Lord of the non-rings, Yanks' Rodriguez is trying harder

April 11, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

NEW YORK -- After making a grotesque error in the opening series against the Red Sox that helped Yankees closer Mariano Rivera alarmingly blow a second save, Alex Rodriguez only further insinuated himself into the middle of the sport's biggest rivalry.

If the Red Sox are in Rivera's head, A-Rod helped put them there.

So yesterday, on the eve of The Ring Ceremony and the start of another Showdown to end all Showdowns, Rodriguez took extra fielding practice, charging the ball, bare-handing it, throwing to first.

Later, Rivera, smiling wide, stopped by Rodriguez's locker, thanking him for taking 500 extra grounders.

Great ones know how to prepare, but is there really any way for Rodriguez to prepare for all that lies ahead? This season, it is as much a referendum on him as it is about anything the Yankees do.

He needs a ring, but he won't take lessons, not from those guys in Boston. That's why his green eyes narrowed in a way that said, "What a dumb question" when asked if he would watch the Red Sox get their World Series rings today at Fenway Park.

"I'll be putting on my uniform in the clubhouse," Rodriguez said yesterday, running his big hand down the front of his pinstriped jersey.

No longer the new Yankee, Rodriguez is fully front and center of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. It makes one wonder whether Trot Nixon, Kevin Millar or Jason Varitek will wear those new diamond rings onto the field after today's ring ceremony, just to remind Rodriguez about what he does not yet possess.

Rodriguez simply points to three pictures hanging inside his locker. They are of his infant daughter, Natasha, born soon after the Yankees coughed up a three-game lead and lost the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox.

"I got her. Look at her. She is so cute, my god," he said.

Somewhere it must have been written, either in the Old Testament or a book by Stephen King, that the greatest player in baseball would join the greatest team in baseball and the two shall suffer mightily.

Of course, it helps to have a tireless and self-promoting quote-maker like Red Sox ace Curt Schilling fanning the eternal flames of disdain and discontent, especially on the subject of A-Rod.

To paraphrase, Schilling this winter said the Red Sox would not have won the World Series had A-Rod's trade to Boston been approved. Manny Ramirez, the World Series' Most Valuable Player, would have been in Texas and the clubhouse chemistry (Idiocy) would have been chilled.

Then the fur flew, with Nixon, Bronson Arroyo, Varitek and other Red Sox players piling on.

A-Rod as lightning rod is a role the Yankees third baseman neither relishes nor can't handle. Say anything you want about Rodriguez, and it's all been said. He has accepted the fact that his record-breaking contract put him in a special category, good and bad. It will never be anything different.

"I don't care about the criticism," Rodriguez said yesterday.

"Criticism for what? I'm the luckiest person I know. I'm very fortunate to be here. All I can tell you is I'm doing the best I can and I'm working my [butt] off."

Which, of course, is also a problem.

Other players took exception to Rodriguez's comments about his 6 a.m. training sessions being far more intensive and dedicated than those of most other ballplayers. This was seen as only further indication that Rodriguez separates himself from his peers, mostly by trying too hard to be perfect.

But Rodriguez insists he is far from perfect and if trying to be perfect is the worst charge ever leveled against him, Rodriguez will live with it.

"I left my guts on the field last year," he said, adding, "I'm much more comfortable this year. It was difficult to adjust to everything last year, especially off the field, getting comfortable with the city."

But it's certainly an astounding phenomenon within a phenomenon, this Red Sox vs. A-Rod inside the Red Sox vs. the Yankees rivalry.

It has further isolated the spotlight on Rodriguez, who finds himself more coolly received even in his new home park than Jason Giambi.

While the steroid-busted first baseman has been alternately cheered and booed for a good hit or one of his terrible defensive blunders at first base, Giambi has clearly benefited from the support of Derek Jeter, who has openly supported Giambi throughout the BALCO investigation and spring training, when Giambi apologized but didn't say for what.

How this quasi-charade of a first baseman and disgraced slugger could out-poll Rodriguez in a popularity contest speaks to a basic willingness on the part of people to come to the aid of a self-admitted (sort of) fallible man.

But it's tough to feel empathy for someone perceived to be perfect, especially if he has constructed his entire personality to appear as such.

There were world champion Yankees teams over the past decade that broke the usually loathsome mold of the most-decorated franchise. Scott Brosius, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Cecil Fielder, Wade Boggs: Many star players from other teams have come to the Yankees and made them more agreeable to non-Yankees fans.

What the Red Sox have seemed determined to do is use the presence of Rodriguez to further polarize Yankees haters -- using A-Rod as pretty boy/whipping boy.

It's a practical and useful tactic, because when it comes to the Yankees, the world can usually be divided into two distinct camps. Lovers. Haters.

How A-Rod got in the hated camp, he can't entirely fathom. But he isn't losing any extra sleep. He simply took 500 extra grounders.

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