BOSTON – Alex Rodriguez fielded a simple ground ball during batting practice and, based on the whirring sound of countless cameras, you would have thought it was a moment to be forever remembered.
Every move he made drew camera clicks and thousands of eyes watching. Every at-bat at Fenway Park attracted the loudest reaction from the crowd.
Well, the New York Yankees wanted an attention-grabber like A-Rod, and they got him.
But where are the Yankees these days? Playing better lately, but still unlikely to reach the playoffs.
This proud team is in a bit of a downturn. The Yankees’ lust for A-Rod — and his home run record potential — when they resigned him to a 10-year, $275 million contract after the 2007 season may be partly to blame, though that’s only one of several moves the Yankees have made that has them in a hole this year, and maybe beyond.
The mega-deals in 2009 and the lack of player development are also a problem.
Let’s look at A-Rod first. When it comes to Rodriguez’s deal, we are not talking about the original contract New York assumed, when the Yankees traded for Rodriguez before the 2004 season — relieving the Texas Rangers of the remaining seven years of a 10-year, $252-million contract. Red Sox fans can hardly snicker about it, because their team made the first grab at Rodriguez back then.
The questionable decision by the Yankees came after Rodriguez invoked an opt-out clause in his contract after the 2007 season (announced in typical Rodriguez look-at-me fashion, during the fourth game of the World Series).
Rodriguez, 32 at the time, seemed destined to become the all-time home run champion. He had hit 54 homers in 2007 and was already at 518.
Another home run king in pinstripes? First Babe, then A-Rod. The Yankees couldn’t resist and offered what is called by some the worst contract ever.
But the $275 million was not enough. There are also $6 million bonuses to be awarded if Rodriguez reaches certain home run plateaus — 660 (Willie Mays’ mark), 714 (Babe Ruth), 755 (Henry Aaron) and 762 (the record held by Barry Bonds).
Rodriguez, now 38, has 648 homers. The injuries continue to mount and there is the pesky little problem of facing a 211-game suspension once this season is over because of performance-enhancing drugs.
If Rodriguez loses his appeal, that suspension will save the Yankees about $32 million. But that contract remains an albatross.
There are other contracts to deal with, after New York spent $423 million on free-agent contracts for C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett before the 2009 season. The Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008 and were moving into a new stadium in 2009. They needed a splash.
The signings proved successful in the short term, when New York celebrated a World Series championship in 2009 (title No. 27, in case you needed a reminder).
This year, Sabathia is 10-10, with a 4.66 ERA. He is 33 and is under contract through 2016, with a vesting option for 2017.
Teixeira, 33, has missed almost the entire season because of a wrist injury. He is signed through 2016.
The Yankees are paying $8.5 million of Burnett’s salary this year, even though they traded him before last season.
Big contracts, as the Red Sox know, limit roster flexibility. Boston had its own big splash in 2010-11, re-signing Josh Beckett and signing John Lackey, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to contracts totaling more than $446 million.
That splash got Terry Francona fired, while general manager Theo Epstein packed for Chicago.
But most of those contracts are off the books. Red Sox fans can keep sending those thank you notes to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who now have Beckett (signed through 2014), Crawford (through 2017) and Gonzalez (through 2018).
The Yankees face more negotiations. Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Hideki Kuroda and Phil Hughes can all be free agents. (Andy Pettitte might follow Mariano Rivera into retirement.)
New York’s payroll leads the majors at $229 million (the Dodgers are at $217 million, followed by the Phillies at $165 million and Boston at $151 million).
The Yankees reportedly want to be below $189 million next year, but the best way to cut payroll effectively is with player development. New York’s minor league system has not produced a regular player since outfielder Brett Gardner arrived in 2008. New York lost draft picks when they signed free agents. The Angels got New York’s first-round pick in 2009 when the Yankees signed Teixeira, and used it to draft Mike Trout.
Even when New York has drafted well, it has not worked out, like picking touted pitcher Gerrit Cole in the first round in 2008. He chose college instead and eventually landed with the Pirates.
In MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects, New York has three players (led by catcher Gary Sanchez at No. 30). Boston has eight (topped by No. 8 Xander Bogaerts).
Boston seems on a solid path for now and the future. New York is scrambling to be a wild- card team while trying to figure out a long-term plan.
The Yankees have a challenge ahead of them, not to mention a headache named A-Rod.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: