We are a nation that venerates winners. Greatness in all athletic endeavors is defined as getting to the playoffs and winning the championship. A great NFL quarterback is the player who can elevate his level of play and excellence in critical situations, overcoming adversity and challenges. Few remember the team that loses the championship or even the play in the long regular season.
The New York Giants barely made the playoffs last year, but Eli Manning lead them to a Super Bowl victory. The St. Louis Cardinals barely made the playoffs after winning the World Series last year, they are close again, maybe the most clutch baseball team ever. The Buffalo Bills achieved something no football team has ever done. They finished among the top two teams out of 32 in the NFL for four straight years. An amazing accomplishment to play in four straight Super Bowls. But they lost all four games and are remembered by some not as a splendidly gifted team -- but the worst team ever.
And then there is the strange case of the 2012 New York Yankees and their superstar Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees are the team with the largest payroll in baseball at $197 million dollars. This eclipses virtually all other teams in the sport. They have a massive local television contract with the YES Network and draw multiple revenue streams from the nation's largest market. They are able to afford a lineup of superstars and regularly shock the rest of the baseball world with the dramatic nature of their free agent signings. They were a juggernaut during the regular season, leading their division for most of the year before being overtaken by the Baltimore Orioles. Their record was a powerful 95-67, a .586 winning percentage. They had a dynamic offensive lineup. Robinson Cano batted .313 with 33 home runs and 94 RBI's. He came into the playoffs having hit .615 in the last nine games of the regular season. Nick Swisher hit .272 with 24 home runs and 94 RBI's. Curtis Granderson only hit .232, but he pounded 43 home runs and 106 RBI's. Mark Texeira batted .251 with 24 HR's and 84 RBI's.
Rodriguez had a batting average of .272, and in an injury filled season had a sub par power year with 18 HR's and 57 RBI's. This was arguably the most explosive lineup, top-to-bottom in baseball. They batted a combined .279 with 142 home runs.
Then came the playoff series against Detroit for the right to go as the American League representative in the World Series. This was when it really counted. This is when greatness comes through, and the Yankees were a veteran, playoff-tested team. They scored six runs in four games.
Alex Rodriguez, a Hall of Fame certainty, went 3 for 25 at the plate for a .120 batting average.In a shocking move, he was benched for two games while healthy. One of the replacements was Eric Chavez, who went 0 for 16, a .000 average. Curtis Granderson went 3 for 30 for a .100 batting average. Nick Swisher went 5 for 30 and hit .167. Hot-hitting Robinson Cano had 40 at bats and just 3 hits for a 0.75 average. Only Mark Texeira hit a respectable .281. The stunning offensive collapse was so stunning that the Yankee fans were booing their own team and many failed to show for the last home game.
How is this performance possible with a talented and veteran group? First look to motivation of the players. Next to team chemistry. Clearly pitchers like Mark Verlander are overpowering, but all playoff teams have tremendous pitching. Most hitting is mental. What players tell me is necessary is a quiet mind-the ability to tune out all distractions and past failure and focus solely on the moment at head. Desperation can be contagious.
The Yankees have A-Rod under contract for five more years at premium dollars. After being benched in the most critical games can he fit back into the team structure. Will he want to? Will his teammates trust him? Will the harsh glare of New York fans and media make his continued tenure untenable? Would the Yankees absorb the financial penalty necessary to get another team to assume his contract in a trade?
The off-season for the Yankees will be as intriguing as their playoff performance. There is little tolerance for dramatic failure.
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