Coming Out from Under the Captain's Shadow

The 2015 baseball season is underway, in the form of Spring Training. Naturally, every team in the league has experienced changes over the offseason. Some players have retired; others were released, or were traded away. New faces dot the turf, in the form of free agent signings, prospects, and other roster hopefuls.

Perhaps no team is experiencing this dynamic more than the New York Yankees. On the one hand, their longtime captain and first ballot hall of famer Derek Jeter is no longer manning the deep hole between third base and second. After two decades in pinstripes and a gala send-off involving plenty of Re2pect, Number 2 can now visit Spring Training as an honorary coach and join the legends at Old Timers Day.

In contrast, Jeter’s old nemesis and former teammate Alex Rodriguez returns to the game after a 1.5 year suspension for substance violations and obstructing related investigations. The media’s attention has fallen squarely on this disgraced star, as he seeks to rebuild his game and his image at the advanced baseball age of 39.

The contrast between Jeter and Rodriguez, two superstars that came into the league together in the mid-90’s, goes well beyond the 2015 Citrus League. For years, Jeter built his reputation on being consistent, gracious and reliable under pressure. He always seemed to know what to say and how to say it, and would never show somebody up. His clutch performances and gutty moments are well documented, cementing his legacy as a “true Yankee.”

A-Rod’s journey has been far bumpier. An imported star with a massive contract, he has never been quite as comfortable in the Bronx. Sure, he has had great years and put up impressive numbers, twice winning the AL MVP award, but he has also had far too many moments when he underperformed, particularly in the post-season, when Jeter always seemed to shine brightest. Add to that his run-ins with and mistruths to the league, the team and the media, and you start to see why the gap between the two stars is wider than the East River.

For nearly a decade, Jeter and A-Rod were two all-star players with massive contracts playing 45 feet from one another. Together, they carried the hopes of baseball’s largest, most demanding fan base on their shoulders, in their quest for the franchise’s 27th and then (yet to be attained) 28th championships. But while Jeter always seemed to play in the moment (“cool as a cucumber” to quote the legendary Stuart Scott), A-Rod appeared tense and pressured, as if the moment was about to swallow him up alive.

The stress of playing in the Bronx is well-documented. Many players were consumed by it, including a host of one-time all-stars during the heyday of the George Steinbrenner era. But none seemed to be as bothered by it as A-Rod, a tortured soul who so desperately wanted to outshine the captain but could never seem to win over his hardened fan base.

The A-Rod of 2015 seems a bit different than his previous incarnation. Despite the intense scrutiny, the apologetic slugger is more humbled and gracious than before, as he seeks to get back on his feet and reestablish his baseball capacity. While he would never admit it, it would appear that Number 2’s retirement has helped his old teammate in that quest, by removing the large shadow that used to be cast over the left side of the Yankee Stadium infield.

Naphtali HoffComment