Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A-Rod's Renaissance

A-Rod may be old, but he's still hitting like the A-Rod of old (FNC Static)
Monday was Alex Rodriguez's 40th birthday, and of course he made the most of it.

Back in Texas, where he wowed Rangers fans with three of the best seasons a shortstop has ever had, Rodriguez added another feel-good chapter to his storybook comeback by slamming his 24th home run of the year and 678th of his career. The big fly was classic A-Rod--a heat-seeking missile launched the other way with the flick of his wrists. It's the kind of opposite field shot you see all the time when Rodriguez's swing is right, and it's become abundantly clear that his swing is in top form.

Rodriguez has had better numbers to be sure--take another look at those Texas years--but he's never enjoyed a campaign quite like this one. Nobody has, because nobody was ever suspended for an entire season and then returned to baseball on the cusp of 40.

As such, no one knew what to expect of Rodriguez this year, not even Rodriguez himself. It's safe to say nobody expected much. The odds were stacked against him, especially given that his last few years before the suspension were marked by injury woes and declining performance. Once one of the surest things in the game, A-Rod's future was overwhelmingly uncertain. How would his body hold up? Did he still have the reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination to hit major league pitching? Guys aren't supposed to miss a year in their late 30s and come back like nothing happened.

Except Rodriguez has. And while he hasn't been better than ever, he's almost as good as he used to be, something not even the most optimistic Yankee fans could have foreseen. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have believed that Rodriguez would return to being the middle of the order force he was during his prime, and yet that's exactly what he's done.

It would have been natural for A-Rod to start slow, given that he hadn't played major league baseball in more than a year, but he never displayed even a hint of rust. He reached base twice in his first game back, went yard in his third game, notched a pair of hits in his fourth game, and drove in four runs in game number six. Rodriguez hit the ground running, and he hasn't looked back.

And rather than wear down during the heat of the summer, as any slugger approaching 40 might, he's only gotten hotter with the weather. Rodriguez has nine home runs, 14 RBI, and a .726 slugging percentage since the Fourth of July. Three of those blasts came Saturday in Minnesota, when Rodriguez turned back the clock with his fifth career three-homer game (and first since 2010).

For an encore, Rodriguez smacked another home run on his birthday, making him just the fourth player ever to homer as a teenager and a 40 year-old (joining the unlikely trio of Ty Cobb, Rusty Staub, and former teammate Gary Sheffield). It was also his sixth birthday bomb--a new MLB record and a fitting milestone for his milestone birthday.

What may be even more surprising than A-Rod's resurgence on the field is the transformation of his perception off it.

Until a few months ago, Rodriguez was probably the most reviled athlete in sports. He was so hated that his own ballclub objected to his early spring training arrival. Yes, seriously. In ballparks across America, he was subjected to the worst booing since Barry Bonds made his run at Hank Aaron's home run record. You probably could have counted the number of Rodriguez supporters on one hand.

Now, well, there were legitimate objections to A-Rod being left off the All-Star Game roster. His teammates have welcomed him back with open arms, and Yankee fans have been quick to forgive. He still gets booed wherever he goes, but the jeers aren't fueled with the same level of vitrol. Fans appear to be booing him out of instinct more than anything else, because they always have and always will, and because they know that's what they're supposed to do (after all, the guy's a caught cheater! And a liar!).

After more than two decades in the big leagues, Rodriguez has finally discovered how to stay out of his own way, not to mention the tabloids (he did have 10 years to learn from the master--Derek Jeter). Thanks to wisdom, maturity, and an improved sense of self-awareness, his season has been shockingly devoid of controversy. He's handled everything with grace and poise; the transition to full-time DH (or: losing his starting job to Chase Headley), the incident involving his 3,000th hit, and the Yankees' refusal to honor his $6 million contract incentive for passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Each time he bit his tongue, refusing to let himself become a distraction.

He's also been a genuinely good guy, giving his batting gloves to kids in Fenway Park, of all places, after homering twice there earlier this month. Smooth move, A-Rod.

Rodriguez should be a pro at this PR stuff by now. His career has been a constant uphill battle to win back fans and media ever since he signed that first fat contract with Texas. The last 15 years have felt like one long apology tour for his various transgressions, of which there are now too many to count. The few times A-Rod has been tolerable during that span have been whenever he's simply shut up and let his bat do the talking.

Right now, his bat is talking pretty loud. Entering play today he has 24 homers, 60 RBI, and a .279/.379/.545 batting line, good for his best league and park-adjusted OPS since his most recent MVP season in 2007. Rodriguez can't run (only one stolen base) or field (he's played just six games in the field) like he used to, but he can still mash.

That's the one thing Rodriguez has always been able to do, no matter how much of a self-created hurricane is howling around him. Through all the scandals, controversies, and cringe-worthy mistakes, Rodriguez has always raked. Even the last few years, with injuries severely cutting into his playing time and limiting his production, he was still an above average hitter.

This year he's been way, way above average, and that has come as a major surprise. It seemed much more likely that he'd be a broken down shell of his former self like Jeter was last year. Instead, he's been an MVP candidate and one of the main reasons why New York currently leads the AL East.

Redemption. Resurrection. Resurgence. Whatever alliteration you want to use to describe Rodriguez's comeback, it can't possibly do him justice. What he's doing is unprecedented, but he's been doing unprecedented things for 20 years now. Let's appreciate this one for a change.

No comments:

Post a Comment