by Paul West
After one of the strangest and most remarkable careers in recent MLB history, Alex Rodriguez has announced to the sports world that the New York Yankees are putting him out to pasture just four home runs shy of the 700 mark. The immediate response from many quarters has been vindictive at best and vitriolic at worst, and to be fair, ARod has brought much of this treatment upon himself. But closer examination reveals that ARod’s legacy is more complex.
If you were to believe much of the current hype, you’d think ARod was one of the great scoundrels of his generation in baseball; that he set back the integrity of what was once both America’s pastime and a game that was “played the right way,” and that his very mention among the game’s greats is a travesty. But this is actually quite far from the truth.
When Alex Rodriguez first broke into the baseball limelight, he was heralded as an all-time great in the making. He was at the epicenter of a new wave of elite shortstops–Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter among its other most prominent members–whose athleticism and hitting prowess reinvented how the position was viewed in terms of impact. ARod played with skill, power and grace, and he was one of the driving forces of a legendary lineup: the Seattle Mariners of the mid-nineties, which included Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. He was handsome, well-liked, and clean-cut. Moreover, baseball legend Lou Piniella, his manager at the time, lauded Rodriguez for his high baseball IQ and work ethic. Few would have guessed, at the time, that his career take such an ignominious turn.
You might say it all began to go wrong while ARod was still a rising star. From early in their careers, comparisons between Rodriguez and Jeter–largely driven by superficial matters and media hype, as in many ways their games were quite divergent–began to gain momentum. Increasingly, they became the subject of widespread ‘who’s better?’ debates. But while ARod’s Mariners faded from prominence–trading Griffey, and legendary ace Randy Johnson, and never making it past the American League Championship Series–Jeter became a central figure of the Yankees’ Core Four dynasty, which dominated the baseball landscape for a decade after winning the World Series in 1996. In 1998, Rodriguez became only the third player in MLB history to join the 40-40 club, hitting 40 homers and stealing 40 bases in the same season; but Jeter seemed to do his best work in the biggest moments, and their juxtaposition came to a head when Jeter and the Yankees beat ARod and the Mariners in the 2000 ALCS. The Yankees would go on to beat Mike Piazza and the New York Mets in a memorable Subway Series, and ARod would become a free agent after the season ended. The comparisons began to take a different turn, as Jeter’s increasing reputation for leadership and performance in the clutch led fans, pundits and journalists to declare this the factor which rendered him ARod’s superior, numbers notwithstanding. It took on a big brother-little brother tone, as suddenly ARod was seen as Jeter’s foil, and the whispers became murmurs: he’s not clutch. You can’t build around him. He’s a stat-stuffer, but not a leader. This only increased when the Mariners won a record-breaking 116 games in the year after ARod’s departure, making it back to the ALCS to be dispatched yet again by the Core Four. Increasingly, ARod began to show signs of frustration with questions about his leadership. He went to the Texas Rangers, where he continued to put up astounding numbers for a shortstop; but the Rangers floundered, and the murmurs turned into full-scale roundtable discussions. Suddenly, ARod wasn’t just in Jeter’s shadow; he was the anti-Jeter.
Then he was traded to the Yankees. He was moved to third base, where the juxtaposition with Jeter was no longer figurative but day-to-day literal. Jeter continued to project an air of cool, almost corporate calm; but his calm was regarded as statesmanly, and his tepid, nod-and-wink interviews were seen as evidence of his grace under pressure. Granted, his performance in high-pressure game situations somewhat warranted this perception; but ARod was given no such latitude. When ARod gave tepid interviews, they were seen as bland and disingenuous. He furthered this perception by occasionally making puzzling pronouncements about the nature of his image, and continually seemed to reinforce the impression that he was a little too concerned with being liked. His strange, panicky attempt to swat the ball out of a defender’s glove on his way to first base only confirmed the perception that was was less than graceful under pressure. While Jeter seemed to project zen-like calm, ARod seemed to project jittery peevishness.
And then came the Biogenesis scandal, and Major League Baseball’s sudden 180-degree turn on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs. In an effort to clean up its image after ignoring widespread use of steroids and other PEDs for a generation, Bud Selig organized a witch hunt–and ARod, already an easy target, became the poster child for the so-called Steroid Era. Things got ugly on both sides, suspensions were levied, and integrity was questioned on all sides–and Rodriguez certainly deserved his fair share of disgrace. After countless emphatic declarations to the contrary, he finally came clean on having used performance enhancers–and the court of public opinion came down with both feet.
In the wake of the PED scandal, some of the most prolific power hitters of the 90’s found themselves with asterisks next to their records. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro were the headline names atop what seemed to be an iceberg of wanton performance enhancement. But it was in the aftermath of the scandal that ARod somehow morphed, without just cause, into public enemy number one.
Palmeiro literally perjured himself into ignominy, while Sosa made a series of public-relations blunders that rendered him a laughing stock; these two simply faded from the baseball landscape. Bonds, a renowned curmudgeon, was spoken of with vitriol but nonetheless awarded grudging respect–and is currently the Miami Marlins‘ hitting coach. McGwire, a career .263 hitter and a mediocre defender for most of his years in uniform, has been a hitting coach for two different teams and is no longer dogged by widespread ill will. Clemens, a renowned headhunter and something of a curmudgeon in his own right, was never particularly beloved–but is mostly left alone, and his retirement wasn’t met with the same tone of bitterness that ARod’s has faced. Ryan Braun, whose repeated and aggressive denials included attempts at character assassination until he was finally busted for PED use, is now also mostly left alone–and was even considered a good acquisition at this year’s trade deadline, despite having done more damage to the concept of due process than most of his MLB contemporaties. And David Ortiz, legitimately respected for his hitting genius and longevity while widely loved for both his persona and his personality, is being celebrated far and wide during his final season–despite the fact that he, too, once failed a PED test.
Meanwhile, ARod–like Ortiz, and others–served his suspension, and in his return year, he hit .250 with 33 home runs in a diminished but still potent role. He’s mostly stayed out of the limelight, and seems to be actively interested in imparting his baseball IQ to his younger teammates while doing whatever manager Joe Girardi asks of him. He’s been greatly diminished this season, but so have many of his teammates, and for the first time in twenty years, the Yankees were sellers at the trade deadline. He’s hitting a ghastly .199, and unlike Ortiz, his decline seems nearly complete; as such, it makes sense that this be his final season.
What doesn’t make sense is the manner in which the Yankees have chosen to dispatch him.
When asked about what seems clearly to be a case of forced departure, Girardi quipped, “my job description does not entail a farewell tour.” This could be taken at face value, except for the fact that when Jeter and Mariano Rivera retired, they received farewell tours of epic proportions. Of course, as the final members of the Core Four, farewell tours were both understandable and arguably deserved. But for this to be Girardi’s response is almost ludicrously disingenuous, especially in light of the fact that ARod sits four home runs shy of the 700 mark. One could almost infer that Girardi, Yankees, management, or both, are loath to see ARod hit his 700th home run in a Yankee uniform. This is a scarcely tenable position.
That a career .295 hitter, renowned from age 18 for his athleticism, baseball IQ, knowledge of the game and pure skill, should somehow be regarded as more fraudulent than a .265 hitter with a poor glove or the countless other marginal players from his era, is flatly ridiculous. To suggest, as was once opined in the Daily News, that ARod is the “Whitey Bulger of baseball,” is ludicrous. And the very idea that the so-called Steroid Era is such a departure from previous eras flies in face of available information: to quote directly from the unheralded Mitchell Report from 2007,
In the 1973 Mitchell Report, a Congressional subcommittee announced that its staff had completed an “in depth study into the use of illegal and dangerous drugs in sports” including professional baseball. The subcommittee concluded that “the degree of improper drug use—primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids— can only be described as alarming.”
There’s also the fact that “greenies”–amphetamines, as reliable a performance-enhancer as you’ll find–were widely and openly used for generations, and were only officially banned by Major League Baseball in 2006 despite being illegal since 1970. In light of these facts, and the fact that the Hall of Fame includes known spitballing and ball-scuffing pitchers, it seems even more preposterous to blame Alex Rodriguez for baseball’s integrity problem.
Alex Rodriguez spent much of the middle path of his career rendering himself an easy target, but much of the criticism heaped upon him has been undue. In one of the more curious falls from grace in baseball history, he’s somehow become the representative of ills which both predate him and range far beyond his purview. He’s served his suspension, a suspension of epic length, and he seems to have taken pains to evolve as a teammate, mentor, and public figure; he projects an aura of inner peace he hasn’t projected in years. Other similarly great players whose careers have been tainted by PED accusation or use have been allotted second chances.
Alex Rodriguez began as a Hall of Fame talent, and all things considered, he’s had a Hall of Fame career. Even if he was quite dislikable for some time, he doesn’t appear to be the scoundrel many have depicted him to be. And if this is his final week as a Major League Baseball player, he deserves better treatment.