- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- From the first day he was acquired -- when the traffic from his press conference spilled out from the Yankee Stadium parking lot all the way to the Major Deegan Expressway -- Alex Rodriguez has had an uneasy co-existence with the beast of great expectations.
The Bombers didn't just announce A-Rod's arrival, they turned it into a public coronation, so huge even Reggie Jackson admitted, "I never had anything like this."
A-Rod wearing pinstripes? It was the modern-day equivalent of Ted Williams coming to the Bronx. Only, Rodriguez didn't exactly follow the script. For most of the summer he was swinging too hard at middle-of-the-plate fastballs, treating every at-bat with an end-of-the-world urgency, and ultimately, failing to win over the fans who were still loyal to Derek Jeter.
As recently as a month ago, even as Rodriguez was on his way to a 36-home run, 106-RBI season, he was still hitting only .215 with runners in scoring position. Joe Torre finally moved A-Rod to the No. 2 spot, hoping it would calm his nerves. But by late September, the booing came down on Rodriguez like a light rain -- not quite soaking him, but he was dampened enough to know he hadn't made many friends, either.
"The fans expect more from me, and I understand that," Rodriguez said before the Division Series. "They have a right to boo me and to be unhappy, because I'm unhappy."
But in just the last seven days, in the time it took the Yankees to dispense with the Twins, Rodriguez's personal dark age may have finally ended. He went 8-for-19 (.421) in the ALDS, combining power and speed and defense in a way that reminded the Yankees why they lusted after Rodriguez in the first place.
"Statistics are one thing, but trying to win a game is another thing," Joe Torre said after Game 4. "Statistics will probably be what a lot of people look at when they look at A-Rod after he's finished playing, but you really have to appreciate how talented he is, and how many instincts [he has]."
Torre was specifically referring to Rodriguez's performance in the 11th inning in a tie game, when he led off with a double down the left-field line, stole third and then scored the go-ahead run in the Yankees' 6-5 victory on Kyle Lohse's wild pitch. The rest was a formality: Mariano Rivera's effortless save in the bottom of the 11th, followed by the requisite champagne precipitation.
What the Yankees were really thinking about, though, were their mortal enemies, the Red Sox.
Rodriguez talked about how "satisfying" and "gratifying" it was to finally cross a Yankee threshold and step into the thousand-year war that's been waged between Fenway and the Bronx. But his breakthrough moment actually occurred in Game 2 against Minnesota, when he went 4-for-6 and hit the game-tying double off Joe Nathan in the 12th inning. The Yankees' 7-6 victory all but broke the Twins spiritually, and helped A-Rod shed the aura of a high-priced, multi-talented outsider.
Up to that point, the Yankee universe belonged to Jeter -- and to a large degree, always will. Even now, Rodriguez is careful in his comments about his hitting, invariably re-directing the conversational road back to his teammates. When he speaks specifically about Jeter, A-Rod is respectful to the point of being deferential, which is a smart tactic for any first-year Yankee.
But the Bombers now need Rodriguez to find a hint of a mean streak, too, especially against the Red Sox. To describe what's coming as a street fight is the Disney version; it'll be more like an apocalypse. Even the usually-placid John Olerud is bracing for the worst, saying, "I expect (the League Championship Series) to be like the regular season, only crazier."
A-Rod will be a living, breathing target at Fenway, just like Jeter. Together, they are 1 and 1-A as public enemies of Red Sox Nation. Jeter epitomizes the Yankees' cool, or arrogance -- your choice. And Rodriguez's presence in pinstripes proves George Steinbrenner has an economy larger than any Third World nation.
Rodriguez was at first startled, if not intimidated, by Fenway's loathing. In his initial series against the Red Sox in April, he went hitless in his first 16 at-bats before a meaningless single. Looking back, he said, "That was the first time in my career I felt totally helpless, totally out of control. I wasn't ready for that, and I didn't like that feeling at all."
Rodriguez eventually re-wrote his profile -- from overwhelmed rich kid to semi-tough Yankee. That fight with Jason Varitek may have jump-started the Sox on a sprint to the postseason, but it also erased the idea that A-Rod couldn't take the heat the Yankees and Red Sox generate.
By now, Rodriguez understands it's not enough to have a beautiful swing or ride shotgun with a reputation as the game's best five-tool player. The only currency that matters in the postseason is clutch hitting. A-Rod is more than halfway there -- just ask the Twins -- but the real brush with history starts Tuesday night in the Bronx.
Just ask Reggie, whose words are like gospel when it comes to October.
"If you hit against Boston this time of year, the fans here will love you forever," said Reggie. "They'll never forget it."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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