First of all, I’m not an Alex Rodriguez apologist. He’s done numerous stupid things and has earned much of the scorn he has received.
However, it seems Rodriguez has been subjected to greater scrutiny and abuse by sportswriters and fans than any other player. Whether that’s justified may be a matter of opinion, but it seems the media have gone overboard in their portrayals of A-Rod as a player uniquely deserving of flagellation.
Why don’t I have the same feelings of derision toward Rodriguez? I think it’s a combination of an admiration of the major league talent he demonstrated at such an early age and a reflex response to the overabundance of abuse he has received for more than a decade.
Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of A-Rod’s career—both on and off the field—and what the general reaction has been.
When Rodriguez came up to the majors, he was, quite simply, a revelation. After being selected first overall in the 1993 amateur draft, he made his big league debut with the Mariners less than a year later, a few weeks before his 19th birthday. He did very poorly in his 17-game visit to the majors, and he wasn’t much better the next year in 48 games, but that all was about to change.
A-Rod was the starting shortstop for the 1996 Seattle squad, and all he did was lead the American League in batting average (.358), runs scored (141), doubles (54), and total bases (379). He also chipped in 36 home runs, 123 RBI, and 15 stolen bases, earning an All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger award and second place in the MVP voting, a mere three points behind Juan Gonzalez.
That was the first season of a five-year reign of terror in the Northwest against opposing pitchers, and it was part of a four-season span in which Seattle had a peerless Big Three hitter combo of Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez.
They were a bit like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, or Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. However, unlike those basketball combinations, in which there’s a clear pecking order, things were more blurred in Seattle. Sure, Griffey was the most marketable major league player at the time, but when only on-field performance was considered, A-Rod was his equal during that stretch.
As a bonus, Rodriguez was putting up fantastic numbers for a dirt cheap salary. But, boy, was that about to change.
This was the beginning of the era of A-Rod hate. And what did he do to earn the verbal and written attacks rained upon him? Why, he had the nerve to accept money offered to him.
Sure, the amount was a record-shattering $252 million over 10 years, but let me ask this: if you were presented with an offer like that, what would you do? Would you demur and request a smaller sum due to your sacrificial nature? Sure, I suppose it’s possible, and maybe it would have allowed the Rangers to have a better overall team.
But why was Rodriguez’s acceptance of the deal viewed as such an awful thing on his part? Why not blame the owner for giving him such a huge contract? Probably largely because, while every baseball fan knew who A-Rod was, most fans couldn’t have cared less that it was Tom Hicks signing the checks in Arlington. And who wants to take their jealousy and frustration out on an anonymous owner when they could target the game’s best player?
It’s been a dozen seasons since Rodriguez signed that mega-deal, and no player has yet matched it. This could mean a couple of things. One, perhaps he truly was overpaid. It’s possible, but it also could mean that owners have clamped down on salaries in response to this deal, using it as a marker not to exceed despite 12 years of inflation and a massive increase in MLB’s revenues.
Whatever the repercussions of this pact, blaming Rodriguez for taking the money offered to him was absurd.
The Esquire interview
Here’s one of the first faux pas directly attributable to A-Rod. He shoved his foot deep down his throat by speaking poorly of one of the game’s most respected players, Derek Jeter. The first self-destructive comment was, “Jeter’s been blessed with great talent around him. He’s never had to lead.” This was followed quickly by, “You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie and O’Neill. You never say, ‘Don’t let Derek beat you.’ He’s never your concern.”
How dumb was it to say these things? Incredibly. How accurate were his comments? Not very. What was the source of them? Probably jealousy. Sure, A-Rod had the biggest contract in the game, but Jeter had his own huge deal, the largest media market as his playground, and postseason success Rodriguez could only dream of.
Of course, lots of people thought the interview was a big mistake, but when you tick off essentially the entire population of the nation’s largest city, you’ve earned many enemies, and New York sports fans do not have short memories. It was a bad move, not a reprehensible one, but it put A-Rod in the Big Apple’s doghouse, a position he would occupy 81 games a year in the near future.
Three years into Rodriguez’s contract, Texas was going nowhere and figured it could finish last with or without the game’s top-paid player. So the Rangers looked into trade options that would free them of A-Rod’s onerous salary.
Do you recall where Texas first was going to send him and what the circumstances were? Recall it was Boston that first had a tentative agreement in place to acquire Rodriguez. The hold-up was, of course, that contract. But wait a minute—he was willing to surrender a big chunk of that pact to enable the trade to go through. That sure sounds like a sacrifice, even if $28 million was a small percentage of his overall deal.
The trade fell through because the Rangers wanted too much back in terms of talent and financial assistance, so Texas began a two-step with the other financial juggernaut on the Northeast, the Yankees. Yep, A-Rod was about to go home—where he was anything but welcome.
New York could absorb the salary; that wasn’t an issue. The big dispute was where to play the Gold Glove-winning shortstop and reigning MVP. On any other team, you keep him at shortstop, but when the incumbent is Jeter … well, there are other considerations besides the ideal defensive alignment.
Jeter had long been the toast of the town, and if he wasn’t in charge of the team officially, his opinions sure held a lot of sway. And Jeter had no intention of moving off shortstop, even though nearly every analyst—and non-Yankees fan—recognized that A-Rod was the better shortstop. Jeter could have slid over to second or third base, but his pride and ego won out, so it was Rodriguez who shifted to the hot corner.
Did anyone call Jeter out for his stance? No way. Instead, more approbation was directed his way while many questioned the temerity of A-Rod for daring to show up in town to show up their beloved Jeter. Rodriguez deferred to Jetes, but he still couldn’t win. It’s almost like people didn’t want to like him…
The comparisons between the two men on the left side of the Yankees infield continued off the field, as well. Jeter has dated Mariah Carey, Minka Kelly and others. Rodriguez lists Madonna, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz among his past girlfriends. Jeter is reputed to give gift baskets containing autographed baseballs to overnight visitors. Rodriguez has been seen in compromising situations while married and has hit on women from the dugout.
Yes, A-Rod’s actions once again fall into the category of “Dude, don’t be an idiot,” while Jeter’s are more along the lines of, “Really? Really???” But while Jeter’s indiscretions are snickered over and then glossed over, A-Rod’s are fodder for jokes that stretch on for years. From just about the beginning, the narrative was: Jeter = class, A-Rod = tool. Despite the miles of distinction and nuance between these two extremes, these two players are nearly always portrayed as polar opposites.
Up to this point, despite several missteps—both real and perceived—I didn’t get the distaste so many people had for Rodriguez. Now, however, the floodgates opened and righteous opprobrium flowed unabated. Evidence had surfaced that A-Rod has used performance-enhancing drugs during his time with the Rangers.
Eventually, A-Rod was forced to admit he had used, though he clarified that he had done so only during his years in Texas. Sure. After years of questionable disdain from millions of fan, Rodriguez now clearly had the scarlet “S” plastered across his chest. He would be booed loud and long, just like every other player guilty of steroid usage. For example, Manny Ramirez.
What’s that? Not every known PED user has been reviled? Some, such as Manny, have been roundly cheered upon their return? Just when I finally think I have the general public’s rationale figured out, the people throw me yet another curveball.
Finally we come to the present day. Ryan Braun has been busted and is serving a 65-game suspension, though the specifics of why it’s not 50 games still remain a bit cloudy to me. Oh, yeah, Braun got extra time off because he lied about his usage. That’s had never happened before. Ummm…
Of course, we have the precedent of Melky Cabrera, who received the standard 50-game ban despite setting up a fake web site in an attempt to hide his guilt. Hey, that’s all right, nothing out of the ordinary that’s deserving of additional disincentive for future fools.
Rodriguez gets the extra-special treatment, though, a proposed 211-game unpaid vacation through the end of the 2014 regular season. Why? Well, there are tons of rumors out there detailing all the tawdry misdeeds of Mr. Rodriguez. And it’s possible that many of them are true. But a 200-plus game suspension has never been handed down before, so MLB better have plenty of hard evidence if it’s going to stick.
If there’s one person in professional baseball less sympathetic than A-Rod, it’s Bud Selig, and he sure seems to be getting vindictive about things in his old age. Braun embarrassed his former franchise, so he gets a 15-game bonus ban. Rodriguez and his litany of mistakes are Bud’s primary target now. While Selig didn’t go for the jugular with an attempted permanent suspension, he has taken the fight to A-Rod. Again, he better have his ducks in a row, or he’s in danger of looking like an ass once again.
No, this isn’t the finale to Rodriguez’s career. In fact, last night was his first game in the bigs this season, and he’s guaranteed at least two more contests before his appeal is addressed. In fact, his very first at-bat resulted in a base hit—just like Jeter!
But what this really is, is the beginning of the end for Alex Rodriguez. He’s going to get suspended, and deservedly so, for some time. Will it be 50 games? 100? 150? 211? Who knows?
When he does return to the field post-suspension, fans won’t have forgotten him, but many will have moved on. His feats won’t be marveled upon. Instead, the nearly inevitable home run No. 660, which will tie him with Willie Mays, won’t be celebrated. Instead, there will be countless stories about the $6 million dollar bonus he gets for reaching that milestone, columns about how he doesn’t deserve the money or the attention.
And maybe he doesn’t, but the Yankees probably are going to save well over $6 million during his suspension, so there’s a silver lining in this for them. (Because the poor Yankees need the salary relief to get under next year’s luxury tax, y’know.)
Once that aborted celebration is complete, Rodriguez probably will play out the string, maybe in New York or maybe in another city. Perhaps some small fraction of the taint of his transgressions would be washed away with a new start. Maybe a trade to Miami in 2015 or ’16 would take him closer to his current home and out of the bright lights of the big city.
And soon afterwards, A-Rod’s career will be over. He’ll disappear into the background, another cautionary tale for those who would think about cheating the system to get ahead. His Hall of Fame candidacy will come up again five years later, and those who have no grudge against PED users will support his induction. But the vitriol Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, et al have received will pale compared to the debasement Rodriguez’s stats will receive. If he ever gets into Cooperstown, it will be several decades from now.
So we’re nearly finished with A-Rod, though there’s so much more coming. The appeal could be lengthy and incredibly enlightening. He’s under contract through 2017, and there will be thousands of articles written about Rodriguez between now and then, and for years afterwards.
But for lots of folks, they’ve had enough of A-Rod. Fairly or not, in the eyes of many, he’s done.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com is always so helpful with the numbers.