You know, I would have canned the K-Rod entrance music for one night.
It had occurred to me Francisco Rodriguez might pitch at this game I was going to Saturday, but caught up in the Mets’ passive resistance movement (passing on scoring, resisting ground balls), I’d sort of forgotten he was back. But then, suddenly, it’s the top of the ninth, and the main video monitor heats up, and “Sandungueoso” stirs and the bullpen gate swings open and all at once Francisco Rodriguez from all those breathless tabloid stories is Frankie the Met closer again.
There was nothing to close — just a can of worms to open.
As it dawned on however many of the 39,000 in attendance still on hand who was entering the game, I could feel a tangible pause in the air. “Look,” I could hear us think. “It’s him.”
Boos, mostly…though a few people stood and applauded as if he had persevered through a difficult personal ordeal — which one could say he had, if one were to apply a very generous reading of the circumstances. Certainly there were more boos than I’d ever heard for Francisco Rodriguez at Citi Field. Sure, we instinctively tense our bodies when he’s announced into a game and we cringe in agony as soon as he goes to ball one on his first batter, but really, Rodriguez has never been received as unpopularly live as he is in online and talk radio settings. This was a new sensation, Rodriguez booed before endangering a lead.
Yet it wasn’t endless and it wasn’t vicious — though it’s hard to think of a “boo” as vicious compared to whatever Rodriguez allegedly did to the father of his girlfriend/common-law wife. It felt a little obligatory, actually, as if the crowd knew it shouldn’t approve of his actions. But it also didn’t keep up. I think if Mets fans who paid to be at a Mets game they still hoped the Mets would win really couldn’t stand the sight of a Met who had been officially charged with third-degree assault just two days earlier, he would have been castigated for a lot longer than the time it took him to jog from the pen to the mound. Once he began his warmups, the mass attention moved on to whatever the next between-innings time-filler was.
I’m pretty sure David Wright, stand-up guy of stand-up guys who punches nothing more than a clock, was booed more for his two-run error than Francisco Rodriguez was for his (alleged) third-degree assault. Likewise, I saw one tough guy a few rows behind the Met dugout shout his head off at Luis Castillo after Castillo’s predictably weak pinch-hit grounder in the eighth. Maybe he shouted at Rodriguez, too, but I didn’t notice.
After the warmups, it was uncharted territory between the crowd and their closer. When the Phillies hit the ball hard, the boos revived — definitely stronger than you get for your typical K-Rod leadoff baserunner. When the inning ended without any runs scored, there were few boos. Instead, there was applause after the third out, though I’m pretty sure that was directed primarily toward Carlos Beltran’s nice running catch of Raul Ibañez’s fly ball.
While innocence until guilt is proven is a cornerstone of the American way, I found it a little disturbing that Francisco Rodriguez was back at work so soon after he caused what we can clearly call a major disturbance where he works. He’s a free man, which is fine if that’s what the judge decided he should be for now, but it’s a little ludicrous that his employer couldn’t take pronounced punitive steps against him considering the ruckus he raised flared right there on the premises of their physical plant.
Cap tip to the Major League Baseball Players Association for negotiating so effectively on behalf of its membership, but what a lousy message it sends that an action like Rodriguez’s is what they implicitly defend. A court of law will decide what kind of wrongdoing occurred outside the Met family room, but from a sheer public relations standpoint, an undeniable mess was left behind because Francisco Rodriguez couldn’t control his temper. You make a mess at work, there are usually specific consequences outlined in a human resources manual somewhere.
It can be disingenuous to apply “real life” to professional sports considering how utterly unreal professional sports are, but it doesn’t seem too terribly far-fetched that if an employee engages in an (alleged) assault on company grounds, that it might instigate, at the very least, a thorough investigation and some form of discipline. It’s not unreasonable to expect the employer to have that kind of recourse.
Yet if the Mets wanted to shelve Rodriguez for more than a two-day stay on the Restricted List — and it sure seems they did — they couldn’t. Again, kudos to the Players Association’s iron fist. It packs quite the punch, and there’s nothing alleged about that.
Francisco Rodriguez returning to uniform, let alone game action, on Saturday after being arrested Wednesday reminded me of the 1993 suspension by Major League Baseball of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott after she made a series of ugly racial and ethnic remarks. Those who reflexively snort about the tyranny of “political correctness” had their usual field day in criticizing the decision, but I thought those people missed the point. Schott needed to be suspended not strictly because she said idiotic/insensitive things about people of African-American, Japanese and Jewish descent, but because she was an embarrassment to the baseball industry — Marge Schott was simply bad for business. You don’t let someone like that serve as a spokesperson for your product if you are at all concerned about attracting the widest possible audience to your product.
Francisco Rodriguez’s alleged misdeeds were of a different nature than Marge Schott’s, but there’s no good be to had at this moment from featuring him as one of your nominal star attractions. Carlos Peña is the one who literally suffered the most from this incident, but on an another level, the Mets were victimized. They have a huge investment in the K-Rod brand. I don’t know how many fans come to Citi Field specifically to root for Frankie Rodriguez, but he’s part of the overall package. He’s the bottom of the ninth inning if things are going well. As such, the Mets have taken it upon themselves to nurture Rodriguez — making sure they don’t go too many days without using him; treating his entrances into games as events; pretty much looking the other way every time, prior to this week, when he engaged in a loud disagreement with someone.
In the main team store before Saturday night’s game, there was still plenty of RODRIGUEZ 75 merchandise to be had. It wasn’t exactly in the front window — in fact, a rack of his jerseys was subtly covered up by some less controversial Metwear — but it’s there, and it’s not marked down to MURPHY 28 priced-to-move lows. I saw quite a few RODRIGUEZ 75 jerseys and t-shirts in the stands. Maybe there was irony attached to the choice, but I kind of doubted it. There are always quite a few RODRIGUEZ 75 jerseys in the stands.
Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t exactly the toast of Citi Field in his first season and two-thirds, but he was deployed in a high-profile role, and more than a few Mets fans bought into the K-Rod brand. Memorable blown saves notwithstanding (and the worst of them seem to happen on the road), I’ve never picked up on a virulent anti-Rodriguez vibe at the ballpark. If he hasn’t exactly been beloved, he was about as warily supported/tolerated as his predecessor Billy Wagner was once we got past the initial euphoria of “Wow, we got K-Rod!” (a similar honeymoon period was applied to Billy and it, too, more or less evaporated). He may have set eyes rolling and incited comparisons to previous closers of whom we eventually had our fill, but Francisco Rodriguez was never, before Wednesday, treated or greeted like Armando Benitez at the depths of Armandomania.
And now? From a practical standpoint, the Mets have a pitcher to whom they’re paying a boatload of money, someone they couldn’t keep suspended, someone they ultimately rely on to win games. They’re already burying one pitcher deep in their bullpen because of contractual niceties, they simply cannot hide two. They either have to figure out a way to cut ties with Francisco Rodriguez because they are appalled by his behavior — as if allegations of hitting the father of the girlfriend aren’t bad enough, there are allegations of incidents of domestic violence toward the girlfriend herself in California and Venezuela — or they are stuck with him.
Or, perhaps, they believe that a combination of stated contrition and anger management will have a redemptive effect on a wayward soul who, if nothing else, is nice to small dogs. Jeff Wilpon and Omar Minaya liked Francisco Rodriguez enough to sign him to a three-year, $37 million dollar deal (with an easily vesting option for another year) a mere 20 months ago. They must have seen something in him besides saves to invest that much money and that much faith in someone who has never come off as what you’d call mild-mannered.
When this story broke, I thought two things:
1) Violence like that which was reported is absolutely inexcusable, but family dynamics are an entanglement one shouldn’t try to pry apart from a distance.
2) K-Rod had retired 28 of his previous 31 batters — damn, why did this have to happen when he was FINALLY going good?
If there had been some story on the news the other day about a random fellow going after his girlfriend’s father in a rage, I would have shaken my head, wondered what this world was coming to, and changed the channel. It’s crass, but it’s true: The only reason I care about Francisco Rodriguez’s family dynamic or his journey through the criminal justice system or the way his employer handles its relationship with him is because he’s a New York Met…and because I’m not necessarily sold on the idea that a bullpen-by-committee can routinely nail down the final three outs of games the Mets are leading by three or fewer runs.
Saturday night, that wasn’t what was going on. Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t coming in for a save. He was just trying to shake off the rust. He hadn’t pitched since Tuesday and he hadn’t been just another pitcher since Wednesday. So they played his song. They flashed his image. He made his jog. Most booed. A few applauded.
I did neither. I just watched.