An opportunity, we'll call it. The White Sox have missed manychances to make meaningful statements through the years, but thisweek, they've been lobbed an eephus pitch in the wheelhouse. As theyenjoy their best start in 12 years, the Sox welcome a $183 millionpinstriped blob that ranks next-to-last in the American League inhitting, thanks largely to a $134,116-a-game megastar who is battinga buck-sixty and has as many home runs as Juan Uribe.
I've got to look in the mirror. It's me," Alex Rodriguez said.
The way he's going, it will crack.
If Jerry Reinsdorf ever wished to sneak in a sucker punch onGeorge Steinbrenner, who has won six World Series to the Chairman'sthree division titles, here is the time. Because the New York Yankeesare starting the season as the worst team money can buy, a MurmurersRow if we've ever seen one. Not only are they batting .217, they haveissues in the starting rotation and are having a hard time picking upand throwing the ball. They're human. What can I say?" manager JoeTorre said.
Ah, but the way the Yankees are compensated by Steinbrenner andhyped by the media, they're not supposed to be human. While I'vealways respected the way Boss George reinvests his ample profits intothe product, he's the first to know that something is grotesque abouta financially bloated team when it plays poorly. In fact, we'reawaiting the First Official Steinbrenner Blowup of the regularseason, which could be imminent if the Sox pounce tonight on kidpitcher Alex Graman and inflict further pain on a club that just lostthree of four games to its archrivals in Boston, even though the RedSox didn't use Pedro Martinez, were without the injured NomarGarciaparra and Trot Nixon and overcame a baserunner, Gabe Kapler,who twice lost track of the number of outs Monday.
It's only a matter of time before the dignified denizens of theBronx target A-Rod as the problem and start referring to him as,well, you figure it out. Having played in the comparatively sedatebaseball areas of Dallas-Fort Worth and Seattle, Rodriguez isadmittedly pressing in the intense glare of the marquee team in thebig city. It's a problem that won't garner him the least bit ofcompassion, not at his wage and not after he demanded to leave Texasbecause he ached to play for the Yankees. Only a fool would suggesthe won't eventually return to life as the sport's premier player, butit's perfectly fine to wonder if he's cracking a bit under thepressure. After all, with one homer and three RBI in 13 games, A-Rodis asking the same question.
I am pressing. And I have to find a way to stop pressing," he toldreporters over the weekend at Fenway Park, where he went hitless inhis first 16 at-bats of the series before singling in the ninthinning Monday. I am trying to do too much."
At one point, the normally composed Rodriguez whipped down hishelmet as Red Sox Nation taunted him mercilessly. I wanted to breakthat helmet as much as I've ever wanted to break anything in mylife," Rodriguez said. Sometimes you need to let the frustration out.When you're stinking up the place like I've been lately, it felt goodto let out emotion."
Now more than ever, Torre's calm hand is necessary in the Yankees'clubhouse. A new cast of sensitive characters (Rodriguez, GarySheffield, Kevin Brown and Kenny Lofton among them) has brought a newround of challenges, such as how to keep the inevitable rivalrybetween A-Rod and Derek Jeter from blowing up in the media. So far,as Rodriguez has struggled, Torre has simply played the human card intrying to downplay his start. Alex is called the best player in thegame, and he's on the covers of magazines and the papers," he toldthe New York Times. He's still a human being. When things don't gowell, he's going to show frustration.
It's like he's trying to squeeze the sawdust out of the bat. To behonest, even in spring training, he wasn't the hitter he's going tobe. This is still an adjustment period for him. Unfortunately, now itcounts."
A-Rod's troubles wouldn't be so magnified if the Yankees werewinning. But they have trouble in the rotation, where Mike Mussinaand Jose Contreras can't find the plate -- their wildness comes up ata collective $110 million price -- and the No. 5 spot is a roulettewheel. My, how they miss Roger Clemens (3-0, 0.85 ERA), who couldn'twait to retire from the Yankees but seems happier than an armadilloto be in Houston. Even with an insane payroll, the Yankees have holesand are hoping ex-Cub Jon Lieber is healthy enough to eventuallyhelp, which sounds like wishful thinking. This team will hit in time.But at the moment, Sheffield is hitting .255 with one homer, Jeter ishitting .241, Hideki Matsui is at .267 with one homer, Jason Giambiis at .229 and Bernie Williams is at .211.
The Sox have no such woes. Led by Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee andPaul Konerko, they are pounding the ball. What they need are moreconsistent outings from their pitchers. For every surprisingly goodouting by Scott Schoeneweis, they get a stinker from Jon Garland.Mark Buehrle and Esteban Loaiza are hot and cold, and Dan Wright is aflop at No. 5. They will need a closer in this series, and if BillyKoch is deemed too much a pyrotechnic, they shouldn't hesitate to tapDamaso Marte. The chemistry is fun and intoxicating under OzzieGuillen, the Blizzard of Oz, as long as Frank Thomas doesn't infectit with his latest contract gripes.
The biggest litmus test, of course, will be in the attendancefigures. If you wonder, like me, why a team would spend $28 millionto improve a hopelessly bad upper deck, a series such as this hadbetter provide a positive answer. If the Sox draw 30,000 or more foreach of the games -- and I'm not talking giveaways -- the Reinsdeckwill be put to good use. If the totals are closer to 20,000, theBallmall Formerly Known as Comiskey is nothing more than a lower-bowl experience.
Why put expensive makeup on Phyllis Diller when she's always goingto be homely? Because the South Side, dwarfed by Wrigleyville, stillhas nights like these next three. The Evil Empire is in town, and fora change, the Yankees aren't good enough to be described with a Damn.
Jay Mariotti hosts a sports talk show from 9 to 11 a.m. weekdayson WMVP-AM (1000) and appears on "Around the Horn" at 4 p.m. on ESPN.Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with name, hometown and daytimephone number (letters run Sunday).