Alex Rodriguez played his final game for the New York Yankees, and likely his final game as a professional baseball player, Friday night in New York. He went 1-4 with an RBI double as DH, although manager Joe Girardi let him finish the game in the field, at third base. It seemed an ignominious end for a man who once was on a certain path to being the greatest baseball player who ever lived: a few charity at-bats, one more turn at the hot corner, and released prior to the end of the season by the most storied franchise in sport. So how does one write the obituary for a great athletic career when that career could have been so much greater? How should we view a man touched by the gods, who by all statistical measures was one of the greatest who ever lived, when we know beyond any doubt that but for his human foibles and character flaws he could have been The Greatest? Is he a tragic figure, or a cautionary tale?
First, the numbers: in 22 seasons he had 696 home runs (4th all-time), 2086 RBI (3rd all-time), 3115 hits (19th all-time), was only the 3rd player to steal 300 bases and hit 500 home runs, won 3 AL MVP awards (one of only four players to win an MVP at two different positions, SS and 3B), 10 Silver Sluggers, 14 All Star selections, and 2 Gold Gloves. Rodriguez holds the career mark for Grand Slams with 25. He is the only player to hit 150 home runs with 3 different teams. These statistics place him in the pantheon of baseball, alongside the legends. He is a lock as a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee. Except he isn’t.
Drafted first overall in the 1993 draft by the Seattle Mariners, Rodriguez debuted the following year at only 18 years of age. In Seattle he won a batting title and a handful of Silver Slugger awards, and was a perennial All-Star. His public image problems arguably started when, after the 2000 season as a free agent, he was signed by the Texas Rangers to the largest contract in baseball history, a 10-year, $252 million deal which was highly criticized by both fans and baseball insiders and is still viewed by many as the worst contract in the history of the sport. In fact, A-Rod has the distinction of being the man signed to possibly the two worst contracts in the history of baseball.
He played well in Texas, winning an MVP award, although the team never made the playoffs in three seasons and his contract was seen as an albatross around the neck of an organization. But the complaints were largely muffled by the Texas heat in a football obsessed market. Then, after the 2003 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees. It was under the lights of the New York media that A-Rod’s personal faults would not only be magnified, but would precipitate one of the farthest falls from grace in American sports, probably surpassed only by that of Lance Armstrong.
There were the tabloids splashing the front pages with details of his personal life. Rodriguez was seen as a guy who wasn’t “clutch”, wasn’t a guy who came through in the big spot. In short, for the money, he was often viewed as a bum. Sure he won two more MVP awards and graciously (at least publicly) accepted a move to third base from his natural position at shortstop, but the Yankees only won one title. And of course there were the steroid allegations. But those allegations only serve to shine a light on A-Rod’s real flaws.
In a sense fate was unkind to A-Rod. When the Mitchell Report was released in December of 2007, most of the players mentioned had either retired or were close to it. Rodriguez, not mentioned in the report, still saw fit to go on 60 Minutes and deny any prior steroid use. Two years later, in February of 2009, Sports Illustrated broke the story the Rodriguez had failed a 2003 drug test while with the Rangers, for an anabolic steroid. His press conference later that month admitting to the allegations is a weird amalgam of blame shifting and an attempt to reiterate that he was no longer on steroids and had never taken them in New York.
But just a year later, in February 2010, the New York Daily News reported that Rodriguez had been linked to Anthony Galea, a Florida doctor arrested for drug smuggling and intent to distribute, among other things. One of the drugs in question was human growth hormone (HGH), a drug Rodriguez had previously specifically denied using. In December 2012 it was announced A-Rod would undergo a hip replacement and would miss at least half of the 2013 season. While recuperating, it was revealed Rodriguez was tied to the Biogenesis scandal, a case of another Florida clinic accused of supplying athletes with HGH and other drugs. In August of the year, A-Rod was suspended by MLB for 211 games, later reduced to 162, or the entire 2014 season.
It is an incident in 2009 which may best demonstrate Rodriguez’s fatal flaw. He had announced at his mea culpa press conference he had joined and was supported by the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organization formed in 2004 and named for a teenager who had committed suicide due to steroid use. The Foundation’s mission was to educate young athletes, coaches, and parents of the danger of steroid abuse. A-Rod cynically attached his name to the cause, seeing it as an opportunity to rehab his damaged image. The Foundation cut ties with him after the 2013 Biogenesis revelations.
Between the time missed due to injuries and suspensions Rodriguez missed in essence two full seasons of baseball. For a quasi everyday player, that equates to 650 or more plate appearances per season. The possibilities of the numbers he could have put up, should have put up, boggle the baseball mind. The speculation that steroids led to injuries, particularly his bothersome left hip, costing him at-bats in other seasons as well is just that, speculation. But it seems at least a likely possibility.
So why is Alex Rodriguez so disliked, so viewed as a disappointment? It can’t only be the steroids. Plenty of players are going to have to wait to be elected to Cooperstown because of steroids, and they don’t engender the same visceral dislike. Some of it may be the feeling that A-Rod threw away something by missing all that time, and that he ultimately failed to put up the numbers he should have achieved. It may be the money that he is still owed on those contracts, with only the one ring to show for it.
It can’t be that we hold greatness on the field to a ridiculously high moral standard off it and blame them when a failing keeps them from being as great as we believe they should have been. But people loved Mickey Mantle, with all his very human faults, even though those faults arguably cut his career short. Maybe his faults we could see in ourselves, though: the alcoholism, always striving to live up to his father’s expectations, especially after his father’s death, and always feeling he couldn’t quite reach them.
A-Rod’s failings are much harder for American sports fans to forgive. He is, in short, a narcissist. Not in the preening, physical aspect (although he is that, as well), but in the clinical definition of a personality disorder. The arrogance, the lack of empathy, the obvious need for adoration. All the lies he looked into the camera and told knowing not only that they were lies but believing he would actually get away with it. All that ever really seemed to matter to A-Rod was A-Rod, and American sports fans, especially baseball fans, need to believe you love the game as much as they do. That you would play, as Ray Liotta put it as Shoeless Joe Jackson, for “food money”. At the end of the day Alex Rodriguez was a special, special baseball talent. By the numbers he belongs in Cooperstown one day. He had the arm, the speed, the glove, the bat. But he never seemed to find the joy in playing. He lacked the one thing baseball fans cannot forgive him for lacking. In the end, he just didn’t have the heart.
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