Last Sunday afternoon, at a press conference announcing the imminent retirement of Alex Rodriguez (at least from the New York Yankees), a reporter asked general manager Brian Cashman, "How should Yankee fans remember him?"
Cashman removed the 2009 World Series ring from his finger and put it on the tabletop. "That doesn't come along to this franchise's trophy case without Alex's contributions," he said. At the end of one of the strangest sagas in sports history—one that saw Rodriguez transition from prize signing to MVP to postseason goat to October redemption story to drug cheat to re-embraced iconoclast—Cashman's gesture scanned as generosity, an attempt to tidy up a messy story.
Of course, hardly a subtext-free syllable has been uttered by the Yankees about Rodriguez, or vice versa, since his arrival in 2004, and this was no exception. Cashman was speaking up in his player's defense, but also in his own. The Yankees of recent years have been an aging, creaky club limping their way to lousy results: postseason misses, then a wild-card loss, and finally, this season, scrapping the team for parts down the stretch. In reminding fans of the last title, Cashman characterized the recent struggles not as a misstep but as a bill come due. In 2009, Rodriguez brought a championship. In 2016, Rodriguez is the cost.
Cashman isn't wrong. The 2009 Yankees were as win-now a team as any in recent memory. They buttressed their famous Core Four with a veritable roster of All-Stars, the primary imports—Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett—acquired over the years by way of high-dollar, long-term deals. With the farewells of Rodriguez and Teixeira, who announced that he, too, would step away from the game at the end of the season, New York's debt on that title is very nearly paid. Eventual struggles were always part of the plan, which may be one of the last of its kind; teams across baseball, New York included, have since moved away from taking on expensive, late-prime superstars in favor of building from within. The shifting zeitgeist doesn't mean that the Yankees' outline for the Rodriguez years didn't work, though—or that it wasn't a pretty good time while it lasted.
The MLB of the 2000s was all bold strokes. The best teams played in the biggest markets, featured the biggest names, and had the most audacious designs. They built their rosters the way dictators mass armies, fully and immediately, with little care for the eventualities of international sanctions or the built-in foolhardiness of eight-year deals. That atmosphere was built for the Yankees.
After an underwhelming 2008, when they missed the postseason for the first time in 13 years, New York spent the winter splurging. Rodriguez was already well into his Yankee tribulations by that point—he had re-signed before the season, for ten years and $275 million—but Teixeira, Sabathia, and Burnett all arrived in a single winter. If the emotional hub of the Yankees remained Derek Jeter and his homegrown contemporaries, the macro-scale approach leaned less on sentiment. The team pursued luxury as security; it was a yacht using smaller yachts as lifeboats.
This rankled some people, of course. Fans of the 29 other teams slipped back into their preferred complaints about buying championships. But from a pure baseball perspective, those high-dollar Yankees were something to see. Fated from the start to spoil—their average regular would be roughly 55 years old and making $40 million a year by the time his contract ended—the team was in the moment a merciless machine. The lineup seemed made entirely of leadoff men and cleanup hitters, and the pitching staff had all varieties of just-barely-fading expertise. Teixeira yanked homers over the shallow right-field wall at Yankee Stadium and Rodriguez followed them up with backspun blasts to dead center. Jeter, in what was his last great season, pulled his hands inside and dotted the foul lines with doubles. Sabathia, still at that time in possession of his angry-hornet slider, went eight innings and passed the ball to Mariano Rivera. The team won 103 games, better than their record in any of the six years prior or seven years since.
Sometimes a World Series comes along that actually does what television promos would have you believe they all do: distills a season or an era to its core attributes, features not only the best but also the most representative baseball. The '09 Series between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies was one of those. It had two of the richest and winningest teams in the game, and two of the flashiest rosters. The Phillies, by October, had done some shopping of their own, adding ace Cliff Lee and once-ace Pedro Martinez to their crop of veteran position players—Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth. The moves seemed as much an act of narrative-building as of practicality or need, a couple more names for the marquee.
There have been better series than that one, which lasted only six games, three of them relative blowouts. But there have not been many more striking. It was played in neon, every at-bat a spectacle. On-field virtuosity met with celebrity. In Game 2, Martinez snuck a quick pitch past Jeter; in Game 4, Damon stole two bases on one ninth-inning pitch as the Yankees tagged Brad Lidge for three runs. Hideki Matsui spent the fortnight planting homers in the upper deck, and Rivera applied his anesthetizing cutter when the time came. Rodriguez, for his part, capped a staggering October with World Series numbers that looked tame only in comparison to his work in the weeks prior: three doubles and a homer, six runs plated.
It's fun when the biggest games turn on bit players, but there's a different gravity to it when they sit squarely on the most renowned shoulders. The 2009 Series had no supporting actors. It was 54 late-night innings of fame and weight, cash and legacy—baseball at its biggest and most blown-out.
After a long comedown, that Yankees team and that era are now almost totally gone. It can be hard to judge such things in such short order, but that is what Cashman was asking for at Rodriguez's press conference. New York partisans can balance their own scales; like all fan bases, they are surely well stocked with those who wanted the team to go all-in seven years ago and have moaned about the resultant contracts for the past half-decade since, with no felt hypocrisy.
The rest of us, though, should remember that ideal of brute, low-capitalist baseball with some fondness. The team was simply massive: roomy enough to house Rodriguez's redemption and Jeter's stagy grace, a whole faction of mercenaries, reams of pat language about the singular pressure of the Bronx. When Rodriguez leaves the field on Friday and Teixeira follows in a couple months, they will do so mostly as cautionary tales; the Yankees and the league have now seen what the end of a quarter-billion-dollar contract looks like, and no one is eager to see it again. Even as Cashman stood by his player and the franchise's strategy, his bearing—something like "recent divorcee getting lost in his thoughts at a smoothie shop"—suggested he and the team were in no rush to go down a similar path anytime soon. It's the job of executives to streamline, to learn how to build success without sowing future failure. Fans, thankfully, don't have to worry about such stuff. That team, and that time in baseball, were fun as hell, and well worth the mess they left behind.
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