7:53 am Jul. 30, 20103
Francisco Rodriguez has held up his end of the bargain with the New York Mets and their fans.
He’s been a good closer, by any reasonable measure: the Mets have called on him again and again to finish off the other guys, and the vast majority of the time, that’s exactly what he’s done.
But the fans don’t generally like him all that much. They boo him when he comes into games, or at least some of them do—enough to make themselves understood.
"What can I tell you?" a weary “K-Rod” said about the fan reception, speaking at his locker to a single reporter following the Mets’ 4-0 victory over the Cardinals last night. "I can't control what they say."
It is easy to understand his fatalism on the subject. He entered the game Thursday with two runners on base, and promptly retired Albert Pujols, the best hitter in baseball, on a lazy fly ball, then struck out the streaking Matt Holliday to end the game.
He was just as good the night before (two scoreless innings) and the night before that (a hitless inning to secure the game).
Despite the fact that he has, on occasion, failed to do his job, Rodriguez is having one of the best seasons that any Met closer has ever had. He is striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings, while walking relatively few of them. He's allowed only three home runs all season, and his earned-run average is a strong 2.44.
"I have my ups and downs," Rodriguez said. "But I've been feeling better and better, and my location has been much better."
It would be one thing if the problem were merely that the fans expected him to be perfect every time, and that he sometimes fell short. It’s actually deeper, and more intractable, than that.
The problem, really, is that Francisco Rodriguez is not Mariano Rivera.
The Mets fan, with good reason, feels intense frustration over all the Yankees have, past, present and future. Despite sharing the same rich market, and therefore ostensibly the ability to compete for titles, the two team really aren’t in the same league.
The last time the Mets got to the World Series, back in 2000, the Yankees were waiting for them. The Haves dispatched the Have-Nots in five games, celebrating on the Shea Stadium infield after the final out was recorded by the greatest closer ever to play the game—Mariano Rivera.
Last year, Rivera, at age 39, calmly collected another world championship, while Rodriguez, then 27, suffered through another meaningless Mets season.
This year, the Yankees are once again in first place, and the sinking Mets are struggling to stay above .500.
All the while, the Mets fans have compounded their frustration by constantly evaluating their players through the Yankee prism. Centerfielder Carlos Beltran is taken to task, still, for having struck out to end the 2006 NLCS, with the implication that he is unworthy of his patch in center field in the city of DiMaggio and Mantle. Jose Reyes is compared, each time he commits a running error, to his shortstop counterpart, Derek Jeter, who won championships in four of his first five seasons. And Rodriguez, a terrific closer who has been extremely effective despite a lack of help from his teammates or from his manager, is forever in the shadow of Rivera.
K-Rod, who does not lack for self-confidence, is well aware of all of this. He himself looks to Rivera as the only career measuring stick worth aspiring to.
"Mariano, to me, is the best one," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully I can stay healthy, consistent, to maybe not have the same career he had, but something similar."
Rivera has been in a class of his own since taking over as closer for the Yankees in 1997. Now in his fourteenth season in the role, 953 innings later, he's walked just 1.9 batters per nine innings while pitching to a 1.99 ERA. And he has been a monster in the post-season, year after year after year. (Another benefit of playing for the Yankees: Rivera played on playoff teams in 12 of his first 13 years as a closer.)
Rodriguez said, "He didn't waste any opportunity. They handed him the ball in the postseason, and he got it done."
It’s not as if Rodriguez has been ineffective in the playoffs when he’s gotten the chance. Pitching for the Angels, his team before he became a Met, he managed a 3.13 ERA in 21 games, 31 2/3 innings, along with a tremendous 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Rivera, however, has pitched to a 0.88 ERA in the postseason—in an astounding 133 innings. In essence, he’s had two full seasons’ worth of success like no closer has ever had—against the best teams in baseball, facing the most pressure.
Perhaps it is partly Rodriguez's own standards for himself—Rivera or bust—that helps to create the perception problem. After an ugly blown save in Washington earlier this month, Rodriguez apologized to the fans for his performance, saying, “I should be ashamed of myself. It’s so embarrassing. I want to apologize to the fans who were watching that. I know I’m better than that and I am capable to do better than I did today, and now I have to be better for tomorrow.”
Though he has managed to pitch to a 1.69 ERA in 11 appearances since, it doesn't appear the apology has been accepted yet.
"He makes everything look so easy," Rodriguez said of Rivera, admiringly. "So easy, the fans think it's like that. But it's not. Look around at 29 of the 30 closers. He's the one, you know what I'm saying? He's got one pitch, and they want you to do this, and you can't."
Before Rodriguez headed out to the weight room to lift, I pointed out that despite the he had saved the game, no other reporter had come to his locker to get so much as a throw-away quote from him.
"That's how it is," Rodriguez said, smiling. "When the team's going good, that's what you get paid for. That's what people expect you to do. When the team's going bad, everybody will be here, trying to find out what's going wrong."