Rodriguez Makes Booing a Tough Choice in N.Y.

Robert Siegel talks with ESPN the Magazine senior writer Buster Olney about New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez's record-setting April batting streak. Rodriguez, who has hit 14 home runs in 18 games, is batting .400.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Before opening day of the 2007 baseball season, the questions people are asking about Alex Rodriguez were the symptoms of cranky Yankee fan sickness. Why can't the two-time Most Valuable Player deliver a World Series title to New York? Why doesn't the $27-million-a-year third baseman get along better with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter? Why doesn't he deliver when runs are really needed?

Last year, defenders of the superstar, known for short as A-Rod, would produce statistics to show that he was, in fact, delivering in the clutch as much as anyone. But in the land where pennants are considered an entitlement, the new season dawned amid the same old skepticism about Rodriguez, and whether his superb numbers on the diamond were worth those colossal numbers on his contract.

Today, just a few weeks later, if you can find a skeptic about A-Rod in New York, you can probably find a parking place in midtown Manhattan too. He is off to what is simply the greatest start of any season in baseball history. Buster Olney writes about the Yankees for ESPN the Magazine. Buster Olney, how good has A-Rod been so far?

Mr. BUSTER OLNEY (Senior Writer, ESPN the Magazine): He's been the greatest player in the history of baseball over the course of 18 games - 14 homeruns. Before this the record was 24 games, they had 14 homeruns. And think about this: he's on a pace right now to hit 126 homers, and of course, the single season record in baseball is 73. It's like he's playing - he's a figure in a videogame while everybody else is struggling with the reality of trying to hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. He's absolutely dominant right now.

SIEGEL: And it's not just homeruns. He's batting .400, which, if you could do that for a whole season, would be something no one's done for over 60 years.

Mr. OLNEY: Absolutely. And when you watch his at-bats against pitchers, the pitcher almost seems lucky that when Alex doesn't hit homeruns or doesn't drive the ball into the gap, he is just crashing everything. It occurred to me the other day, he looks like a lumberjack taking a swing at a stationary tree. It's not supposed to be that easy.

SIEGEL: Well, he's always been a terrific baseball player and a great power hitter. What's different about the 2007 model of A-Rod than the previous models?

Mr. OLNEY: I think it's partly physical and partly mental. Physically, he's adjusted his swing and doing some things that he was doing in 2001-2002. He has a leg kick in his swing. He's cut that down so his head doesn't move that much. He could see the ball better. But I think the biggest thing is mentally. He's made an adjustment.

I think he's always been someone who's cared very deeply about how he's perceived. Well, it really seems this spring, when he showed up on the first day and basically said: Look, I just - I'm going to come clean with you, guys, and, you know, Derek Jeter and I are not the best of friends. Since that point, it seems like he has decided that he's not going to care what any of us think.

SIEGEL: Now, he also has consulted, I gather, a variety of sport gurus to help with his technique, for everything from his stance to how he focuses on the pitcher with the ball approaching home plate.

Mr. OLNEY: That's right. He's talked to everyone from former Yankee star Reggie Jackson - you know, he's dealt with the team's sports psychiatrist. And I think that he really has, sort of, liberated himself from the sports media. And that doesn't make it easier for people like myself going forward. But you know what? For him, that may have been the best thing.

There was a telling anecdote in a story in The New York Times this Monday, where Tyler Kempner, the writer, walked up to Alex and said: Well, this is what I'm hearing about your physical changes that you've made. And Alex nodded his head and got up and walked away. That may be the perfect metaphor for what he's done this year. He's simply has walked away from expectations and just gone out there and play the game. And I think that's exactly what people on the Yankees have wondered why he hasn't been doing it all along.

SIEGEL: And here's the irony, which proves that baseball in the end is a team sport, the greatest April anyone has ever had in the game and that the Yankees are now in third place with a losing record?

Mr. OLNEY: They're actually in fourth place.

SIEGEL: Fourth place.

Mr. OLNEY: And their pitching has been absolutely horrendous. You know, the feeling has always been, as you mentioned before, that Alex didn't live up to what his role is supposed to be with the Yankees. Well, now he's hoisted the Yankees on his shoulders. And if they actually make the post-season this year, I think people will look back and say: Boy, Alex Rodriguez saved them from what could have been a disastrous April. He's absolutely carrying this team.

SIEGEL: Well, Buster Olney of ESPN the magazine, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. OLNEY: Thanks, Robert.

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