Eli Manning suddenly is the most divisive figure in city sports

A strange thing has happened the past few years. There was a time when it became clear there would probably never be a more polarizing athlete than Alex Rodriguez, even before he became a PED poster boy/punching bag.

Back when he was just a great player who often seemed to struggle in the bigger moments of a season, he became one of the most remarkable lightning rods ever, something I, with this job, was able to gauge as closely and as carefully as anyone.

Usually it went like this:

Write a “positive” A-Rod column, and you could expect dozens (more, depending on the time of year) of emails (and, later, tweets) wondering (sometimes kindly, sometimes less so) whether you’d lost your mind, how could you possibly say such nice things about this choker (and, later, cheater), you should have your column license revoked and, maybe, spend a night or two in jail.

Write a “negative” A-Rod column, and you could expect dozens (more, depending on the time of year) of emails (and, later, tweets) wondering (sometimes kindly, often less so) whether you’d lost all sense of reason, how could you possibly criticize this forever player (and even if he did cheat, who didn’t?), you should be fired at once and, maybe, be placed under house arrest.

That went on for years. I was absolutely certain there would never be another athlete quite like that. Then Carmelo Anthony came along.

And it was the exact same thing with Melo: Praise him and you’d better wear a helmet signing on to your mailbox in the morning; rip him and it was like you’d slandered the Prince of Wales in … well, Wales. That was consistent almost to the very end when even the most die-hard Melo Backers started to back it down a little bit. But in his prime, it was something to behold.

Once Melo was gone?

Clearly this wouldn’t happen again for a good, long while.

But a funny thing happened along the way.

Eli Manning got a little long in the tooth. His team became ordinary, then downright awful. He was benched, and presumed to be in his final hours as a Giant. Then he was brought back for what was expected to be a thanks-for-the-memories bell lap at the end of last season. And then, imagine that, his new bosses turned out to be big fans.

So Eli stayed. He survived. He will start again at quarterback Sunday afternoon at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. In a world where it is so hard to count on anything, you can count on No. 10 surveying the defense and barking out the signals for the New York Football Giants.

And if you say nice things about him, people wonder if you are blind/dead/dumb/suffering from dementia/victim of a traumatic brain injury. And that’s the folks who take care to be charitable. There are others for whom the sight of an active Eli on the sidelines week after week causes rages that would make Sonny Corleone blush.

So Eli must have lost the town, right?

Wrong! See what happens when you rip Eli these days — no, you don’t even have to rip him; just make a gentle joke about that picture that lit of the Internet this week, Eli’s eyes wide with fright, looking like he’d just seen a ghost (or a jailbreak blitz). Then see how the folks empty their thesaurus and try to drown you with their discoveries.

One thing is certain: You may be an Eli backer or you may be an Eli basher. But you are almost certainly not going to be Eli-neutral. Just like a couple of other folks who used to work a similar stage.

Vac’s Whacks

The hardest part of rebuilding a team is avoiding temptation — and temptation is always out there. I get the sense the Knicks’ current brain trust will not make the same mistake with Jimmy Butler that a different one made with Carmelo Anthony back in the day. Stay strong, gentlemen. Stay strong.

Mighty Rutgers’ football game with Buffalo kicked off at noon Saturday, and half of the Scarlet Knights’ 12 games this year start at noon or earlier. Which somehow reminds me of the old Paul Hornung line: “Never get married in the morning. You never know who you might meet that night.”

There is a special brand of patience required to be a sports writer’s wife, and so there ought to be a special brand of reward for Leigh Hursey Vaccaro, who is so often horrified when typos appear in my copy, and who turns @q% years old today.

Two excellent sports-fiction recommendations for you this week: “The Prodigy,” by John Feinstein, a young-adult book about a precocious golfer and the Masters; and “The Game Changer,” by Marc Bona, if you like a touch of mystery in your sports reading.

Whack Back at Vac

Robert Katz: Whomever selects the music for “Better Call Saul” should be up for an Emmy. Last season, “Sugartown,” this year “Grazin’ in the Grass,” “Something Stupid” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” … If Kim continues to move away from Jimmy, the next song will be “Strangers in the Night.”

Vac: I know I come across as a heretic even suggesting this, but I do think I enjoy “BCS” at least as much, if not more, then “Breaking Bad.” Hey, some folks prefer “Godfather 2” to the original. It happens.

Mike Gijanto: Bring in the plumbers, carpenters and electricians! The Giants’ season has already reached the “everything’s fixable” stage! It gets late early around here!

Vac: If a lot of us thought last week was a must-win, what’s the word to describe this week’s affair in Houston?

@frankboesch: In regards to Henry Winkler winning an Emmy 43 years after Fonzie: I’ll give you Carroll O’Connor winning over Winkler in ’77/’78. But both shows lost a step in ’79 (see “The Dude Ranch” and “Little Miss Bunker” episodes.) O’Connor was the sentimental winner that year. Alda had much better WAR in ’79 (see “Rally Around the Flagg Boys,” etc.).

@MikeVacc: If anyone ever questions why the Internet is awesome, I ask you: Until it came around, how many using-SABRmetrics-to-explain-good-TV-shows conversations did YOU have?

Schlomo Groll: Hey Mike, how ’bout a shout out to the Titans? The Jets weren’t the Jets until ’63. Same team, different name. But, the Titans ruled. And the fans rued.

Vac: I’ve always loved that picking “Titans” as the original nickname was a clear nod to (or nudge at) the Giants. One of the reasons “Yankees” is such a great nickname is that even if the Mets had wanted to do that, what would they have come up with? Torries? Whigs?

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