Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yanks & Rebs

What do Robert E. Lee and Derek Jeter have in common?

For a couple years now I’ve been wrestling with an important question - why do Yankee fans hate Alex Rodriguez so much?

It’s not because of the steroids. He was being booed at Yankee Stadium long before the steroids story broke. And admitted steroids users like Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi have been welcomed back with open arms.

It’s not because he hasn’t won a championship. Don Mattingly never won a championship or even led his team to the playoffs, and is far more beloved than many players who did.

It’s not because he hasn’t performed up to expectations. He wins the MVP every other year.

It’s not because he doesn’t play hard.

It’s not because he’s a really bad guy. Yeah, he has some annoying personality traits, but he doesn’t carry loaded guns to nightclubs or watch dogs kill each other for fun. Besides, arrogant image-conscious super-jocks are the norm, not the exception.

Is it because he has played poorly in the post-season? Yeah, that’s part of it, certainly. But the Yankees as a team have been so thoroughly awful in the post-season since Mariano blew the save in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, it wouldn’t have much mattered if he played a bit better. (The Yankees led that pivotal game 2-0 till the 5th inning, thanks to a 2-run home run by…Alex Rodriguez).

It’s tempting to say it is some combination of all the above. That would be an easy explanation and it’s mostly true. But there is a bigger picture here – and I think I know what it is.

The real reason Yankee fans hate Alex Rodriguez so much is that…well, let me tell you a story about the Civil War.

The Lost Cause

The Confederate States of America was, for a “country” that existed all of four years, quite a patriotic place. The Confederates believed in themselves. They believed in their cause. And they absolutely believed they were going to win the Civil War. It’s 150 years later and some folks in the Deep South still wave Confederate flags and put “Hell No, We Ain’t Forgettin’” bumper stickers on the back of their pick-ups. All this for a nation that spent its entire abbreviated existence fighting a war it lost.

So you can imagine how they felt right after the war ended. They were angry and confused and needed to blame someone. One could argue that Robert E. Lee would receive some of the blame. It was Lee, after all, who advocated the strategy that lost the war.

Lee believed the South should engage the Union in massive set-piece battles. If they won enough of them, he reasoned, the North would lose their will to fight, European nations would recognize the Confederacy, and the South would win the war.

And it nearly worked. At Bull Run and Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville the South showed they could whip the Yankees (the Union army kind; not the Bronx Bombers kind). War support in the Union wavered. European diplomats watched closely. But Lee, who was so gifted at getting the measure of his opponents on the field, underestimated the lanky bearded fellow in the White House. While Lee methodically ground down Northern war support with bullets and cannon balls, Abraham Lincoln built it back up with words, words, words. Union armies stayed on the field, Europe stayed on the sideline, and the South ultimately lost.

You can make a very good case that Lee should have followed the strategy that George Washington followed in the Revolutionary War. Washington knew he was outnumbered and outgunned. But he also knew that he didn’t have to win the war – he just had to avoid losing. So GW avoided set-piece battles at all costs, nipped at British ankles when he could, kept his armies in the field with minimal losses, and finally struck at Yorktown when absolutely everything was in his favor. Checkmate.

By contrast Lee, an aggressive and pugnacious general chose to fight one battle after another. And he lost. So he should get some of the blame, right? No way. Lee was the great hero of the South, the master of those early victories

Therefore, Jefferson Davis took the fall. He became a disgraced figure in the South in the years after the war. Not a single ounce of blame could fall upon the majestic silver-maned head of Robert E. Lee.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
What does any of this have to do with the booing Alex Rodriguez is treated to at Yankee Stadium?

Let me take you back to November 4, 2001, at approximately 11:38 PM EST. Mariano Rivera took the mound in the bottom of the 9th with a 2-1 lead in hand. Three more outs and the Yankees would win their 5th title in 6 years.

It was certain the Yankees were going to win that night, and it was starting to seem as if the Yankees were always going to win. Baseball would become like tennis in the Federer era – one great champion would win nearly every title.

But Mariano blew the save, of course and the Diamondbacks won. And the Angels won the next year and the Marlins the next. Then came the awful collapse against the Red Sox (2 more Mariano blown saves), then the 3 consecutive 1st round losses, and then finally missing the playoffs entirely in 2009.

Yankee fans are not happy about this. They were supposed to win all – or at least most – okay, some of the titles. But despite signing every monster free agent available, despite the gap between them and the 2nd highest paid team growing every year, they enter their 9th straight season without a title.

Who to blame? Well, one could argue that the likely candidates would be Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

How has Mariano done the last 8 years? In 2001 he became the first closer in baseball history to blow a Game 7, 9th inning save, the ultimate blown save. In the catastrophic 2004 ALCS collapse he blew not one, but two saves, both series-clinchers. Has he pitched well? Yes. Has been clutch? Ah, no.

As for Jeter, he reached his peak as a player in 1999 when he hit .349 with 24 homers and 102 RBIs. Or if you prefer sabermetric numbers an OBP/SLG/OPS of .438/.532/.970. Jeter dropped off in 2000 (.339/15/73 and .416/.481/.897) and again in 01 and 02. During the Yankees 8 year title drought Jeter has had only great offensive season (2006) and never hit again the way he did in 1999.

People are always telling me that you can’t measure Derek Jeter with statistics – you can only measure him by the little things he does to help his team win. I guess he hasn’t done quite as many little things the past eight years.

What you end up with is all this Yankee fan frustration and it has to go somewhere. But none of it can fall on the heads of Jeter and Rivera, or even Posada. Very little can fall on the heads of the lesser free agents the Yankees have collected this century. Ownership is essentially off the hook – the Boss has won too many titles and is too frail now to catch any heat. Management, in the form of Torre and Cashman, took some criticism, but they too have a bunch of titles they can claim some credit to.

And so all this rage falls on the head of one person – the guy who far and away has the best single season on the team every year. Alex Rodriguez is the Jefferson Davis of the New York Yankees.

And if you think this is a lot of words to expand on such a meaningless subject, let me just say I'm a Mets fan who remembers the 2000 World Series...and Hell No, We Ain't Forgettin'.

1 comment:

BigFredMachine said...

I'm a life-long Yankees fan and I agree (sort of). It's not all Arod's fault by any means. It’s not even mostly Arod’s fault. But there's more to it than on-field performance. Probably a lot more. Arod has always struck me as a bit of an egotistical douche bag even before he came to the Yanks (I remember him sitting dugout-side during that Mets series, I think, looking enviously at Jeter and company, desperate for attention); Jeter and Mo, whether it's true or not, seem to be good dudes. I can't recall one time where I cringed at something Jeter's done or said (I don't personally blame him for his poor shortstop range and slipping numbers -- although maybe he would be an ass if they asked him to move positions, something they should start thinking about asap.).

I believe there was a little bit of all this going on with Davis/Lee too.

Davis had a reputation for being a cold personality and a bit of a dick by many of his constituents well before they lost, no? Lee always had a reputation for being a real soldiers' general, leading from the front foot, a warrior gentleman, etc. etc.

Anyway, with the 'roids and the mirror-kiss there's probably no hope for Arod anymore with the typical Yankee fan. We might root him on if he goes off in the playoffs and leads them to WS championship (don't hold your breath), but he's destined to Davis-like dick-head ignominy for most of us, no matter what he does from here on out. Take a look at that mirror-kiss photo and ask yourself: Can you really blame us?