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Thursday, February 12, 2015

From Winfield to A-Rod, it's the same old story: A Steinbrenner always fights his slugger

Not a pitch has been tossed, but Alex Rodriguez already owns The Back Page. The tabs hate him - even more than they hate the mayor: No cheap feat. They didn't probe the Iraq war as deeply as they have investigated whether A-Rod pissed on the floor of his cousin's home. 

I think of A-Rod as a shale deposit in Northern Pennsylvania: Every day, he gets drilled from a new direction. And it won't stop - nope, not ever. H. Steinbrenner vs. A. Rodriguez will be a running narrative throughout 2015, a year when Yankees will relive his dad's fight against another Yankee slugger. Excuse me for quoting Yogi, but 25 years later, it looks like deja vu all over again.

For those of you who don't remember 1990, it was the year when George Steinbrenner's long-simmering feud with Dave Winfield finally boiled over. It's not an exact mirror image of the current A-Rod dispute, but it has its share of similarities. A great prophet once said about life, "You can't predict baseball," but maybe we can learn about the deja... by studying the vu. 

Consider some of the similarities between Steinbrenner/Winfield and Steinbrenner/A-Rod: 

1. Decade of Hell. In 1980, George signed Winfield to a 10-year contract, making him the highest paid player in baseball. In 2005, Hal signed A-Rod to a 10-year deal, making him the highest paid player in baseball. In both cases, from the moment the player was signed, the Steinbrenner started thinking he'd been duped.

2. Dirty Work. George gave $40,000 to a bottom-feeder in hopes of digging up dirt on Winfield and his foundation. In the A-Rod case, MLB spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to dig up dirt - leaving Hal's hands relatively clean. (Of course, A-Rod spent God-only-knows on trying to conceal that dirt.) Still, Hal had the benefit of MLB working as his proxy dirt-digger. (Things have certainly changed for owners, eh?)

3. The real dispute. Obviously, both cases are complicated. But here's something for all you cynics: George ripped Winfield for failing to hit in the clutch. He called him "Mr. May," and that's when things got testy. Hal's issues began when A-Rod's average starting dipping into the .260s, and that 10-year deal took on a ball and chain. Likewise, Alex stunk up the playoffs. If there is a moral to the story of Steinbrenner v. (Insert Name Here) Slugger, it is that the player should never go 1-16 in the post-season.

4. The Suspension. In 1990, Fay Vincent originally wanted George "banned for life," but the two later signed a 2-year "agreement" in which George would stay away from the team. It was a suspension, though they didn't use that word, so George could keep his position with the U.S. Olympic team. (Maybe things haven't changed that much for the owners, eh?) Bud Selig wanted A-Rod banned for life - with Hal silently blessing such a move, as it would free them from the contract. A-Rod missed one year. If you're scoring at home, that's twice as long as Brian Williams gets at NBC.

5. Year of discontent. It's generally believed that George's suspension helped the Yankees turn the corner on a dreadful era. The franchise had collapsed - last place in 1990 - and Gene Michael, as the de facto owner, revived the farm system. The Yankees drafted high and picked Derek Jeter. Everything changed. It's hard to see tangible gains from losing A-Rod last year, but Hal's ongoing misery seems to have boosted his interest in the farm system. Maybe the Yankees will turn the corner. This June, they will have two first-round picks - 16th and 30th. Could this be the turning point?

6. The aftermath. Winfield got traded to Toronto, where he had great years, rescued his career and won a ring. Meanwhile, the Yankees flopped and floundered. Don't think the same can't happen for A-Rod. It's the worst-case scenario for Yankee fans - which, for all you cynics, makes it all the more likely, eh? Think this: Alex gets off to horrible start. The booing and the writers overwhelm him. The Yankees waive him, getting nothing in return. He signs elsewhere. (Hm-mm.... Toronto?). He gets a fresh start. He has a revenge incentive. Ka-boom. Thirty home runs and a ring? Could we watch the whole thing play out a second time, 25 years later?

Dear God, shoot me now.

Well, it hasn't happened yet. But history has a funny way of turning the screws on hubris - especially when it is counted in millions of dollars. Maybe every generation must have its Steinbrenner fighting its A-Rod. (Oh, we didn't even cover George v. Reggie, and George v. Billy.) The Prophets were right. You cannot predict baseball. But we have been here before. All over again... it's deja vu.

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