One would think that the best player on the best team in baseball would be, to a certain extent, the face of the game. Kris Bryant has become more notable and noticeable with every passing month, for instance.
This was never the case for Alex Rodriguez. From the very instant he was brought to New York, he was asked for concession. Derek Jeter was an inferior defender but it was Rodriguez who moved to third base. The message was clear. Jeter was more important.
There is little need to recount the numerous trials and tribulations of Rodriguez in New York. The story is familiar and well-worn in every chapter. The steroids, the falling out with Jeter, the women, the perceived lack of clutch ability, the money, the suspension, the straight-laced return. Since Rodriguez joined the Yankees in 2004, he has defined them. Jeter was the warm cuddly face. He was the Captain.
Rodriguez was the story. The heel.
What Rodriguez represented was a full hard tilt into the heel turn of the Yankees dynasty. There were many outside complimentary pieces, but the late-90’s World Series victories of the Yankees were centered on the internally grown Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. The 2003 team had Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens and Hideki Matsui. Outside of Clemens, there was no true villain.
That all changed with A-Rod. Rodriguez quickly set about making himself not only the most hated man in New York, but in all of baseball. For every titanic season he had, there was an off-field incident. There incidents on the field, too. And all of them earned him a spot on the back cover of the New York tabloids.
Rodriguez had certainly had a somewhat strained relationship with the press before he came to the Yankees, but the coverage in Seattle and Texas is nothing like what it is in New York. By and large, the New York media is a hungry saber-toothed tiger stalking wounded mammoths through the tundra. Any sign of staggering, and you’re dead.
This is not to say that A-Rod didn’t earn his coverage sometimes. Trouble with basic pop flies will earn you ink, as will being connected with a seedy clinic in Florida and fighting with Jason Varitek.
Between those incidents, all A-Rod did was win two MVPs, hit .284/.378/.523, mash 351 homers, and vastly out-perform the Captain from the moment he put on the pinstripes (51 fWAR for Rodriguez, 35.1 for Jeter). Some of that is because of the steroids. Most of it is because of Rodriguez’s god-like natural talent.
And yet, he was the understudy on the Yankees. Before that, he was the understudy to Ken Griffey Jr. for about five years in Seattle. For only his last year with the Mariners and the three with the Rangers was Rodriguez the star of the show. Perhaps it was this that was part of the fuel for his never-ending desire to please, which ate at him to a fault.
That desire drove him to cheat, and that in turn turned the game upon him. There are many players who used steroids who have gone on to be forgiven by the public and by the game. David Ortiz is one of the most beloved figures in baseball. Bartolo Colon, despite his steroids suspension and revelation of a whole second family, is a source of joy. Even Ryan Braun, with his Rodriguez-esque public tantrum over the substances he put into his body, is now treated with a measure of calm.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, was given the longest PED-based suspension ever, a suspension that was handed down outside of the parameters set up by the league’s Joint Drug Agreement. He was made an example of. That’s not how a discipline system is supposed to work, but it’s how it worked for A-Rod.
A-Rod played in a league that hated him. He was supposed to be the shining paragon, the kid next to The Kid who would be the league’s co-star with Griffey. Instead, his career was one of conflict, calamity, and excellence.
If this is indeed curtains for A-Rod, he’ll finish 13th all-time in fWAR. He is fourth all-time in home runs, just slightly behind a man named Babe Ruth. Based on his numbers, he is unquestionably worthy of the Hall of Fame.
He may not get there. It’s not because of the cheating, because the Baseball Writer’s Association of America has deigned to enshrine cheaters before. Gaylord Perry openly gloats about his use of spitballs. Hank Aaron, and many of the other greats from his time, used amphetamines. Steroids are keeping Clemens and Barry Bonds out of the Hall. They aren’t what may bar A-Rod.
If Rodriguez is shut out, it will be because of narrative and the self-aggrandizing Character Clause. A-Rod is a villain, and while he was good for business, he made his disdain for the media no secret at times. The memories of journalists in such matters are long and cold. Hating A-Rod was a cultural phenomenon too. When the Yankees came to town, they were booed. A-Rod was booed loudest of all. Rodriguez was the boogeyman to all who viewed him, and especially to writers, who will cast their votes with spite. They will cite the Character Clause.
Ty Cobb, who spiked opposing players and was a seething racist, is in the Hall of Fame. For many writers, A-Rod’s transgressions aren’t worth the company of Cobb.
Alex Rodriguez is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, perhaps the most polarizing figure in baseball since Bonds. He is unquestionably one of the greatest talents that the game has ever seen.
His career ends today with a whimper, thrust out by the owner of his team without consultation from the general manager or the field manager, given an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the end came from a back-room compromise.
On the day that A-Rod announced the end of his days with the Yankees, Ichiro logged his 3000th hit. Jeter put out a statement lauding Ichiro for his contributions to the game. He had nothing to say about Rodriguez.
And so it goes. Today, we say goodbye to a man who mastered the game.
Until his year-long sojourn away from the game, he may have never mastered himself.