Keith Olbermann was fired by the Yankees, sort of. Reggie Jackson was fired by the Yankees, sort of. Both of them disparaged Alex Rodriguez, sort of. This means that the Yankees are protecting the feelings of their aging star — sort of.
First was Olbermann’s transgression. He spotted Yankee assistant Brett Weber relaying signs to Alex Rodriguez, so he posted the picture and pointed out that the star was getting confirmation of the pitch he just saw. It wasn’t cheating because Rodriguez was in the on-deck circle. The Yankees retorted that the gun wasn’t working well that day, and it was all an effort to help their players get information they normally received from the stadium boards. Olbermann, in a post that laid this all out on his MLBlog, insinuated that the implication was still there: Alex Rodriguez needed help from the stands in order to understand what he had just seen from a closer vantage point.
Olbermann was fired.
Next up was Reggie Jackson. He uttered the following sentence in a long interview by Phil Taylor at Sports Illustrated:
And A-Rod? “Al’s a very good friend,” Jackson says. “But I think there are real questions about his numbers. As much as I like him, what he admitted about his usage does cloud some of his records.”
That won Jackson, who is a special adviser to the Yankees, a suspension of sorts. The New York Daily News reports that Mr. October has been told to “stay away” from the team for now. A source was quoted in the piece as saying that “A-Rod doesn’t need the aggravation.”
So that’s it. Two Yankee employees, fired for attacking Alex Rodriguez.
Que the ‘sort of.’ First, Olbermann was fired from his once-a-year work as color commentator for the Old Timer’s game. He may have enjoyed performing those duties, but it wasn’t a huge deal. Members of the critical media are not usually also announcers for the same team — and if they are, they know how fine a line they are walking when they take on the team that either pays or approves their paychecks. Jackson wasn’t fired, he was merely suspended. Neither of these men had high-profile or crucial responsibilities to the Yankee organization.
And were their comments so critical? Olbermann suggested that Rodriguez would like to know the in-game velocity readings for a pitcher before he stepped into the box. Most players would. Jackson said something that most fans feel, that a positive test is a cloud over a player’s accomplishments. Perhaps not the best for a team employee to say, and also maybe not the best timing given the high-profile series in Boston, but not something that was private or attacked his current performance.
By most numbers, Alex Rodriguez is having the worst season of his career. His isolated slugging percentage and strikeout rate are at career lows. His overall line over the past three years has settled to .272/.352/.474. His defense looks like it’s slipping. He’s had a great career, but he’s now a couple weeks short of 37 and the decline is full-blown, organic-looking, and obvious — and questioning the role of steroids in the velocity of his decline is only natural. He’s probably a true-talent three-win player right now and the Yankees owe him more than $120 million until 2017. They aren’t likely to get a great return on that investment.
Those are unqualified, critical statements of a player and his team. If I were a YES announcer, with all the responsibility and visibility that job entails, talking this way — if I took the risk — would be an attempt to preserve the appearance of objectivity. Any feedback from the Yankees would most likely be quiet and behind the scenes, but a firing would not be unprecedented. If I were more loosely associated with the team, that feedback could be more final and without explanation.
And that has less to do with the Yankees trying to protect a particular star’s feelings and more to do with the everyday work of marketing and operating a baseball team.