Some athletes love to be “The Guy”; the guy who takes the big shot, throws the big pass, at bat in the bottom of the 9th. They were born for the spotlight, the pressure. Instead of shaking and sweating, they seem serene and in the zone. They were born for it.
Other guys are Scottie Pippen—very good players, vital to the team’s success, but just to the left of the spotlight. They perform, some nights, just as well as the main guy, but psychologically, they let the Jordans of the world be the brightest star on which to focus. They are the Beta, not the Alpha dog.
In early August, I called A.J. Burnett the ace of the Yankee staff. And at the time, he was. Sorta. Since an early June drubbing by the Red Sox, Burnett had pitched 8 quality starts out of 9, and had just paid the Sox back by throwing a 7.2 inning, 0-run gem. In that time, Burnett had lowered his ERA from over 5 to 3.67, a smidge lower than Sabathia’s. He was on a roll.
Since I wrote that, Burnett has not fared as well. Though he hasn’t pitched badly, he did have a patch of rough starts that raised his ERA and caused some concerns. He has since come back to pitch well in his first 2 post-season games of his career. And I will admit, I made a mistake in calling Burnett the Yankee ace—he surely isn’t. Though he is something almost as important.
Question. When CC Sabathia signed with the Yankees, what happened less than two days later? Answer; A.J. Burnett signed.
Burnett was never the ace; it was always Sabathia, no matter how well he pitched. The reason, I believe, that Burnett has pitched well for the Yankees when so many people called him a “mistake signing” and “Pavano, Part II” is that when he signed, he knew exactly what he was. Not the ace. And not asked to be.
That’s because being an “Ace” or the “Man” in New York, isn’t just about the numbers you put up. It’s about the guy who gets the credit when you win and the blame when you lose. He’s the lightening rod, for better or worse. So no matter what Burnett did on the mound, the lightening rod was always going to be Sabathia. He was the big name, The Ace.
So, Burnett, knowing the pressure was off him to be The Ace, the guy every person in YankeeLand was pinning their hopes to, signed nearly immediately. He knew he’d be the number 2. A star in his own right, but not The Guy.
“It seems like every night he throws I give him a hug and say, ‘Man, you just inspired me to go tomorrow.’ And it seems that every night he does that. That’s who he is. He’s a horse. ... He sets the tone.”
That was Burnett, talking about Sabathia. Burnett is an emotional guy. And by placing himself behind Sabathia, Burnett has let himself off the emotional hook in setting the tone for the Yankees. All that pressure, the stress. It’s all diluted for Burnett now. And all he has to do is pitch.
And in the role of the no. 2 guy, Burnett, has done well.
Alex Rodriguez, since he became a Yankee in 2004 has been incredible. He won 2 MVP awards, was 1st in slugging percentage for 3 years and won the Silver Slugger 3 years in a row. To put it this way, in 2006—a self-described off-year—Rodriguez hit 35 HRs, had 121 RBIs and slugged .523. When healthy, Rodriguez has plain just dominated.
Except in the playoffs.
Come the postseason, Alex Rodriguez folded. Since 2004, in the playoffs, Rodriguez has batted a sickly .245 and has hit just 4 HRs—only 1 after 2004. He has had 25 Ks in those series.
A-Rod, self-admittedly, was the anti-Reggie. When his team needed him most, he came up small. In the role as The Man, A-Rod wasn’t.
And it did not go unnoticed that the last time the Yankees reached the World Series was the year before A-Rod came to NYC.
But then two funny things happened. The Yankees got a bunch of other players and A-Rod got busted for steroids.
And my guess is, that amidst all the steroid hoopla and press conferences and interviews, Rodriguez must have realized something. And this is what I think he realized: “The worst has happened. Nothing anyone says or does can hurt me any more than what I’ve done to myself. If this is the worst it can be, I can take it.”
In short, he has nothing to lose. He has been a caught cheating; he has played terribly in the biggest spotlight in America and he has come out the other side. Now, instead of playing the game for the adulation, for the attention and for everyone else, he is playing for himself.
“I think going back to spring training, I knew I couldn’t change all the 0-for-4’s and 0-for-5’s and all the guys I left on base. I knew I couldn’t change that, so, you know, I’m content right now, both on and off the field. And I also knew that I was 34, not 44, and I have an opportunity to do things right both on and off the field.’’
And with Sabathia, Teixeira, Swisher, not to mention Jeter and Rivera on the same team, A-Rod seems content not to be the focus anymore. He deflects praise to guys like David Robertson or Brett Gardner. As Reggie Jackson said recently, “A-Rod is content to let the magic work around him. He can be a big star of the show, but not the only star. I think he’s enjoying that role.”
And truth be told, Burnett or A-Rod have the numbers to be the Man—and could be. But being the Man is a role you take on, a psychological burden you endure as the Alpha dog on a team. Yes, you get all the attention—and the commercials and other stuff that comes with it, but you get all the blame. Some guys can do it, and some can’t.
Now none of this is to denigrate A-Rod or Burnett. To the contrary, they are vital to the success of the Yankees. Heck, Michael Jordan, scoring 37 pts a night, couldn’t, and didn’t, win anything until Pippen came along. And let’s face it: being the Man in New York is different than being the Man in Kansas City. Its harder here than anywhere else.
To paraphrase the aforementioned Mr. October, maybe Burnett and Rodriguez aren’t the straw that stirs the drink, but maybe they could be the ice that chills the drink out.
And that ain’t so bad, is it?