An editorial by Justin Cirillo
When Alex Rodriguez steps off the field for presumably the final time on Friday night, we will bid farewell to one of the most complex baseball careers of this generation.
This all feels weird.
By the stats alone, A-Rod’s swan song should elicit the same type emotional response that the final act of Derek Jeter’s did. It won’t. By the numbers alone, A-Rod’s career is a no-doubt ticket to the Hall of Fame. It won’t be, if historical voting for players similar to Rodriguez’s own history with PED use is used as a litmus test. Even the timing of it feels odd. This exit is not taking place with the chill of the early Autumn air, as is customary for baseball legends; it’s a hazy, stifling hot August in New York.
How can you define Rodriguez’s career? It’s a question I’ve asked myself for years. On one hand, the most dominant shortstop in the game for a decade. A man who blasted 40 home runs as easily as he hit well above .300, who also could run, was the best defensive shortstop in the game, and had an intelligence for the sport that was at the top of the class. On the other hand, there’s the awkward man who slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove; the man who cried “HA!” to distract an infielder from catching a lazy pop up; the man with purple lipstick who lied to Katie Couric about having ever taken PEDs on national television. For all the broad strokes of brilliance he’s painted, there is an imperfection about Rodriguez that is hard to shake.
Perhaps we, the media and the public, overreact to these imperfections. “I’m not paid to be a role model,” echoes Charles Barkley’s voice inside of my head. After all, Rodriguez’s reputation among his teammates, barring a notable exception with Derek Jeter, has always been sparkling. That reputation is so good that it merited the Yankees – the same team that once looked for any and every excuse to part ways with him – to offer him a role as a special assistant to their minor league players. Rodriguez has always had a grammar-school boy type romance for the game. Like so many schoolboys, Rodriguez has always found it difficult to express that love in a positive way.
For example, look no further than Rodriguez’s PED use. In 2009, when Selena Roberts first broke the news that Rodriguez had committed the modern day mortal baseball sin, there was shock, anger, and disappointment all across baseball. Up until then, for all of his perceived character flaws Rodriguez was still destined to be the man who broke the all-time home run record without the use of performance-enhancers. Rodriguez admitted his guilt while swearing that he had never taken PEDs while with the Yankees. With a now supposedly “clean” A-Rod, the Yankees went out and won the 2009 World Series. Even more impressively, Rodriguez, whom so often was the scapegoat for Yankees’ postseason failures from 2004-2007, was the catalyst for the Yankees offense during their run to the championship.
He tied a game in the 9th inning of the ALDS with a bomb against one of the best closers in the game (Joe Nathan). He hit the go-ahead home run in the 7th inning of that series’ clinching game. He smacked another three home runs and hit .429 against the Angels in the ALCS. In Game 3 of the World Series, he hit a three-run homer (off of the previous year’s World Series MVP, Cole Hamels) that helped turn the tide of the game and series in the Yankees favor. If baseball handed out a Conn Smythe Award, Rodriguez would have won it that year. Hell, they dedicate plaques in Monument Park for the type of October that Rodriguez had.
All was forgiven with New York’s rabid fans. Perhaps not forgotten, but certainly forgiven. Even when the Yankees lost in the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, Rodriguez was excused. For the most part, Rodriguez was treated in the same way fellow PED users Andy Pettitte and David Ortiz were. Pettitte, who was implicated in the infamous Mitchell Report, offered an explanation for his use (to recover from injury), apologized, and the issue never surfaced again. Ortiz’s name was leaked as having failed a drug test on a what was supposed to have been an anonymous drug test in 2003 to survey how rampant steroid use had become in baseball. Since then, Ortiz has never failed an official MLB drug test, nor have there been any reports of him using steroids since, and as such he remains a beloved figure in Boston and throughout baseball.
But it was not to be that way for Rodriguez. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” And that’s why when Rodriguez was investigated in 2013 for purchasing and using PEDs, the public opinion on Rodriguez swayed back against him. Opposing fans booed him; Yankees fans gave him a mixed reception. Pitchers, such as Ryan Dempster, threw at him. Former Commissioner Bud Selig attempted to suspend him for a year and a half, which upon appeal was shortened to a full season. Even when he returned, the Yankees, unhappy with having to pay his gargantuan contract plus the career total home run bonuses (which were agreed to upon the assumption that Rodriguez would chase the home run record with a clean PED record) looked to legally void his contract. They couldn’t, but the two sides eventually came to an agreement that the Yankees would pay Rodriguez his home run incentive bonuses, so long as the money went to charity.
The detente worked, as A-Rod had an oddly productive 2015 season after having not played for an entire year. He batted .250 while hitting 33 home runs. He also replaced Jeter as the team’s de facto leader. While attending a game with my father, and his co-worker and son, my dad’s office mate commented “he’s doing so well that I almost don’t hate him.” When young Slade Heathcott hit a go-ahead, ninth inning home run against Tampa in September of last season, I remember seeing Rodriguez go wild in the dugout, enjoying the game as if he had never won anything in his life. His childlike love for the game was encapsulated in that moment.
Time will tell how Rodriguez will be remembered. Will he be like Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds; legends who erred and have been punished for it by being denied entrance to Cooperstown? Probably not; Rodriguez has never been as hostile to his guilt as either of those two. However, he certainly will not be as beloved as Ortiz, Ken Griffey Jr., or Mike Piazza, the latter two already inducted into the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez is the typical post-modern athlete. We know his flaws and we know his accolades. He has shown contrition while at the same time still leaving a shadow of doubt in our minds regarding how much sincerity there is behind his words; as brilliant to watch in one moment as it was painful to listen to in the next. Like Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose before him, Alex Rodriguez is our generation’s enigmatic figure.