February 15, 2004
The Lure of New York Was Too Strong to Resist
By JACK CURRY
Alex Rodriguez would try to hide his obsession for New York when he spoke to people with ties to the city, but the effort was futile. Rodriguez would ask questions about the Yankees, the Mets, the city, everything. He would toss those questions out nonchalantly and act as if he were remotely interested, but then he would inch forward in his chair and wait impatiently for detailed answers.
That obsession with New York, coupled with his obsession to move far away from the aimless Texas Rangers, is apparently enough motivation for Rodriguez to divert the path of his Hall of Fame career and slide about 50 feet to his right. If moving from shortstop to third base could help Rodriguez get paroled from the Rangers, then Rodriguez, the best player in baseball, would do the moonwalk while he giddily made the switch.
"What's it like in New York?" Rodriguez asked a reporter last season, a question that could have covered every issue from the chemistry in the Yankees' clubhouse to the niftiest place to devour a slice of pizza.
To Rodriguez, a lifetime shortstop, it is better to be kind of satisfied at the hot corner for a potential championship team than to be miserable at shortstop for a last-place team. Rodriguez, who had been the captain of the Rangers for a minute or two, was eager to abandon ship, even if that meant surrendering his coveted shortstop position to Derek Jeter. Once bosom buddies, the matinee idols are now professional friends, and to the Yankees, that is close enough.
In a recent interview with Michael Kay of the YES Network, Jeter basically absolved Rodriguez of the harsh comments Rodriguez made about him three years ago. Jeter, who can hold a grudge for a decade, said that Rodriguez was put in a position he was unaccustomed to when he made those remarks. As transparent as it seemed because Rodriguez has been a national figure since he was a teenager, it was Jeter's subdued way of saying that he and Rodriguez are cool again.
When it became obvious several months ago that Rodriguez and the Rangers wanted their struggling partnership to end, Rodriguez told an associate that he wanted to play only for the Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. Of course, Rodriguez was savvy enough to know that those teams have the highest payrolls in the sport and were probably the only teams willing to add his immense contract.
The Red Sox had the first opportunity to wrestle Rodriguez away from the Rangers, but they could not secure the player who was a better fit for them than the Yankees. Now the Red Sox and their fans have one more reason to hate George Steinbrenner: it took the Yankees days to execute what the Red Sox could not do in months. The Boss opened his wallet, again, and got A-Rod.
"The bottom line is Alex needed to go," said one Texas official who spoke to him recently. "He was tired of hearing about his contract and tired of being perceived as the reason we're not winning."
As desperate as the Rangers' owner, Tom Hicks, was to overpay $252 million for Rodriguez three years ago, he was even more desperate to unload the debacle of a contract. Hicks told Rangers officials that he wrote too many checks to creditors after the 2003 season and did not plan to do it again. Jettisoning Rodriguez will save the Rangers more than $100 million.
While Hicks was on the verge of obtaining relief by removing a financial albatross, the Rangers thought it was curious that General Manager Brian Cashman called them last week and, suddenly, Rodriguez was ready to play third. Clearly, one baseball official theorized, Scott Boras, Rodriguez's agent, had intimated to the Yankees that Rodriguez would change positions.
If Cashman did not know that was possible, there would have been no reason to contact the Rangers.
The interesting thing about Rodriguez's show of humility in shifting to third is that he is a better defensive shortstop than Jeter. Rodriguez has won two straight Gold Glove Awards and has better instincts and a stronger arm than the man who is expected to soon be his teammate. Jeter has lost range and is not as daring as he was before injuring his left shoulder.
Eventually, whether it is two months or two years, whoever is managing the Yankees might be forced to recognize Rodriguez's superiority at shortstop. Since Rodriguez moved positions so willingly, how would Jeter look if a manager asked him to shift positions and he complained? Jeter, the team's captain, could be accused of putting himself ahead of the team.
One American League scout said he would start Rodriguez at shortstop and move the softer-throwing yet athletic Jeter to second base to replace Alfonso Soriano. That dynamic duo could rule the middle of the infield and the city for several years, letting Rodriguez personally discover everything he ever wanted to know about living and playing in New York.
A Deal Driven by Losing Has the Look of a Winner
By MURRAY CHASS
If George Steinbrenner and the Yankees find a way to trade for Alex Rodriguez, Steinbrenner will have done something the Red Sox could not.
THE Evil Empire strikes again.
Except this time it isn't something as relatively minor as José Contreras. This is Alex Rodriguez, American League most valuable player, maybe the best player in the game.
This time it isn't just the Boston Red Sox. It's the Mets, too. Yes, the Mets, the team that seldom gets it right and encounters more ill fortune than the Red Sox, if that's possible.
As day turned to night yesterday, the Yankees all but completed a deal to add Rodriguez to their lineup.
"The deal is basically done," a baseball official said. "There are some administrative things to be done to make sure everything is done according to the rules."
The Yankees and the Texas Rangers were putting the finishing touches on the economic part of the deal, another person familiar with the talks said. The Rangers, he said, will give the Yankees about $67 million, reducing Rodriguez's average annual payment from the Yankees to about $16 million from $25.5 million.
The deal, everyone agreed, would gain union approval.
It was the union that had killed the Red Sox' attempt to sign Rodriguez earlier this winter, after it determined that the changes Boston wanted to make in his contract would dilute too much of its value for it to adhere to the collective bargaining agreement.
Now that the Yankees virtually have Rodriguez in pinstripes, the Red Sox will roar. Maybe they won't climb to the top of the Green Monster and scream from the new seats there; maybe they will decide they have no case and scream silently.
But they will scream long and loud because not only couldn't they get Rodriguez, whom they viewed as the final weapon in their quest to overcome the Yankees, but now he is set to play for the Yankees against them.
Evil Empire? If Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox' president, hadn't uttered the phrase about the Yankees when they beat the Red Sox to Contreras a year ago, he would surely say it now and be justified in his view.
Then there are the Mets. They had their chance to sign Rodriguez as a free agent three years ago, but they didn't want to spend the money it would have required, then they did a silly dance to rationalize their decision. It was not the Mets' proudest moment, and they have paid dearly for it since.
The Mets, at the time, were A-Rod's No. 1 choice (he was still pining for the Mets at a recent dinner in New York), but they couldn't run from him quickly enough. They said he would be a 1-and-24 guy, meaning they would have to treat him differently from his 24 teammates.
Ask his Rangers teammates about that now. They're going to miss him, and they would be the first to acknowledge it. No one has played harder or more productively for a perennial last-place team.
Of course, Rodriguez can't wait to flee the Rangers because he has seen the future and it doesn't look any rosier than the recent past.
No one should feel sorry for this New York-born 28-year-old. He took the money — $100 million more than the next highest offer — and had to accept the consequences.
But three years of last-place finishes were enough. Rodriguez was so eager to leave Texas for a team with a chance to win that he was willing to reduce the value of his contract. More telling, he is willing to play third base, leaving his position, shortstop, to his friend but fierce rival Derek Jeter.
The position change is just a little more significant and intriguing than the willingness of José Reyes to move to second base for the Mets and let Kazuo Matsui, the Japanese import, play short.
This is an M.V.P., an All-Star, a better defensive player than the man he will play alongside, relinquishing his position to have a chance to play in the postseason, to win the World Series. In Texas, he was light-years from that goal; with the Yankees, he is virtually guaranteed at least the first half of that goal.
With Rodriguez, the Yankees may achieve the goal that has eluded them the past three years. Their failure to win the World Series in those years has not made George Steinbrenner, the team's principal owner, happy.
As a result, the popular perception has been that Steinbrenner made all of the Yankees' personnel decisions this off-season himself. People who work for him, speaking on condition they or their positions not be identified, dispute that view, especially where the pitching moves were concerned.
"He was very upset about losing," said one member of the organization. "He wanted to win. But he calmed down and let the baseball people take control, especially with the pitching."
Another person said, "He listened to some people."
When the off-season began, according to those who were interviewed, the baseball staff ranked the pitchers who were available, either in trades or as free agents: Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Bartolo Colón, Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte.
Pettitte was last on the list of the baseball people. The Yankees tried to sign him, but they waited too long and he escaped to Houston. But they did trade for Vazquez and Brown, dumping Jeff Weaver in the process. Everybody wanted to get rid of the disappointing Weaver, one of the people interviewed said.
Until the sudden Rodriguez development, Gary Sheffield was the major hitting addition. A Tampa native and resident, Sheffield was the decision of the Tampa half of the Yankees' hierarchy.
Tampa generally prevails when it disagrees with New York, because Steinbrenner is Tampa.
Briefly, when the Sheffield negotiations appeared to be collapsing over the deferred money in the three-year, $39 million deal, the Yankees considered Vladimir Guerrero. But Tampa wanted Sheffield.
Tampa wanted Kenny Lofton, too.
Steinbrenner decreed that the Yankees needed a center fielder and prototypical leadoff hitter. He identified the 36-year-old Lofton as that player.
"That came directly from Tampa," said a member of the Yankees family. "Everybody in New York was dead opposed to it."
Steinbrenner wasn't alone in Tampa in his desire to sign Lofton. Billy Connors and Bill Emslie wanted him, too. Connors, a former pitcher, is vice president for player personnel and a longtime Steinbrenner baseball confidant. Emslie, a former umpire, is a member of the Yankees' professional scouting staff who gained credibility with Steinbrenner by pushing to sign David Ortiz a year ago.
The Yankees didn't sign Ortiz, a free agent, but the Red Sox did, and he had a terrific season (he had the league's third-fattest slugging percentage), so terrific that after the season Steinbrenner used it against his general manager, Brian Cashman.
So when Emslie, among others, endorsed the signing of Lofton, there was no stopping Steinbrenner. Bernie Williams, long an overrated defensive outfielder, would be moved out of center to designated hitter, and Lofton would play center and lead off, even though he appeared to be far shakier than Williams before a revival in the second half of last season.
The Yankees' latest foray has not been a Steinbrenner orchestration. Cashman initiated talks with the Rangers about Rodriguez, and Steinbrenner needed only to approve what was just another expenditure.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company