- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
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Editor's Note: This story appears in the May 21 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Alex Rodriguez dropped 12 pounds during the off-season, making it easier for him to attack fastballs, range for grounders and dodge reporters. He stood in a corner of the dugout at Yankee Stadium during the last week of April as a sportswriter closed in, looking to ask the kinds of introspective questions that A-Rod now understandably avoids.
When you're hitting a home run every six at-bats, the last thing you want to contemplate is why.
With a peripheral glance, Rodriguez spotted the notebook-wielding predator and sprinted away, bouncing onto the field. These days, he is all-seeing, all-hitting, all-world. And in April, he almost single-handedly propped up the last vestiges of a Yankee dynasty that effectively ended on Nov. 4, 2001, the night Luis González looped a broken-bat single over Derek Jeter's head to win the World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Since then, powerful forces have converged, perhaps inevitably, to make the Yankees so dependent on the most expensive player in sports, a guy who as recently as last October was nearly run out of town. The ironies are compelling. As A-Rod became the first man ever to hit 14 homers in his first 18 games, finally achieving the kind of success and critical acclaim he undoubtedly envisioned when he came to New York three years ago, baseball's flagship franchise was swimming with the AL East bottom-feeders. The better A-Rod performs, the more likely it is that he'll opt out of his contract after this season. And most significantly, the better he plays, the more games these Yankees win, which will allow GM Brian Cashman to keep his job and continue the steady but laborious construction of what could be the next Yankees dynasty.
All this plays out as the new Yankee Stadium rises on the other side of 161st Street. The retro palace, set to open in 2009, should secure the franchise's future, for which A-Rod, at least for now, holds the key.
IN THE FIRST few minutes after Mariano Rivera blew that save six years ago, George Steinbrenner walked through the Yankee clubhouse, saying, "There are going to be changes." As usual, The Boss made good on his promise.
In an effort to keep winning titles, the organization lurched impetuously, throwing huge money at the marquee free agents of the moment -- Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Carl Pavano -- without regard to whether they truly fit the club. As they did in the 1980s and early '90s, the darkest period in Steinbrenner's 34 years as owner, the Yankees have learned that you can win games, and maybe even a pennant now and then, with mercenaries, but you can't build a dynasty that way.
Ultimately, it was the fertile farm system fostered by former GM Gene Michael (while The Boss was suspended for trying to smear Dave Winfield) that produced the core of the team that won four World Series in five years: Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Michael stressed patient development of the team's best young prospects and careful investment in personalities suited for New York, such as Paul O'Neill. But Michael eased into semiretirement, and patience was replaced, at The Boss' behest, by haste.
Steinbrenner is now 76, visibly diminished, and his succession plan is muddled. Two seasons after engineering the trade that brought A-Rod from Texas, Cashman won a power struggle with Steinbrenner's Tampa-based cronies, receiving carte blanche to oversee the draft and player development. Cashman's argument to Steinbrenner after the 2005 season was that the Yankees can be more successful, and also more profitable, by aggressively investing in younger, cheaper players, rather than relying on aging stars with eight-figure salaries that cost the team tens of millions more in luxury tax.
Cashman did, however, expect the Yankees to keep winning as he pursued a better business plan. This year, he thought the offense would be so strong and the bullpen so deep that the Yankees would make the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. Meanwhile, the team's best prospects would be given time to mature in the minor leagues. But the Yankees' lousy showing in April set off a five-alarm crisis. After they lost five of their first six games to the Red Sox, Steinbrenner targeted Cashman for public admonition, and the carefully crafted plans were shoved aside.
So into the vortex stepped 20-year-old Phil Hughes, a 6'5" righthander with overpowering stuff who was the crown jewel of the farm system. On May 1, in his second big league appearance, Hughes walked Rangers leadoff man Kenny Lofton after starting him off with a couple of strikes. The kid called Posada out to the mound. "If I walk another hitter after starting out 0-2, punch me in the mouth," Hughes told the veteran catcher. The Rangers did not get a hit off him for the next 6-plus innings. But in the seventh, Hughes' left leg seemed to shudder as he finished a pitch, and he limped onto the disabled list with a strained hamstring. For at least the next month, no one will ask him to prop up a fractured monolith.
After trying to rush young arms like Hughes and Chase Wright, the Yankees have turned to old warhorse Roger Clemens, who on May 6 agreed to pitch the rest of the season for $18 million. They desperately needed him. The team closed April 6€ games below the Red Sox, the first time New York was that far behind Boston after the first month since 1912. But it could have been even worse, far worse, if not for A-Rod's magic bat.
YANKEES THIRD BASE COACH Larry Bowa smiles slightly when asked about Rodriguez's recovery from his clueless 2006 postseason. "Confidence," Bowa says. "Alex's start shows you the importance of confidence."
At the center of the tabloid-driven media bubble that surrounds him, A-Rod finds comfort in work. And he made some mechanical changes before the season. His leg kick was so dramatic last year that it altered his line of vision. His head would descend as he began his swing. Imagine trying to hit a pitch as you travel the downslope of a roller coaster.
"The eyes control the barrel of the bat," says Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "If the head is going down, the barrel of the bat is going down." So A-Rod was beaten constantly by pitches in the upper half of the strike zone. Not anymore.
On defense, the 31-year-old Rodriguez is still trying to get comfortable. After making a couple of awkward throws from third in late April, he asked the coaching staff for some extra infield practice. At 3 p.m. the next day, hours before a home game against the Blue Jays, there he was, dressed in a black top, engaged in a drill unique to him. As coach Rob Thomson hit each grounder, he'd call out a hitter's name, even imitating that hitter's stance. This way, Rodriguez could visualize how much time he had to make a throw to first or second base.
"Frank Thomas," Thomson called out, then hit a ball toward third. After A-Rod gloved the grounder, he took a little crow hop, settling himself, taking his time -- Thomas is slow, of course -- and then flipping to first. "Vernon Wells," Thomson shouted, and this time A-Rod jabbed his glove to backhand a grounder and fired quickly, to beat the imaginary Wells busting it down the line.
Two hours later, batting practice began. Most teams hit in groups of three or four, according to the batting order, but cleanup man A-Rod didn't join the first group of Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu; he hit in the second group, laughing and joking with childhood friend Doug Mientkiewicz and second baseman Robinson Canó until he stepped in the box. And then A-Rod focused on hitting every pitch through the middle of the diamond, placing the ball in that lane with precision. "He looks like a guy completely sure of what he's doing," says Rettenmund, who's a fan.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez's market value soars. This is the seventh year of the 10-year, $252 million contract he originally signed with the Rangers, which gives him the right to become a free agent in the fall. But Cashman didn't bid on any of the stars on the market this past winter: Barry Zito, Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee. Unless Steinbrenner steps in and orders a change of course, it's all but certain the Yankees won't come within scores of millions of re-signing their third baseman.
That doesn't, of course, diminish the importance of A-Rod's colossal production, which is buying time for Cashman. Unlike the decline of the old dynasty, the rise of a new one is far from inevitable.
Love him or hate him, the Yankees need A-Rod now, more than ever.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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