2009 The Salvation of Alex Rodriguez

The New York superstar, cornered by damning steroid evidence and wrecked by a career-threatening hip injury, takes the long road back towards redemption by lifting the Yankees to their first championship in nine years.

Alex Rodriguez struggles to resuscitate a reputation drowned in steroid revelations and, in the short term, manages to win back his Yankee fans.

In January 2010, Alex Rodriguez gracefully accepted the award for the Most Valuable Player in the 2009 postseason and, gushing with as much relief as joy, blurted out, “What’s next, the good guy award?”

Nearly one year earlier, soaked in national scandal and hobbled by serious injury, Rodriguez’s prospects of winning any kind of award would seem as distant as the faintest stars, as the man arguably considered baseball’s greatest slugger of the moment was about to unwillingly embark on a whirlwind season of emotions that ran the gamut from shame to doubt to atonement to, at the end, solace from a forgiving redemption.

With his stunning breakout season in 1996 at age 21, Rodriguez quickly cemented himself as one of the game’s premier power threats, an annual lock to provide prodigious strength in numbers. In his first 13 full seasons, Rodriguez averaged 42 homers, 122 RBIs, 122 runs scored, 21 steals and a .308 clip at the plate. After turning 32 in 2007, Rodriguez became the youngest player to reach 500 career home runs; in the wake of Barry Bonds’ controversial ascension past Hank Aaron on the all-time longball list that same year, purists turned to Rodriguez as The Great Clean Hope, embracing him as a steroid-free heir apparent to Bonds’ performance-enhanced record.

All the while, an image-conscious Rodriguez carefully cultivated a congenial yet cautious reputation, quick to sport an All-American smile in front of cameras and fans that, at closer inspection, seemed to carry a more unconvincing and wary detachment.

Outside of a recent divorce, life was good for Rodriguez as spring training neared in 2009. He was reveling in the early stages of a ten-year, $275 million contract with the New York Yankees, themselves feeling good vibes mostly paid for with megawatt free agent acquisitions CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, and a brand new, sparkling Yankee Stadium worth over a billion dollars.

But, overnight in February, Rodriguez’s clean image became permanently stained.

Excerpts from a new book penned by Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts claimed that four sources independent of one another had knowledge that Rodriguez was on a list of 104 major leaguers who tested positive for steroids in 2003. That list was to be anonymous and destroyed by the players’ union, but it incredulously sat around and was eventually seized by Federal agents working on the BALCO investigation. Roberts approached Rodriguez with the information at a Miami gym, where his amiable façade turned cold. Rodriguez told her: “You’ll have to talk to the union. I’m not saying anything.”

The Rodriguez steroid story exploded across America; A-Rod sarcastically became rebranded as “A-Roid” and “A-Fraud” by sports talk, bloggers and big, bold newspaper headlines. Those hoping to see Rodriguez unseat Bonds one day as the new home run king now cowered their heads and looked instead to future candidates Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard—dearly hoping that those boomers, too, would eventually not be nailed as users of illegal stimulants.

Rodriguez knew of the pain that lay ahead of him in asserting damage control; he could deny and attack the allegations as Bonds and Roger Clemens before him, or he could display vague contrition as Yankee teammates Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte had done when confronted with evidence of performance enhancement.

Rodriguez took somewhat of the latter route and confessed, admitting he took “boli”Experts assumed Rodriguez was talking about either Dianabol or Deca-Durabolin; according to Roberts’ book, he tested positive for Primobolan in 2003. from 2001-03 through a cousin connected to a well-known Dominican trainer banned from MLB clubhouses since 2001. He did not address—and later declined to discuss—some of Roberts’ other damning details in her book, which alleged that Rodriguez took steroids as early as high school, likely continued taking them after 2003 and, outside of the realm of steroids, tipped opponents off on what pitches were coming in blowout games in the hopes that they would do the same for him.

By the time the Yankees assembled into camp at Florida, Rodriguez was beset by a new problem: A bad hip. It was discovered that he had a torn labrum, and Rodriguez was once again faced with two options: Play in pain and have surgery after the season, or immediately go under the knife and miss a lengthy amount of action. Already burdened by the steroid rap, the news of the injury spiraled Rodriguez’s emotions, shaking him down to the point that he considered retirement.

With Rodriguez having left to undergo a fast-track rehab of his hip, the Yankees felt initial relief that, at least, the media circus had left town with him. But it became clear that they were missing his presence in the lineup. The team stumbled out of the starting blocks, struggling to adjust to a new Yankee Stadium playing the role of an unforgiving bandbox. Mark Teixeira, left naked in the lineup without Rodriguez, was being pitched around and hitting below .200. CC Sabathia was nowhere near the $161 million saving grace on the mound the Yankees had hoped, while another effective Yankee hurler of recent years, Chien-Ming Wang, was absolutely pummeledIt was later discovered that Wang’s shoulder was ailing; he was shut down for the year in July after posting a 1-6 record and 9.64 ERA. in his first three starts, allowing 23 runs in six total innings. As if that weren’t enough for Yankee fans to stomach, the team also lost its first eight head-to-head matchups of the year to the archrival Boston Red Sox.

Newly-signed Yankee Mark Teixeira found out how difficult it was to hit with an injured Alex Rodriguez absent from the lineup to protect him—and how easy it was when he was there. Here’s the breakdown of Teixeira during his first 25 games as a Yankee—when Rodriguez was on the shelf with a hip injury—and the 131 games after Rodriguez returned.

A healthy Rodriguez rejoined the Yankees ahead of schedule on May 8 in Baltimore with the team’s record at 13-15—inexcusable by Yankee standards—and lagging only a game and a half out of last place in the AL East. Rodriguez’s teammates braced for the media onslaught and hostile crowd reaction that would greet him, but within a few hours they experienced a feel-good game that would ultimately serve as the turning point for their season. Rodriguez greeted a loud mix of boos and cheers by homering on the very first pitch thrown to him. Sabathia started the game and finished it—firing a four-hit shutout over the Orioles.

Rodriguez’s return was like a booster shot for the Yankees, who badly needed one. Even though Rodriguez would struggle for much of the season, the other Yankees came to life—especially Teixeira, who was now benefiting from getting better pitches to hit batting in front of Rodriguez. Sabathia was 17-5 after the shutout at Baltimore, and the team in general socked away at opponents, eventually taming the wild, offensively friendly conditions at the new Yankee Stadium but still punching out a franchise record 244 home runs—with seven different players hitting at least 20, tying a major league mark.

The Yankees were 90-44 after Rodriguez returned; enriching the experience, the wins were high on satisfaction and dramatics. They caught up and passed the Red Sox in the standings, winning nine of the final ten meetings against Boston after dropping those first eight; and of their 57 wins at home, 15 of them came in the final at-bat, with Rodriguez himself providing the walk-off knock thrice.

Rodriguez finally came alive in the home stretch, batting .348 with 11 homers and 42 RBIs over the last two months; he saved his best for last, clubbing two home runs and an AL-record seven RBIs in a single inning during the final regular season game at Tampa Bay to finish the year at an even 30 homers and 100 RBIsIt was the 13th time Rodriguez collected at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in a season, setting a major league record. in 124 games.

This strong finish gave Rodriguez extra fuel for his confidence entering the postseason, an area where he’d badly suffered through his Yankee tenure and reached rock bottom embarrassment during the 2006 ALDS against Detroit when he was placed eighth in the lineup. As Rodriguez’s fortunes went, so went those of the Yankees—who hadn’t won a playoff series in five years.

Fortunately for the Yankees and Rodriguez, those fortunes were about to go on a long-overdue upswing.

For New York’s first two playoff series against Minnesota and Los Angeles of Anaheim, Rodriguez’s bat not only stayed healthy, but was timely as well. He delivered clutch magic often, including crucial game-tying home runs to help the Yankees sweep away the Twins in the ALDS, and another to extend Game Two of the ALCS, eventually won by the Yankees to give them a critical 2-0 series lead over a feisty Angel team that would ultimately concede in six games. Overall, Rodriguez hit .438 with five homers and 12 RBIs in nine games over both series, clearly removing one monkey off his back. One remained: Winning the World Series, something the Yankees hadn’t done in eight years—and something Rodriguez himself had never personally experienced.

To do that, the Yankees would have to overcome the defending world champions.

The Philadelphia Phillies began the 2009 season sensing slight disrespect from the many who predicted the New York Mets, empowered with a new ballpark of their own and a strengthened bullpen, to take the National League’s Eastern Division. Playing sluggishly for the first few months, the Phillies felt no urgency to make a quick statement as the Mets sank badly in the standings with a massive disabled list full of their star players.

Patience, indeed, would win the day—and the season—for the Phillies. They caught fire in July, winning 19 of 22 games to grab a strong hold on a first-place spot they would not relinquish for the rest of the year.

Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard strikes his familiar pose while maintaining his stance as the Phillies’ prime boomer, finishing off an awe-inspiring four-year run in which he averaged 50 home runs and 143 RBIs per season.

Making the Phillies’ return to the top all the more impressive was where everything had gone right the year before, such was hardly the case in 2009. Closer Brad Lidge, unblemished in 2008, was a mess from start to finishLidge suffered all season from a bothersome knee that, he suggested, had occurred during the Phillies’ on-field celebration after winning the 2008 World Series., lucky to retain his ninth-inning role into the postseason. A patchwork rotation was revived late in the year with two midseason acquisitions: A trade with Cleveland for reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, and the signing of 37-year-old Pedro Martinez, who had sat unemployed all year after struggling through an injury-plagued 2008 with the Mets. In 21 combined starts for Philadelphia, Lee and Martinez won 12 games and lost five with a 3.47 earned run average, returning solidity to the rotation.

There was never an issue for the Phillies regarding their offense, one of baseball’s most potent. Four players—Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth—each hit over 30 home runs, with Howard the prime power source at 45 longballs and a major league-leading 141 RBIs. In total, the Phillies hit a NL-high 224 homers and also led the league in runs and slugging percentage; they also finished second in steals—and last in grounding into double plays, suggesting that the prodigious combination of Philadelphia power and speed led to few runners being left exposed for a double killing.

In the NLDS, the Phillies snuffed out visions of déjà vu by extracting revenge on the Colorado Rockies, the team that had knocked them out two years earlier and, after a late season rampage to the postseason, threatened to make another impressive October run at the Phillies’ expense. But the Phillies held their breath as Lidge eked out saves in the final two games to deny Colorado by a 3-1 series count. From there, Philadelphia moved onto a NLCS rematch with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hoping, in this case, that the script would remain the same. With carbon copy ease, it did; for the second straight year, the Phillies moved past the Dodgers in five games, bashing away with ten home runs while being supported on the mound by Lee and Martinez, both of who stifled Los Angeles.

In the first two games of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, the Phillies appeared to have Alex Rodriguez’s number. A-Rod went hitless in eight at-bats and struck out six times for the Yankees, who were fortunate to come away with a two-game split thanks to A.J. Burnett’s solid start in Game Two. But the confidence that Rodriguez had absorbed through the Yankees’ first two postseason series had not abandoned him—and it showed when the Fall Classic moved to Philadelphia.

After the Phillies took an early 3-0 lead in Game Three, Rodriguez’s two-run home run ignited a Yankee comeback that, ultimately, culminated in an 8-5 win. In Game Four, his double off Lidge played a big role in a three-run, tie-breaking ninth that gave New York a 3-1 series lead. Despite an 8-6, Game Five Yankee loss that helped the Phillies stave off elimination, Rodriguez did what he could to propel his team—smacking two doubles and knocking in three runs. Back at Yankee Stadium for Game Six, the Phillies had resigned themselves to pitching around Rodriguez, but all that did was leave the rest of the talented Yankees to collect, and they did—wrapping up their 27th championship, and Rodriguez’s first—with a 7-3, Series-clinching victory.

During his first five years as a New York Yankee, Alex Rodriguez achieved a dubious reputation as a postseason choke, failing repeatedly in the clutch and aiding to the team’s absence from the World Series. That changed in 2009.

For the Phillies, the goal of back-to-back world titles fell short despite belting 11 home runs, including a record-tying five from all-star second baseman Chase Utley. Much of the failure to deliver fell on the shoulders of Ryan Howard, who struck out a Series-record 13 times (in just 23 at-bats); Pedro Martinez, the long-time Yankee nemesis who finally ran out of gas after his impressive late run; and Cole Hamels, one of the Phillies’ postseason heroes the year before but suddenly a struggling enigma who blurted out the Series’ strangest comment when he confessed to reportersHamels’ white-flag comment reportedly riled fiery teammate Brett Myers to the point that they nearly came to blows in the clubhouse. that he “couldn’t wait for (the World Series) to be over.”

There was more to the Yankees’ Series triumph after a nine-year absence than just Alex Rodriguez. Derek Jeter, who earlier in the year became the franchise’s all-time hit leader, added 11 more knocks to lead the team; designated hitter Hideki Matusi made the most of his part-time duties and earned the Series MVP with an 8-for-13 performance that included three homers and eight RBIs; the offense, continuing its power surge from the regular season, stroked a Yankee-record 20 postseason home runs; and incomparable closer Mariano Rivera continued his dominance in the fall, allowing just one run in 16 innings during the playoffs to improve his career postseason ERA to an astonishing 0.74 over 133.1 innings.

From the self-inflicted tortures of winter and spring, Alex Rodriguez rose reborn from his own ashes, came half-circle and accomplished what few in his position before him had experienced: Redemption. Though, in the long run, the steroid revelations would taint his reputation and jeopardize his future Hall-of-Fame chances, Rodriguez made the most of his public rehabilitation and greatly reduced the odds of being stigmatized as an outcast by understanding that, while the baseball public does not like cheats, it accepts forgiveness.

Especially from those who win.

2010 baseball historyForward to 2010: Torture and Joy Combining excellent pitching and edge-of-your-seat thrills, the San Francisco Giants finally win it all.

2008 baseball historyBack to 2008: Out of Darkness, Rays of Light The Tampa Bay Rays, baseball's eternal doormats, complete one of the majors' most startling one-year turnarounds.

2000 baseball historyThe 2000s Page: Driven Deep to Disgrace The new century gives Major League Baseball a decidedly more international flavor with a healthy rise in foreign-born talent—but a disturbing pall is cast over the sport as one megastar after another is exposed for using steroids.

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2009 Standings

National League East
Philadelphia Phillies
Florida Marlins
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets
Washington Nationals
National League Central
St. Louis Cardinals
Chicago Cubs
Milwaukee Brewers
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Pittsburgh Pirates
National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers
Colorado Rockies (w)
San Francisco Giants
San Diego Padres
Arizona Diamondbacks
American League East
New York Yankees
Boston Red Sox (w)
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles
American League Central
Minnesota Twins
Detroit Tigers
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
American League West
L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Texas Rangers
Seattle Mariners
Oakland A's

2009 Postseason Results
NLDS Los Angeles defeated St. Louis, 3-0.
NLDS Philadelphia defeated Colorado, 3-1.
ALDS Los Angeles of Anaheim defeated Boston, 3-0.
ALDS New York defeated Minnesota, 3-0.
NLCS Philadelphia defeated Los Angeles, 4-1.
ALCS New York defeated Los Angeles of Anaheim, 4-2.
World Series New York (AL) defeated Philadelphia (NL), 4-2.

It Happened in 2009

Mannywood Babylon
Alex Rodriguez isn’t the only big name revealed as a steroid user in 2009. Manny Ramirez, off to a great start after his blistering finish with the Los Angeles Dodgers a year earlier, fails a drug test and is suspended for 50 games starting on May 7. The circumstances are interesting; Baseball discovered Ramirez had a prescription for Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, a female fertility drug that is said to help lower testosterone levels for people coming off steroids. In the 27 games before the suspension, Ramirez is hitting .348 with six homers and 20 runs batted in; in the 77 games after he returns, he bats .269 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs.

Yo Ho, Oh No!
With a 62-99 record and last place spot in the NL Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates finish the season below .500 for the 17th straight year—an all-time record for a major North American pro sports franchise. The Pirates, who a decade earlier told their fans that revenue generated from beautiful PNC Park would make them competitive, spend most of the 2009 season sending away their higher-priced players for prospects and cash, all while the team reports a profit; five of the Bucs’ eight Opening Day field players are traded during the year.

Big Unit, Big Milestone, Small Crowd
Randy Johnson, pitching for San Francisco in what will become his final season as a major leaguer, earns his 300th career win on June 4 as the Giants defeat the Nationals at Washington, 5-1. The game is a make-up of a rained-out matchup from the night before, tacked onto the front of the day’s regularly scheduled contest; as a result, the number of people witnessing Johnson’s milestone in person is said to be less than 1,000.

On the Air
Following on the enormous success of its interactive media division, Major League Baseball begins its own cable TV channel, the MLB Network, on January 1. The channel’s programming includes in-studio discussions, replays of games from past years and live coverage of regular season contests; additionally, it scores a coup by bringing in NBC’s Bob Costas and ESPN’s Peter Gammons as part of its on-air team.

Now, Truly an Angel
Nick Adenhart, a promising young pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, is killed on April 9 in a car accident in Orange, California just hours after throwing six shutout innings against Oakland in his first appearance of the year. He and two others are struck and killed by a car driven by a man with a suspended license and an alcohol blood level three times the legal limit. The Angels dedicate the season to the 22-year-old, leaving his jersey hanging in his locker room stall for the balance of the season.

Six-Pack Theft
Carl Crawford becomes only the fourth major leaguer to swipe six bases in a game to help the Rays overcome the Boston Red Sox at St. Petersburg, 5-3, on May 3.

Pettitte (W), Rivera (SV)
New York Yankee pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, teammates for 12 years, set a major league mark by combining for the win and save. By the end of the year, Rivera will have saved 63 of Pettitte’s career wins; the old mark belonged to Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley, who grouped together on 57 such occasions.

The Long, Perfect Stretch
The Yankees set a major league record by going 18 consecutive games without committing an error, breaking the mark set just four years earlier by the Red Sox.

Caught Up
Ivan Rodriguez surpasses Carlton Fisk for the most games played behind the plate when he takes the field for the Houston Astros on June 18—ironically, in a game at Texas against the Rangers, the team he spent his best years with, and the team he’ll return to late in the season. Rodriguez’s 2,227th time at the catcher spot doesn’t go well; he commits two errors, one leading to an unearned run in the Astros’ 5-4, 10-inning loss to the Rangers.

Perfect, And Then Some
The White Sox’ Mark Buehrle throws the modern era’s 16th perfect game when he silences the Tampa Bay Rays on July 23 at Chicago, 5-0. Buehrle becomes the second White Sox pitcher (after Charlie Robertson, in 1922) to go perfect, and with a no-hitter two years earlier, is the 23rd major leaguer to have at least two no-nos. The perfecto also helps Buehrle set another record; having retired the last 13 batters in his previous start and the first five in his next, the 30-year-old southpaw racks up 45 consecutive outs.

Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies establishes a major league mark by stealing the most bases (23) in a season without getting caught once, breaking the record set 21 years earlier by Kevin McReynolds.

New Ballparks

Yankee Stadium, New York It seems fitting that the New York Yankees, who won their very first World Series in their inaugural year at the original Yankee Stadium in 1923, would christen in their $1.3 billion replacement with another championship. Situated next to the old Stadium, the new Yankee Stadium serves as a wondrous, modern tribute to the neo-classicism of the original, before the mid-1970s renovation rendered it sterile; righting a great architectural wrong, the new Stadium brought back the famous upper deck frieze, which had been relegated to the bleachers in the old Stadium’s rebuild.

The new Stadium exudes class throughout; the venue’s main entry is entitled the Great Hall, showcasing Yankee greats of the past and present; a museum inside includes an ambitious “Ball Wall” featuring signed baseballs by numerous living and deceased Yankee players; and swank eateries including the Hard Rock Café and NYY Steak.

There are a few controversies connected to the new Stadium. Ticket prices are easily the highest in baseball, with even some bleacher seats pegged at $100; the first eight rows of the lower deck, named the Legends Suites, sell for as high as $2,600 per seat, per game—leading to numerous vacancies throughout the season and a public relations embarrassment for the team. On the field, there’s an alarming number of home runs hit early in the year—especially to right field—puzzling those who gave the new Stadium essentially the same field dimensions and directional orientation as the old; meteorologists chime in and suggest that the smaller, more recessed third deck is causing a relatively exaggerated wind shear effect.

Citi Field, New York Compared to the new Yankee Stadium, New York City’s other new ballpark for 2009—Citi Field—is decidedly mundane by comparison. Outside of the entrance, which architecturally echoes Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and includes a rotunda dedicated to Jackie Robinson, Citi Field hardly differentiates itself from any other ballpark built in the previous ten years.

Located right next to where Shea Stadium once stood, the $610 million venue seats 42,500, 15,000 less than Shea—but only once in 2009 is that capacity exceeded, in part because the Mets limp their way through to an injury-torn, 70-92 finish. The field plays spaciously, especially in right-center; as a result, few home runs (and many triples) are hit in the ballpark’s first year of operation, leading to a lowering of the center-field wall for 2010. (The fences will also be moved in for 2012.)

There’s also pressure on the Mets to cancel the ballpark’s naming rights deal with Citigroup, because it is argued that the banking giant, in the process of being bailed out by the Federal Government in the wake of the crippling nationwide housing meltdown, should not be spending $400 million to put its name on a ballpark; a few members of the New York City Council suggest that the ballpark be renamed Citi/Taxpayer Field.

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