Has there ever been a ballplayer positioned better to be a sure-fire, first-ballot Collecting Hall of Famer than Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez?
Here’s clearly one of those “What on earth do you buy this guy for Christmas” kind of guys. He’s got it all going on: other-worldly talent, crazy all-time-great numbers, good looks, cool nickname and enough money to hang in a poker game with Bill Gates. He’s never gotten into any real trouble, rarely missed any time with injuries and is one of the few sluggers of the modern era who never hears steroid whispers.
And perhaps most importantly from a collecting standpoint, he plays for Gotham City. He’s the best player on the New York Yankees, for crying out loud. He’s got the lead role in the biggest show on Broadway. When he’s done, he might very well have statistics that will dwarf even (gasp!) the Babe himself. And he has such perfect skin!
Consider this: in the 12 years that A-Rod has been an everyday ballplayer — not including his first two partial years in Seattle when he was a minor league call-up — he has averaged 42.75 home runs, 123 RBIs and hit .308. He has basically averaged MVP numbers every year for a dozen years. Few players in history can even be mentioned in the same statistical conversation.
So how is it that guy is not only NOT the most revered and collected player in the league, he’s not even the top dog on his own team in most hobbyists’ eyes? Sure, A-Rod’s popular. Young collectors, in particular gobble up plenty of his cards, and his autographed memorabilia commands a hefty price. But for a guy that will go down on the very short list of the greatest ball players ever, a guy that may very well play at least half of his career in the Big Apple, there is a disconnect somewhere between his professional resume and his fan appeal, even in the heart of Yankee country
The Jeter Factor
“He’s still second on the Yankees to (Derek) Jeter,” opined Steve Mandy, owner of Attack of the Baseball Cards, a card shop in Union, N.J. “It’s starting to change a little, but basically around here it’s like the Devils and the Rangers. Even with all the success the Devils have had, there are still more Ranger fans. The Ranger fans are the old guard. It’s the same with Jeter and A-Rod. Jeter fans are the old guard.”
Clearly, fair or not, Rodriguez will have to accomplish a lot more than he has to this point to reach Jeter’s level of adoration. Jeter’s four World Series rings and well-earned reputation as a money player who is at his best when heat is on make put him in a virtual dead heat with Don Mattingly as the most worshipped Yankee of the post-Mantle era.
“(Rodriguez) is not recognized as a true Yankee because he wasn’t brought up through their system. Jeter was,” offered Steve Cardi, owner of The Card Shack on Long Island. “If there was no Jeter, A-Rod would not get booed. But you go back to Ruth and Gehrig — Gehrig was always Mr. Yankee more than Ruth, because Ruth came from Boston. You look at Reggie (Jackson), he is still known as an Oakland A. (Dave) Winfield went into the Hall of Fame as a Padre … Jeter and A-Rod are the modern day of Mantle and Maris. People loved Mantle and they booed Maris.”
Armed with a recent 10-year contract and still only 33, Rodriguez has time to get to his teammate’s level, but it will take some doing.
“Since he re-signed in the offseason, that certainly helped him (among Yankee fans),” added Cardi. “He’ll probably play here long enough to be a true Yankee. Ten years will probably be enough.”
After a phenomenal MVP year in 2007, when he hit .312 with 54 home runs and 156 RBIs, A-Rod’s best cardboard began to climb. Tuff Stuff Price Guide analyst Joe Clemens noted that Rodriguez’s 1994 Topps SP Rookie climbed from $85 to $140 in the past year, while his elusive 1994 SP Hollow View Red card soared from $600 to $1,200.
“Jeter’s loved, no question, and you can’t say that yet about A-Rod,” said Clemens. “But the sky’s the limit for him. If he stays healthy, he’s going to put up some crazy numbers if he plays long enough. His collectibles certainly have a lot of potential.”
The Hunt for Mr. October
Like Charles Barkley, Ernie Banks and Dan Marino, A-Rod has done almost everything a player can do in his sport except win a title. He has been in the postseason seven times and reached the American League Championship Series thrice. But once there, the overall record is 0-for-3. The 2008 campaign was particularly troublesome, with Rodriguez having a so-so season by his exaggerated standards, and the Yankees failing to even reach the playoffs, much less the World Series, for the first time since 1993 (1994 doesn’t count: there were no playoffs).
And here’s what qualifies for a so-so season for this guy: a .310 average, with 33 homers and 95 RBIs after 125 games.
If he were to play another eight or 10 years in pinstripes, it’s a good bet he’ll get some more cracks at the brass ring. What happens on those chilly fall nights will likely determine whether he is defined as a “winner” after his playing days — and among collectors. Not only does he need to win a ring, he needs to play well while doing it.
“He’s had a lot of great years and a lot of MVPs, but when the money is on the line, he just hasn’t had that Mr. October performance that Reggie or Jeter had,” said Lisa Stellato, of Never Enough Cards in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. “Now, Jeter had a bad playoff last year, but nobody got on him because he’s proven himself. With A-Rod, people are watching him and they aren’t going to cut him any slack because he hasn’t proven he can do it in the playoffs yet.”
It’s no secret that standards for Yankee heroes are preposterously high, according to Cardi, whose store caters to more Mets fans than Yankee loyalists. It comes with the territory.
“Yankee fans only look at the postseason. They are spoiled with those 12 straight postseason appearances,” Cardi said. “But they wouldn’t have even made the postseason (last year) without him … They can boo him all they want, but for a guy they don’t like, man, look at his numbers.”
The Future King
At his current clip, Rodriguez would pass Barry Bonds’ current lifetime home run mark of 762 around the time of his 40th birthday. With the DH rule in the American League, he could conceivably play well into his 40s and put the record in another orbit. Not only that, but he could do it in a still relatively new Yankee Stadium — providing one of the first historic moments in the new ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2009.
If that is the case, A-Rod at age 43 might be a much bigger hobby icon than A-Rod at 33.
“I don’t think he’ll ever reach the status or Mantle or Gehrig or Ruth,” said Stellato. “But if he stays where he is, keeps playing and respects the game and respects the Yankees, he’ll be up there with the best. If he keeps his dignity and winds up breaking the all-time record, which it looks like he has a good shot at, he won’t surpass any of those guys, in my opinion, but he’ll be up there with them.”
Ironically, it could be A-Rod’s failings, and some failings of his peers, that could ultimately work to his benefit in the court of public opinion. Rodriguez has not been caught up in any big scandals, and could eventually be seen as the shining star of the steroid era if he is able to play the rest of his career free of any steroid or HGH accusations.
“What has helped his popularity is all the players coming out that were on steroids,” said Cardi. “Clemens is helping A-Rod. Bonds is helping A-Rod.”
And unlike Jeter, A-Rod has proven to be painfully human. Where is Jeter is seemingly as cool and unflappable as James Bond, Rodriguez regularly shows his frustration on the field, shaking his head, grimacing and generally looking like he is fighting himself. His fielding gaffes make the highlight shows. His strikeouts in the ninth inning turn into the morning headlines.
He has been vilified at times for his failings in the postseason, his massive contracts and his perceived inability to handle the pressures that come with the Yankee uniform. If he should persevere to the point where he finally delivers Yankee fans another title, he will ride front and center in the victory parade as the rich whipping boy who finally made good.
At that point, Rodriguez will have finally have gotten his “own” title, and just maybe, the final approval of collectors.