Visiting Yankees spring training this year in Tampa, I was in the dugout next to Post reporter Kevin Kernan when Alex Rodriguez looked in our direction, whistled, and said, “Hey, Kev, you got a sec?” Kernan grimaced. “Page Six” had reported that A-Rod disputed a $17,600 charge his girlfriend had put on his credit card. As far as A-Rod tabloid scandals go, this was small beans, but it’s exactly the type of story that angers athletes, combining romance and finance. So A-Rod wanted a word. For the record, he was polite about the whole thing—he no doubt knew that Kernan doesn’t have a say in “Page Six” ’s editorial decisions—and what was really striking about the incident was that it was the only real wave A-Rod made this spring, which, for him, must have felt like a month at a resort spa being licked by puppies. Alex Rodriguez, for the first time in his life, isn’t the story. He’s so 2009.
This is true in a baseball sense, not just as a tabloid issue. Of the concerns driving Yankees-fan panic this spring—and it’s strange how much Yankees fans panic during spring training, like they all collectively forget for a month that they’re fans of the Yankees—A-Rod ranked behind Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Boone Logan, and which trampolineatorium Joba Chamberlain patronizes. In A-Rod’s case, freakouts have given way to something more like resignation. Which is appropriate: He hit fewer homers the past two years (46) than he did during five different single seasons, and was injured so often that he ended up playing fewer games (99) than ostensible backup Eduardo Nuñez. He’ll turn 37 this year, which means a reversal of fortune on either the slugging or health fronts is unlikely.
In many ways, A-Rod is not just a declining performer, he’s the opposite of everything the Yankees stand for at the moment. General manager Brian Cashman has concentrated on building up the team with homegrown guys like Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and David Robertson, and when he has acquired outside talent, he’s gone for pre-superstardom players like Pineda and Curtis Granderson who are cheaper and, perhaps not coincidentally after all the clubhouse-turmoil nonsense of past years, don’t attract much ESPN attention. A-Rod, even as his numbers slide, is signed until 2017, when he’ll be 42 years old. The Yankees owe him $143 million over the next six years; using the most optimistic projections, he’s still going to be a pretty big waste of money. Even the Yankees can’t necessarily afford it—Major League Baseball is ramping up penalties for teams that exceed the luxury-tax threshold. In a few years every dollar spent over the limit is expected to incur a 50-cent surcharge. Hal Steinbrenner, who calls the financial shots, has said he doesn’t want to pay the tax at all—which means cutting payroll even further than Cashman already has.
But Yankees fans just aren’t worked up about A-Rod. Maybe the relentlessness of the controversies he was involved in finally wore everyone down—maybe there is actually a limit to the appetite for contrived New York sports intrigue. (If there is, let’s hope it applies to coverage of Phil Jackson and John Calipari.) Alex Rodriguez has pulled off something amazing: disappearing from the spotlight, avoiding the boos, at precisely the moment when he and his contract deserve them most.