Are you serious? Is all this really happening? Can you really be this misguided? Ever since I heard the news during the eighth inning of the fourth game of the World Series on Sunday night (more on that later), I've been having a hard time functioning because my brain is having such difficulty understanding the sheer magnitude of what you've done.
Let's start with the bottom line. Can this really be about money? Since we're talking about professional sports, I guess it's always about money, but I'm not the type who blames guys for signing with the highest bidder. If there's someone willing to pay you a truckload of money because you're the best at what you do, you should take that truck and drive off into the sunset. But here's what I don't get, Alex. The contract you just walked away from would've paid you $91 million over the next three years, and reports indicated the Yankees were getting ready to offer you an extension of five or six years beyond that for an additional $150 million or so. I suppose it's possible, as Scott Boras keeps telling us, that since the game's overall wealth has more than doubled in the past seven years, you might actually be worth more now than you were when you signed that ridiculous quarter-billion-dollar contract in Texas, but wouldn't that Yankee money have been enough?
See, I'm guessing that it's not about the money. I think that when you came to New York five years ago you honestly thought you were gonna be the man. Sure, Jeter was the Captain, but he couldn't carry a team. It would take him almost three years to hit the dingers you could hit in one, and he was only half the shortstop you were. You probably assumed that you'd be the fan favorite as soon as you hit your first bomb into Monument Park.
And then reality set in. Your first clue came during trade negotiations when you were told that you'd have to move to a new position. There must've been a voice in your head questioning the whole thing, reminding you that you were probably the best shortstop in the history of the game, but you ignored it, thinking that you were talented enough to play any position on the field. (And you were probably right.)
Your next clue came during the press conference when you were first introduced as a Yankee. (Not a true Yankee; forgive me.) The reporters and camera crews packed the media room, eagerly snapping photos and taking video of the greatest player in the game pulling on the jersey of the greatest franchise in sports. But wait -- who was that sitting right next to you? It was Derek Jeter, at your press conference. It was as if the Yankees had flown him in to remind the world -- and you -- that sure, this A-Rod character's a great player, but this will always be Jeter's team.
But you did well. You might not have gotten the biggest cheers, but you certainly put up the biggest numbers. If you were tentative in your first year, it was easily explained away. The Bronx, afterall, is a bit different than Seattle or Arlington. No problem, though. You made up for that average '04 by winning the MVP in '05.
Was it in 2006 that you made up your mind about this experiment? Never before had a future Hall of Famer been questioned as you were, and you were in your prime, smack in the middle of two MVP seasons. First your manager and teammates turned on you in that Sports Illustrated piece, and then came the ultimate indignity. In the fourth game of the American League Divisional Series, with his team facing elimination, manager Joe Torre decided to put you in the eighth slot in the order, something which surely must have embarrassed you. What was the voice saying then?
As all the world demanded your trade during the off-season, you worked. While other sluggers responded to adversity by getting bigger, you dropped weight instead. Your defense improved drastically, and your offensive exploits were so spectacular that they can't really be defined by numbers alone. On a team full of all-stars and future Hall of Famers, you stood out as if you were playing with Little Leaguers. Your teammates were at a loss in the interview room, in awe in the dugout. I'm sure you remember the bomb you hit into the rarely visited upper deck in left field of the Stadium; what I remember is the look of disbelief that Jeter gave you when you got back to the bench. As he said many times throughout the year, he simply couldn't relate to what you were doing on the field.
There was another moment with Jeter, though, that spoke even more about your new place on the team. It was in a meaningless game as spring turned to summer, and someone drilled you in the ribs with a tight fastball. Remember? It must've gotten you pretty good, because you immediately howled with pain and went into a full body spasm while dancing around the plate for a while before staggering to first base. Now here's the beautiful part. A while later the cameras caught Jeter in the dugout doing a dead-on impression of your contortions. Everyone on the bench, especially Robinson Canó and Melky Cabrera -- laughed hysterically. You were a team.
But it wasn't only your teammates that had come around. The fans were suddenly in your corner as well. Sure, it helped that you came out like a house afire in April, stopping the boos dead in the throats of even your most jaded critics. But once you had them, you kept them. Each clutch hit and walk-off homer seemed to bring new fans and louder cheers until finally you were slipping your 500th home run past the foul pole in left and the Stadium suddenly belonged to you. Did you feel the love that afternoon? It was as if fifty thousand people were trying to make up for all the boos from the past three years -- but it was more than just that. They weren't just screaming about your 500th home run; they were dreaming of your 660th, 714th, 755th, and 800th. I know I was. The best player in the game -- maybe the best player ever -- was wearing pinstripes, just the way we all knew it was supposed to be.
All the while, though, there was a cloud hanging over the stadium. While you told half-truths about being happy in New York and downright lies about not thinking about next year, your agent spoke about the huge opportunity of free agency. As I've said, I can never fault someone for wanting to get paid, but did you once think about how all this might play out in the bleachers or playgrounds or construction sites in New York? Few people have ever had the opportunity to work for a $91 million pay day; fewer still have had the cajónes to walk away from one.
And so when it finally happened, when you left your legacy along with all that cash on the table, I wasn't surprized, only disappointed. I thought you'd at least have the sense to sit across the table from Brian Cashman or George Steinbrenner. Even if you didn't want to negotiate with them, I thought you'd at least feel the need to explain your decision.
But then it got crazier. Just as the attendants in the Red Sox clubhouse were starting to make plans for rolling out the champagne, America got the news that you were opting out of your contract. From a larger perspective, it showed a lack of respect for the game and a need to be the center of attention, even if that meant pulling the focus away from the World Series. From a Yankee persepctive, though, it was even worse. That last series game was depressing for me. Here were the Red Sox winning a second championship in four years while the Yankees were seven years removed from their last ring. Joe Torre was gone, and the organization seemed as unstable as it had been since before he arrived. And then came your news, like a knife twisting in my back.
Your agent claimed that the Yankees could still negotiate with you, but if you believe that... Well, let's imagine for a moment that Brian Cashman decides to go back on his word. Let's imagine that Hank Steinbrenner changes his mind and decided he really does want you back in pinstripes even though you don't appear to want to be a Yankee. They get together with your agent and hammer out a deal worth $300 million over ten years. Sounds good, right? Now let's jump ahead to April and the last season opener in Yankee Stadium history. Bob Sheppard announces the starters one by one, and they trot out to the first base line accompanied by the usual cheers. First Johnny Damon doffs his cap to the crowd, then Jeter lightly touches the bill of his cap to the biggest roar of the day. Bobby Abreu follows and waves to the crowd as he takes his place next to Jeter.
And then the three of them turn to the dugout where you stand poised on the first step. As your name is announced and you trot out into the light, what do you think it sounds like? The fans will remember the fifty-four home runs, but suddenly they won't matter much. The boos will come down like insects in Cleveland, clinging mercilessly to your skin. But it won't be about the money. It will be about the lack of loyalty to the team and the lack of respect for the game. It will be about you.
But of course, none of that will happen. Next April you'll find yourself wearing another jersey in someplace like Los Angeles or Detroit or Anaheim or Boston, and as your name is announced on Opening Day, the sun will be shining, the cheers will be loud, and the outlook will be bright. There's just one thing you'll have to watch out for, Alex. As your numbers continue to mount -- and I'm sure that they will -- there will always be whispers about your failures in New York as a player and as a person, and I'm not sure there's anything you'll ever be able to do to quiet them.