Keeping Score

Baseball Playoffs: Inside A-Rod’s Spectacular Failure

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Mike Segar / Reuters

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez reacts after striking out with the bases loaded against the Detroit Tigers

When Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde whiffed Alex Rodriguez late Thursday night, ending Game 5 of the American League Division Series, the Yankees Stadium boos never seemed louder. And A-Rod never seemed smaller.

Detroit had won a tense chess match. Combined, the teams made nine pitching changes. The Tigers advanced to the American League Championship Series, which begins on Saturday (the Texas Rangers host Detroit in Game 1). And through a wave of catcalls at the Stadium, and all kinds of snarky remarks in social media — “A-Fail” “AROD put on waivers” “vintage A-Rod” — a devastating reality set in for Yankees fans. A few short years ago, A-Rod seemed destined to pass Barry Bonds as the “clean” home run king. He’d go down as the greatest player of all-time.

Well, A-Rod’s admission of steroid use made him tainted too. And now, he’s aging and injury-prone. At 36, A-Rod has 629 home runs. Bonds finished with 762. A-Rod could be a long shot to break the record.

And here’s what’s really offensive: A-Rod made $31 million this season, and hit .111 in the playoffs. During the regular season, A-Rod finished with his lowest slugging percentage since he became a full-time player in 1996. Worse, Rodriguez has six more seasons left on his contract, and the Yankees owe him at least $143 million.

Let that sink in: Alex Rodriguez could be paid some $150 million for fading into a mediocre player. Or worse. He was horrid in the deciding game, as he finished 0 for 4, with three strikeouts. In the seventh inning, Rodriguez came to the plate with the bases loaded, and the Yankees trailing 3-1. It was a golden opportunity to inflict some damage. Detroit reliever Joaquin Benoit struck him out on a splitter.  “That was a dream at bat,” Rodriguez said afterwards. “I had a lot of confidence that I would get something positive done there.”

(MORE: A-Rod’s Bad Bet: Why Great Athletes Love To Gamble)

After the game, the ravenous New York press hung out by A-Rod’s locker for 40 minutes, wanting answers for his performance. An acclaimed book about hip-hop’s economic impact, The Tanning of America, sat atop one of the cubicles. To his credit, once A-Rod finally arrived, he didn’t duck any questions. Rodriguez felt that a knee injury hurt his timing during the regular season, but that his health was no excuse for the post-season swoon. Neither was his mind. “Maybe in years past I felt I put too much pressure on myself,” Rodriguez says. In 2009, Rodriguez finally replicated his regular season success in the post-season, and the Yankees won the World Series title. Such playoff triumphs have have been fleeting throughout his career.  “This year, I have absolutely no regrets.”

In the past few seasons, Rodriguez has made a sincere effort to appear more at ease, and less robotic, with the media. Although his polish can still appear political, and like most pols, he often sticks to talking points – in the postgame banter, he harped on ‘no regrets’  – he allows brief moments of introspection. “I played my ass off,” Rodriguez says. “This team worked extremely hard. There is nothing I would have done differently.  When I wake up in the morning, I’m going to wake up just fine, because I left it all out there.”

Many Yankees fans won’t have just a pleasant sleep, and might want to A-Rod to be feeling the hurt, like they do. He insists there’s a pit in his stomach, but letting the wound fester isn’t productive.  “I learned that from [former manager] Lou Piniella,” Rodriquez says. “He used to say, “if you leave it all out there, it don’t f—–g matter.”  There’s got to be a part of you where this is the most important thing. But there’s some where you have to let it go. You have to.”

Many detractors will never fathom how a $31 million ballplayer can possibly hit just over .100 in the most crucial games of the year. Rodriguez knows the money stirs emotions. “Everything is fair game,” Rodriquez says. “I accept it all.”

Is there anything A-Rod wants to say to those disgusted fans? “I’d like to thank them for all their support all year,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve got to go back to work, and work our ass off, including me. We’re going to come back with avengeance. We’re going to get this thing back to where it belongs.”

That’s a strong promise. But if A-Rod doesn’t produce, those words will just prove empty. And very expensive.

LIST: Hiring Alex Rodriguez: Top 10 George Steinbrenner Moments

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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