Rodriguez gets his chance to flex postseason muscle

October 17, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

BOSTON - The team Alex Rodriguez was nearly first traded to is on the brink of elimination, if not toxic shock.

After last night's record-setting long and merciless drubbing, maybe the Red Sox want to sneak out of Boston, or pray for rain - for the rest of October.

Do we need to see Game 4 to know which American League team is going to the World Series?

If this was the year the Red Sox were going to eliminate the Yankees, maybe they really did need the best player in baseball. Instead, A-Rod had New York on his jersey last night, piling on.

After a leadoff walk to Derek Jeter, there was Rodriguez ripping a double down the left-field line. It was an RBI for A-Rod and another postseason run for Jeter, staking the Yankees to a first-inning lead.

Later, in the third, A-Rod launched a bases-empty homer over Fenway's Green Monster, tying the game.

By the time he was done - and after the Yankees had 19 runs - Rodriguez had tied an American League Championship Series record by scoring five of them.

The Mr. October role is getting awfully crowded.

This, folks, could be the start of something. With Jeter and A-Rod at the top of the Yankees order, the Yankees will be the Red Sox's daddy for years to come.

Even in the wretched excess of George Steinbrenner's world, who would have believed that Jeter and A-Rod would have this far-fetched chance to entwine their baseball legacies?

Rodriguez is exceptionally good. He is also lucky, getting to play side by side with Jeter.

Back when he was ascending to the lofty status as the best player in baseball, Rodriguez took an ill-advised swipe in a magazine article at his good friend Jeter.

Jeter wasn't a $200 million shortstop, like he was.

Jeter's stature was greatly aided by playing for the richest franchise in baseball, surrounded by All-Stars.

For being so wrong, A-Rod paid dearly - in the court of public opinion, which is one thing, but also with Jeter.

Very bad move.

Jeter bristled and when the relationship cooled, Rodriguez could not backtrack, explain or apologize enough. In the subtle psychology between Jeter and Rodriguez, Jeter has always held the upper hand.

A year older; from a stable, two-parent, middle-class household; drafted by the Yankees, Jeter had a lot of things going for him that Rodriguez didn't - and Rodriguez always knew it.

Unflappable, secure, taciturn but with a wry, sly humor, Jeter is the perfect captain on a team that so professionally succeeds in the center of Big Apple chaos.

"This is all I've known since I've been 21, playing in the postseason. So it's not foreign to me, but the games obviously mean more. But my approach is the same," Jeter said yesterday.

Rodriguez? He seeks counsel from everyone, carefully putting together his persona the way he puts together an Armani outfit. That he tried to soothe his insecure sense of well-being by publicly airing his opinion that he was a more valuable player than Jeter, Rodriguez exposed himself.

He was the kid brother who just couldn't come to terms with his conflicting feelings of admiration and jealousy for Jeter.

That's why now, in October, with their first trip to the postseason together going exceedingly well, Jeter and Rodriguez have settled into a comfortable co-existence.

They've been together a whole season now. They bat 1-2 at the top of one of the most formidable lineups in baseball. They score runs on hits by sensational hitters like Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams, John Olerud and Ruben Sierra.

Last night, Jeter and Rodriguez were merely part of the Yankees' relentless hit parade, rounding the bases for Sheffield, Matsui and Williams.

It was a surreal display of firepower that leaves little question that the Yankees have been reconstituted this season to reclaim the World Series ownership they relinquished three years ago to the Diamondbacks and have since lost to the Angels (in the Division Series) and the Marlins in 2003.

On a franchise that once made teammates of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, there is something automatically mythic about the pairing of Jeter, 30, and Rodriguez, 29.

In the cramped visitors' clubhouse at Fenway, Rodriguez and Jeter sat elbow-to-elbow in front of their lockers.

A reporter asked Rodriguez about the mood of the Yankees, who had the Red Sox about where they wanted them in this American League Championship Series: Very down.

Rodriguez, hesitating, asked for the Yankees captain's ruling.

"What do you say, D.J? How's the mood of the club today?" Rodriguez said.

Jeter, continuing to stretch his sanitary socks up over his calves, coolly replied: "The mood today is excellent."

Smiling, Rodriguez deferred to Jeter, just as he deferred when he moved to third base.

"There you go," Rodriguez said. "Excellent."

And Rodriguez's arrival in New York was supposed to knock the Yankees' equilibrium out of whack.

Jeter, cool and comfortable as ever, continues to carry the mantle as the most clutch player in postseason baseball. He's an extraordinary player who elevates the Yankees to something better than the sum of their All-Star parts. As if that's possible.

Meanwhile, Reggie Jackson has been here in Boston. He spoke about how Jeter's status as the Yankees' new Mr. October could soon be complemented by Rodriguez.

"We talked about it the other day. He has a chance to be a great October player. As great as Alex is, he still has some growth ahead of him; he's still growing as a player," Jackson said.

Growing fast, apparently. Now it's Mr. October I and Mr. October II, lifting the Yankees to an expensive and surreal level of Red Sox bashing.

Is there a Yankees sweep on hand for tonight? Maybe. But one thing's for certain this October:

The alpha male competition between Jeter and Rodriguez that was going to bring down the Yankees' stranglehold on total world domination never happened.

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