PHILADELPHIA — The first thing you have to understand is that it's never enough. Not when your contract is that large. Not when your ego is that grand. Not when it looks to all the world that you are addicted to your own fame.
Bucky Dent can hit one stinking home run in a playoff game, and his legend is forever secure. Don Larsen can have one perfect afternoon, and people still marvel about it more than 50 years later.
But try being Alex Rodriguez when the calender turns to October. A-Rod can rescue the Yankees in a playoff series against the Twins, bail them out in the next round against the Angels and then, 48 hours into his first World Series, devolve into A-Fraud again.
It's not entirely fair, but that doesn't mean it's wrong, either. Rodriguez has brought this kind of scrutiny — some may call it misery — upon himself. He has done it, first of all, by being one of the best hitters of his generation. So expectations, naturally, are higher.
He also has done it by constantly calling attention to himself, whether it was once opting out of the game's biggest contract in the middle of a World Series, dating celebrities, using steroids or marketing himself as a little bit of hunky heaven.
And if it just stopped there, that would be more than enough to make Rodriguez an attractive target for critics. But A-Rod has made it worse with postseason numbers that a schizophrenic would find dizzying.
Did you recall there was a time when Rodriguez was considered a clutch hitter in October? In his first 20 games over parts of four postseasons, he hit .364. Then, in his next 19 games, he limped along at .186. Then he exploded this month with a .438 average and five homers in nine games against the Twins and Angels. And now, in the World Series, he is 0-for-8 with six strikeouts.
All of which helps to explain a tendency to rush toward hysteria when it comes to Rodriguez, the World Series and New York. It doesn't matter that it's just two games. It doesn't matter that it's just eight at-bats.
The point is the more A-Rod swings and misses, the harder he gets hit. Friday's New York Daily News ran a poll asking whether he would ever snap out of his World Series funk. (Among the poll options was this beauty: "No, 6 K's in 8 at-bats proves he's still a choker.")
"The guy has been killing the ball for three weeks. Now people talk about a slump? Well, Cliff Lee. And Pedro," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "It's kind of hard to sit here and overanalyze everything. If pitchers make their pitches, they're going to be hard to hit."
No doubt about that. Even great hitters will struggle against hot pitchers. The problem with Rodriguez is you wonder if there is something more to it. You wonder if he isn't pressing too hard. Trying to do too much. Expanding his strike zone at the worst possible time.
For several weeks, Rodriguez and the Yankees have talked about how he has improved his game by being more relaxed and not worrying about his image, his reputation, his legacy, every time he steps to the plate.
So now that he has reached the World Series for the first time in a 16-year career, it is curious that he has gotten off to one of the worst starts in Series history. No hitter has ever had back-to-back three-strikeout performances in Games 1 and 2. A-Rod is already halfway to the Series record of 12 strikeouts set by Willie Wilson in 1980.
"What I'm doing is pretty simple. I'm swinging at balls that are out of the strike zone," Rodriguez said after Friday's workout at Citizens Bank Park. "Those balls, you've got to lay off."
If you're a Yankees fan, the fear is the pressure is only going to increase. New York has already sent Nick Swisher to the bench because of a monthlong slump. There's a good chance Hideki Matsui will be out of the lineup the next three games because there will be no designated hitter. The Yankees have scored only three earned runs in the first two games, and if the production doesn't increase, the spotlight on Rodriguez will begin to burn more brightly.
Based on the way the Phillies are pitching, that's exactly their plan of attack. They're throwing fastballs inside and breaking pitches away and rarely anything across the plate when Rodriguez is up. The plan seems to be to pitch around Rodriguez and make the other Yankees beat them. And A-Rod is making it easier by chasing pitches instead of drawing walks.
"As you saw by the end of the Angels series, he just wasn't being pitched to at all," leftfielder Johnny Damon said. "Teams are going into a series saying, 'Let's not let Alex stay hot, and let's not let him beat us, especially with men on base.' "
For Rodriguez, there is rarely an in-between. He is either a star or a failure.
And that status dangles from one at-bat to the next.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]