Throughout his career, Alex Rodriguez always wore the number "3." However, when he became a New York Yankee, a slight problem arose. Someone named "Babe" wore that digit in his pinstripes days. So, A-Rod, even though he earns more than 300 times Ruth's highest salary, had to choose another number. Rodriguez, in an audacious display of self-confidence for an athlete who was about to take on the Big Apple, chose to wear No. 13!
Right now, that decision looks anything but lucky. So far, in fact, it's down right ominous. For the third straight game on Sunday at Fenway Park, Rodriguez responded to the taunts, mockery and insults of Red Sox fans by going 0 for 4. It's one thing when Tim Wakefield or Curt Schilling shut you down. But the pitchers who made Rodriguez look nervous, off-balance and almost foolish were named Mark Malaska, Phil Seibel and Frank Castillo. That's when you know you're really in a slump.
As thousands of Boston fans are sure to remind Rodriguez on Monday when he steps to the plate with his .156 batting average on the scoreboard, if he makes one more out, he'll be 0 for 13, just like that triskaidekaphobia number on his back. After all, if a Curse of the Bambino were ever to be broken, might it not involve the richest player in baseball history switching to ill-fated No. 13 because he couldn't have the Ruth's No. 3?
So, what are the chances of getting that No. 3 out of mothballs, maybe just until Rodriguez gets a few hits?
"I actually thought about that today," said Manager Joe Torre, in a playful mood after a 7-3 New York victory that prevented the Red Sox from winning the first three games of this series and thus igniting chaos in seven states.
"So, can we bring Babe Ruth's number out of retirement for A-Rod?" said Torre to Brian Cashman, the Yankees' general manager. Cashman gave the obligatory snort.
"Actually, I thought we could put a slash between the '1' and the '3' and do it this way," said Torre, writing "1/3" on a piece of paper.
"Well, you've turned him into a 'third' baseman," I said.
"And we're getting a third of the production," said Cashman.
Just a joke, A-Rod. They still love you. (But then it's only April.)
Every star athlete who comes to New ("if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere") York accepts the challenge differently. So far, the gentlemanly Rodriguez, who had Cal Ripken as a boyhood hero, looks as uncomfortable and out of place as any Best in Class performer who ever chose to run the New York gauntlet.
"It all starts with patience [at the plate]. You build on that. Then you start again tomorrow. I still feel like a work in progress," said Rodriguez, who hit 52, 57 and 47 home runs the last three seasons.
When the Yankees traded all-star Alfonso Soriano, and assorted others, so that they could acquire the supposed best player in baseball were they bargaining on getting "a work in progress?"
Casual fans don't realize it, but if Rodriguez doesn't perform at his usual spectacular level, then the Yankee trade could be a disaster. Last year, the Yanks ended the season with Soriano at second base and Aaron Boone at third. How good a tandem were they? Over the previous two years, they'd averaged 64 homers, 189 RBI and 50 steals combined. The Yanks were counting on Boone, acquired in a trade, to continue being a 25-homer, 90-RBI man for years.
So, have the Yankees — with A-Rod on board — improved over the team they fielded last October? Sure, they have A-Rod at third, but horrific hitter Enrique Wilson now occupies second base. If you average A-Rod's production over the past two years, then prorate Wilson's career statistics over a full 575 at-bat season, then Rodriguez and Wilson would hypothetically combine for 60 homers, 185 RBI and 20 steals.
What! Yes, that's correct. Offensively, the Yankees are no better off now with A-Rod and Wilson in their infield than they were last year with Soriano and a garden-variety third baseman with some punch (like Boone). The hidden impetus for the A-Rod deal (raw desperation) was Boone's serious knee injury during the offseason.
Both Cashman and his stat-freak counterpart Theo Epstein with the Red Sox understand that the Rodriguez deal will only look smart, especially at its astronomical price, if A-Rod is a 50-homer monster. As an added twist, Rodriguez has frequently looked lost at third base, although his athleticism has already produced a few flash plays.
For Red Sox fans, Rodriguez's struggles are a source of unalloyed glee. One homer and three RBI? Isn't that just a good at-bat for Rodriguez rather than a 12-game total? Is it possible that the trade they chose not to make — dealing Manny Ramirez (now hitting .413) for A-Rod, then swapping two-time batting champ Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for slugger Magglio Ordoñez — will actually turn out to be a brilliant blunder? The Red Sox balked at forking over the final $12 million to complete the Deal of the Century.
Will those "Who Needs A-Rod?" signs all over Fenway for this series look prophetic?
The Yankees certainly don't think so. And, since 1918, what they think has been the opinion that ultimately counts. With the A-Rod thunder arrive soon? "There is no question in my mind," said Rodriguez.
"If Alex goes 4 for 4 tomorrow, then will everybody say that he's 'red-hot?' " said Derek Jeter cryptically.
"Look at [Roger] Clemens, [Patrick] Ewing, [Mike] Piazza. They all struggled slightly when they first came to New York," said Cashman. "Big names in the big market have to walk through the fire. At first, you tend to put a lot of pressure on yourself. It's human nature. But let it play out. The cream will rise."
To many, the Yankees' ability to use their bottomless wallet to grab Rodriguez after the Red Sox couldn't quite meet the price is a perfect symbol of baseball's worst problem — financial imbalance. Even a team as rich and free-spending as Boston couldn't go dollar-for-dollar with baseball's Bank of New York.
For three days, Alex Rodriguez has barely been able to get the ball out of the infield. Each feeble swing elicits more jubilant jeers. Maybe, just maybe, Rodriguez, pinstripes and No. 13 [chosen because he was a big Dan Marino fan] will prove a toxic mix. Maybe his game really will drop a level — no, not to "1/3" — but just enough to nudge the Red Sox ahead of the Yankees.
Or, maybe not.
"We all know what he can do and what he will do," said Torre with typical infuriating Yankee confidence. "It's almost kind of funny for the rest of us to watch him right now.
"But you can bet it's not fun for him."