Haters, it's time to root for A-Rod
Quick quiz: Which group of fans is most bummed about the results of baseball's postseason so far?
(A) Mets fans
(B) Indians fans
(C) Those who extol the virtues of the Angels playing the game "the right way"
(D) Umpire fetishists
(E) A-Rod haters
Correct answer: (E) -- although I suspect many Indians fans will be smashing their Fausto Carmona bobbleheads to pieces after watching CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee start Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night.
Alex Rodriguez haters are having a worse October than balloon boy's parents. This used to be their favorite time of year. They reveled when he tried to slap the ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove. They loved his failure in the clutch (20 consecutive postseason at-bats without a hit with a runner in scoring position). They ripped him when he announced he was opting out of his contract during Game 4 of the World Series two years ago, and were even a bit disappointed when the Yankees missed the playoffs last year. ("What? No chance for A-Rod to pop out again with two runners on base? Sorry, I'll watch another episode of 'CSI: Toledo' instead.")
Heck, even Yankees fans don't really like Rodriguez. They root for him purely out of selfish reasons; they want their team to win. So they cheer and give him standing ovations and, yes, a few rebellious types even purchase A-Rod jerseys or rent "Bride Wars."
I'm not a Yankees fan; I'm a fan of the Mariners, the team A-Rod once turned his back on for the winning pastures of Texas. And yet, I've found myself rooting for him this postseason.
Look, we all know he's not an easy guy to like. We hate his big contract, and the way his heels kick up too high when he runs, and his inability to say anything interesting. That little steroids admission didn't exactly increase his Q rating. Even the baseball poets would admit he's not particularly graceful when he plays; he doesn't possess the sweet swing of Joe Mauer, or the unique awkwardness of Ichiro or Vlad, or the intimidating presence of Albert Pujols (Pujols has been intentionally walked 78 times the past two seasons; A-Rod just 86 times in his career).
But here's the deal: The guy is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. That cannot be denied, no matter how many PEDs his cousin sneaked in from the Dominican Republic. He's been unfairly judged because he went 2-for-15 in the 2005 playoffs against the Angels and 1-for-14 in 2006 against the Tigers. He's been unfairly judged because of his big salary. He's been unfairly judged because he isn't Paul O'Neill or Scott Brosius or Tino Martinez, and the sports media and sports fans love to fashion the idea that winning equates to some sort of deep-set moral attribute. Paul O'Neill had it; he was a winner. A-Rod, with all his money and home runs and good looks, hasn't won -- therefore he's weak, he's not special, he lacks that certain fiber. (New Yorkers, especially, believe in this; that to succeed in New York makes you even more special. Thus, A-Rod's failures in pinstripes strike an ever bigger blow to his moral failings.)
PAGE 2 ON THE WORLD SERIES
• Schoenfield: Yanks' titles ranked: 1-27
• Gallo: World Series photo captions
• Schoenfield: 27 World Series facts
• Lane: World Series celebrity report
• Schoenfield: Leave A-Rod alone!!!
• Caple: Kate Hudson's WS thoughts
• Lukas: The story behind the bling
• Werley: Yankees-Phillies family conflict
• Lane: Bride of the Yankees
Jim Caple's World Series video reports:
• Sabathia most pinstriped ever?
• Long-suffering Yankees fans
• Frightening welcome to Philly
• Who will be Mr. November?
• Hangin' with the Chinese media
• World Series trivia challenge
This is a pile of nonsense bigger than the Yankees' payroll. Paul O'Neill's career postseason average was .284, with 11 home runs in 85 games -- but he never hit a single World Series home run in 27 games. Scott Brosius had a career playoff average of .245, with a .278 on-base percentage, and hit .222 or below in seven of the 12 postseason series he played in. Tino Martinez hit .233 and slugged just .351 with nine home runs in 99 career playoff games.
Rodriguez's postseason career line now reads: .307 average, .408 on-base percentage, .570 slugging percentage, with 12 home runs in 48 career playoff games.
Those other guys won rings, though; A-Rod hasn't. So labels are given, storylines plotted in advance of every at-bat and every runner left on base. But then Rodriguez homered off Joe Nathan to tie a game in the ninth, and then homered off Carl Pavano to tie another game in the seventh, and then homered off Brian Fuentes to tie another game in the 11th, and finally the Angels just decided they'd better not pitch to him at all. In a postseason that has seen too many games won with the help of fielding miscues or umpiring errors or bad baserunning, Alex Rodriguez has provided the most drama of the month.
What's wrong with one of the planet's best players shining under the October spotlight? That isn't exciting? Isn't that why we watch?
I was in Seattle when Rodriguez made his major league debut as an 18-year-old kid in 1994, a year after getting drafted. He went 0-for-3 in a game against Boston. He broke out in 1996, hitting line drives everywhere, making great plays in the field. He was awesome, should have won the AL MVP trophy. It was maybe the best season a shortstop has ever had -- certainly the best by one who began the season at 20 years of age.
But you know what? In some ways, A-Rod never got a fair shake from the fans, even back then. We already had Ken Griffey Jr. He was Seattle's first baseball love. He was The Kid. We also loved Jay Buhner, with his quirky personality and bald head. We loved Edgar Martinez, the rock of the team. A-Rod he was a little too polished, even then. (Backup catcher John Marzano used to wear one of those goofy Alex Rodriguez caricature T-shirts, a little joke that perhaps A-Rod himself never quite picked up on.)
So Rodriguez was more appreciated than he was beloved. (You could argue that he's never understood that home runs don't necessarily equate to popularity.) When Griffey asked for a trade, Mariners fans were initially angry, but eventually accepted it and welcomed him back with huge ovations when he returned this season. A-Rod left Seattle nine years ago, and when he returns he still gets roundly booed, and dollar bills are tossed at him from the stands. You think he'd get standing ovations if the Mariners signed a 41-year-old A-Rod after the Yankees released him, and he hit .242 and the team finished in last place for the fourth straight year?
In Texas, the Rangers lost; somehow it was all Rodriguez's fault. In New York, the Yankees blew a lead to the Red Sox, couldn't make it back to the World Series, and even missed the playoffs last year; somehow, it was all Rodriguez's fault. Despite his postseason heroics this year, do you think for a minute A-Rod won't get the blame if he hits .200 in the World Series and the Phillies win?
I'm hoping A-Rod replicates what Barry Bonds did in 2002, when, after years of postseason struggles of his own, he finally made the World Series and nearly carried the Giants to the title (.471 average, four home runs -- including one monster shot that is the hardest, longest home run I've ever witnessed in person). After all, Ken Griffey Jr. never got the opportunity to play in a World Series. Same with a lot of other greats: Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, Billy Williams, Frank Thomas, Dave Kingman.
So, yes, I'm rooting for Alex Rodriguez in this World Series. I want one of the game's stars to have us marveling at his abilities. I want him to hit a moon shot off Pedro Martinez. I want him to make Brad Lidge sweat.
And then I want the Phillies to win in seven.
David Schoenfield is a senior editor for ESPN.com.