickly issue with Jeter and Rodriguez. If Jeter goes through a period where he is not playing good defense -- say, five errors in 10 games, at a time when the Yankees are struggling -- then Steinbrenner's classic M.O. would be to push for a change -- shift Jeter to another position, while A-Rod goes back to shortstop. The quarterback controversy involving Joe Montana and Steve Young will look like a thumbfight compared to the maelstrom if a Shortstop Controversy appears in the Bronx.
This deal comes at a time when Joe Torre -- once the master of deflecting pressure from his players -- is entering his final year as manager, and he may no longer be considered untouchable to the owner. When the Yankees go through a tough stretch, it would not surprise anyone in the organization if Steinbrenner stepped in and got rid of Torre, before he leaves. And the Yankees clubhouse chemistry, a powerful weapon during the recent dynasty, will be virtually non-existent, with so many newcomers on board
And in Boston, the Red Sox must move on knowing that they could have had the game's best player, if they had been willing to take on more money. Boston appears to have a better pitching staff, with the addition of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, and all will be forgiven if the Red Sox, can surpass the Yankees and conquer the Curse of the Bambino.
But if A-Rod thrives in New York, the Red Sox will be forever second-guessed for not pulling the trigger on a trade with Texas -- as they have been second-guessed for more than three-quarters of a century for dealing Babe Ruth. If Rodriguez continues his current rate of production, the Red Sox may be guilty of squandering two of the four greatest home run hitters in history. Everything the Red Sox do this season -- and everything they don't do -- will be viewed through an A-Rod prism, and an ownership which had built enormous credibility with Boston fans could lose all of it if the Yankees win.
The stakes have never been higher in this rivalry, with the two teams throwing in more than $300 million to this high-stakes game. As the pressure mounts, there will be a meltdown, in Boston, or in the Bronx.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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