You are a glorious human being, and all the negative words I've uttered about you in the past are now made ridiculous. (Even if they were semi-accurate at the time.)
You are redeemed.
Okay, time to take a breath. I'll briefly stop addressing A-Rod directly, but I can't promise not to slip later on. These past three games have been unbelievable. A-Rod has not only shed his choker label; he's become indisputably clutch. Let's go game by game:
*On Wednesday, he singled Jeter home to give the Yanks a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the 5th. With the Twins obviously fatigued from their playoff win against Detroit, this margin looked pretty safe.
Clutch Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
*On Friday, in the bottom of the 9th and the Yanks trailing 3-1, he came up with Teixeira on first and blasted a two-run homer to deep center to tie a ballgame the Yanks would eventually win in extra innings.
Clutch Rating: 9.5 out of 10.
*Yesterday, after the Twins took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the 6th, and the Metrodome almost literally exploded ("The loudest I've ever heard a stadium on the road," Pettitee said later), A-Rod came up in the 7th and jacked an opposite field solo shot to tie the game and break the curse of Carl Pavano. Jorge gave us the lead later that inning, and the bullpen held on for the sweep.
Clutch Rating: 8 out of 10.
I honestly can't believe how great he's been. It used to be that you hated to see A-Rod come up to bat in the playoffs with anything on the line. Now? He and Jeter are the two guys I want in the box. The turnaround is complete, and it happened in one year. Or, more accurately, in one off-season. There's no disputing that A-Rod turned in a series of exceptional pressure performances during the regular season, starting with the very first pitch he saw. But doubt still lingered, at least in some minds, about how he'd deal with the postseason. That doubt is now obliterated.
I can think of two explanations for the reversal, one mythical and one simple.
A) He sold his soul to the devil.
B) He just stopped giving a fuck.
When the pop-psychologist-cum-yellow-journalist Selena Roberts wrote her little expose opinion piece on A-Rod's steroid use, I think a big part of his world came crashing down. His personality had always been transparent in one crucial way- he'd cared deeply, even excessively, about the public perception of A-Rod the human being. There are stories about him doing interviews, and after finishing an answer, he'd ask the interviewer how he'd done, or if he could try again. His sound bytes often sounded insincere. And when his poor pressure performance became a national story, which didn't happen until he came to New York, he wanted so badly to prove his chops that he tried too hard, put undue stress on himself, and aggravated the issue. A-Rod is not a baseball player who should ever have a stretch of 0-for-26 with runners in scoring position, but that's what happened in the playoffs before 2009.
And because there was a child-like openness in his face that made him so easy to read, you could actually watch the cruel process by which he failed, and by which he kept trying desperately to rehabilitate. It made him phony, it made him hopeless, and it made him an easy target.
And then the allegations came out, and the image he tried so hard to cultivate just bottomed out. All the platitudes he expressed during the 60 Minutes interview were put to the lie. His legacy was forever tainted. The 3 MVP awards? You're a juicer. The potential to break Bonds' all-time home run record? Doesn't matter, you're a juicer. More than a juicer, in fact: a liar. And that verdict is beyond reclamation. The judgment is forever.
At that point, what the hell could he do? I'm sure he went through an angry stage, but that only amounts to so much. Try to fight the media, and its tendency to pile on, and you're just fanning a fire. Ignore it, and it'll never go away. There's not an easy solution. It's impossible to know what mental process he underwent, but I imagine the eventual coming-to-terms involved recognizing the root of his existence, which is pure, phenomenal talent.
There was a program called Yankee Yesterdays that ran for a while on the YES Network, and it went through the childhood and adolescent years of certain Yankees in a half hour biography/interview format. I watched the A-Rod show, and people he knew talked about how at the tender age of nine, he would draw up highly specific work-out regimens and complete them with his friends every day in the summer. And this wasn't some passing fad a kid does for a week and then gives up; his itinerary would account for every moment of the morning and afternoon, hour by hour, designed to hone his skills in baseball, basketball, and football. Keep in mind also that it happened before anybody knew A-Rod was a budding superstar. Nobody made him do it. He was just a Dominican kid without a father (his dad left the family when A-Rod was 9) looking for order and purpose, and he found it in sports.
By age 18, the University of Miami offered him the starting job on their football team. He was already an NFL prospect as a high school senior. He could have played D-1 basketball, too. A-Rod is a fanatical lover of athletics. He's not some tortured soul who was thrust into a spotlight he didn't want, like Ricky Williams. Since he was a little kid, he just wanted to play, and to be really, really good. That's probably why he chose to use steroids (or steal signs from the catcher, or yell "I got it" at a third baseman when they're about to catch a pop fly, or try to slap the ball out of someone's glove). And I like to think that after Roberts' book came out, revealing a few facts and then descending into hackneyed psychoanalysis, A-Rod said "screw it. I'm a baseball player. Everything else is bullshit."
And he just went back to playing baseball. All the nagging worries about his image could be dropped like old baggage, because he had no image left. And who cares about image, anyway? He made a bad decision as a young man, and he paid for it. Even before that, people hated him for showing how badly he wanted to succeed. He couldn't drum up the respect he craved. Now, the media has come to his side, because they covet the idea of a fallen hero redeemed. The fans respect him, and are on the way to loving him. And if my guess is right, A-Rod doesn't care.
There's no sense of retribution. There's no hatred of how he's been treated in the past. No concept of ironic or bitter detachment from the cheering fans, like me, who used to boo him when he failed. Because when he fell, he had the wisdom to know that in order to overcome all the trouble, he had to be at peace. Personal demons aren't meant to be fought; they're meant to be absorbed. And while the old stuff will always be a part of him, what he cares about now is doing well at baseball, because it's what he loves. Nothing else, and nobody else, are as important.
Look at his reaction after the momentous home run on Friday:
It's not the wild redemption of someone out to prove themselves in a hostile environment. It's not the glorious reaction of a pariah about to be embraced by his critics.
It's the self-assured pose of a dude who knows he's one of the greatest baseball players to ever live, and who isn't the least bit surprised that he just hit a crucial home run and ruined Minnesota's season. It's what he was born to do.
And I'm sorry, but that is f*&%ing awesome.
Okay, I'm almost done gushing about A-Rod, I promise. I was at the game Friday, and it was the best live sporting experience of my life. When A-Rod hit his shot in the 9th, I found myself in a spontaneous group hug with six strangers, jumping and yelling and dancing on the bleachers. When Teixeira ended the game, the Stadium was an absolute zoo, and the atmosphere spilled out into the streets afterward.
It feels really good to be in the ALCS again. We finally have a chance to exorcise the demons of the 2004 disaster, although it won't be against the Red Sox. There are a few other things I wanted to write about today, but I'll catch up on those tomorrow. Included:
*Checking up on my (stunningly accurate) playoff predictions.
*A review of an incredible sports weekend with my friend Kyle.
*A plea to keep in mind that Derek Jeter is 800 kinds of awesome.
*A personal apology to TBS announcers Chip Caray and Ron Darling.
Before I go, I leave you with one final thought: A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD A-ROD.