It was in January 2005 when George Steinbrenner opened the door to his Legends Field offices and invited Alex Rodriguez in for a chat. This wasn't a conversation as much as it was a job review -- actually it was a history lesson, and the Boss did all the talking.
After watching Rodriguez go 2-for-his-last 17 while the Yankees were losing four straight American League Championship Series games to the Red Sox, Steinbrenner told Rodriguez to be himself. Putting it even more bluntly, Steinbrenner urged his third baseman to be more like Reggie Jackson in his unfiltered '70s. Say what you mean, don't worry about the consequences, stop trying to win everyone's approval, is what the Boss said.
It's taken almost two seasons, but A-Rod has finally taken Steinbrenner's words to heart. He was quoted in Sports Illustrated this week comparing his salary to Mike Mussina's and Jason Giambi's, noting that despite their mega-wealth -- "a boatload of money," Rodriguez said of Mussina's cash flow -- no one suffers the same kind of abuse from the fans.
Reporters who went to Mussina for a response on Wednesday were told there would be none. The right-hander has no intention of returning fire. But the gulf between Rodriguez and Mussina is an open secret in the clubhouse, and with the postseason less than two weeks away, it's anyone's guess how the rest of the Yankees will see the troubled third baseman.
Actually, A-Rod has one escape route from this tempest: He needs to have a sustained, monster October to win over the Yankees (including manager Joe Torre) and to prove to fans that he's more than the collection of stats and awards that will someday land him in the Hall of Fame.
No one doubts A-Rod has the strength, bat speed and work ethic to end up as the game's greatest home run hitter. But like some 22nd-century android, technologically perfect, A-Rod has so far been lacking in the one human ingredient that has made Derek Jeter a cult hero in New York -- that is, an ability to hit under pressure, which Jeter has consistently done this year.
The irony, of course is that everything Jeter can do -- run, hit, hit for power, throw -- A-Rod does better. Come October, though, Yankees fans would take the captain over the third baseman in a minute.
But that's old news. Rodriguez's star power has been diminished ever since the Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS lead to the Red Sox in 2004. The fact that Rodriguez failed to drive in a run in the Yankees' four-game loss to the Angels in last year's Division Series only deepened the impression that something was critically wrong. Now comes the SI story which paints Rodriguez as a fatally out-of-touch superstar, oblivious to the way he's perceived in his own clubhouse.
It took Giambi's harsh words to remind A-Rod that his five hits in the Yankees' five-game sweep of the Red Sox in August were all soft ones. It took a rare one-on-one from Torre to force Rodriguez into dropping the pose of serenity. And it may require one more tough-love nudge (or push) from someone on the roster to remind Rodriguez that he's on trial when the playoffs begin, since October performance is the gold standard by which the Yankees are judged.
It's why Reggie is allowed to roam the clubhouse when he chooses, engaging today's Yankees in conversation whenever he feels like it. Reggie, having just turned 60, isn't nearly as big or muscular as he seemed in those videos from the '77 World Series. Reggie is smaller in person than you'd think. But as Mr. October, he has lifetime cache, here and everywhere.
Jackson doesn't mind getting in A-Rod's face on occasion. And, to be fair, Rodriguez does listen with respect. He did just that with Giambi, too. But all Giambi was doing was filling a conversational void created by the one Yankee who could have -- and perhaps should have -- confronted A-Rod.
That would be Jeter, of course. If there's anyone who could make Rodriguez understand the difference between greatness and greatness under pressure, it's the guy batting almost .400 with runners in scoring position. But anyone hoping for a Jeter-Rodriguez summit shouldn't hold their breath. The cold war between them is even more pronounced than the one with Mussina. Jeter reportedly has never forgiven A-Rod for the disparaging remarks he made in Esquire in 2001, and as one Yankee official said, "There is no coming back from one of Derek's grudges. Once you're gone, you're gone."
Rodriguez shouldn't feel that bad, really. Jeter apparently did the same to Mariah Carey a decade ago, cutting off their relationship so abruptly -- and remaining so determined not to let the singer back into his good graces -- that kids created the slang-verb "Jeter-ed" to mean getting forever dumped.
It's not quite that cut-and-dried in the clubhouse, since Jeter and A-Rod do have to coexist in close quarters. But there's no doubt Rodriguez is off on some lonely planet now. His legacy as a Yankee may hinge on what happens in the next four weeks.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.