Thus screams the headline of yesterday's New York Post, and for once I find myself wishing to love that eternal bastion of yellow journalism. For it is today that we come, not to exalt a player's name to the highest places able to hear us, but rather to bury his reputation. And I find myself in the slightly uncomfortable situation of having mixed feelings about throwing on my shovelful of earth. And before this begins to seem a morbid task, let me explain a bit. You see, the coffin in question contains, not an individual, but the reputation of one. That man is Alex Rodriguez, one of the best players in the history of the wonderfully unimportant and engrossing national pastime known as baseball. Alex Rodriguez, star player of the New York Yankees. Alex Rodriguez, steroid user.
Alex Rodriguez is a rarity as a baseball player in many different ways. He is a freak of nature, possessing the quickness, eyesight and muscles to routinely pulverize pitching at the highest possible level. But while his physical talents have put him on the fast track to superstardom, Rodriguez has never seemed entirely comfortable with what that entails. The media attention and the constant spotlight seem off-putting to him, attention he wished was lavished on someone with lesser physical skills. And he has been one of the game's brightest stars for over a decade now, yet remains unloved by those who root for the team he plays for, the team whose record he improves merely by pulling on the pinstripes. Try for a second to think of another baseball superstar often booed by fans of his own team. Barry Bonds is probably the most hated player in recent memory, yet even when he was walking to the plate with used syringes still protruding from his body, San Francisco fans cheered him on. The only comparison here is Albert Belle, the man who once tried to run over Halloween tricksters with his car. This man is A-Rod's only contemporary? What happened?
In this case, the court of public opinion may have been unnecessarily harsh towards someone who does not deserve it. Alex Rodriguez has been made into the symbol of all that is wrong off the field of play, while for those glorious three and a half hours daily he would remain a beacon of all that was right with the game. The superstar with a completely bipolar public persona. Well, now those days are finished. Rodriguez has dominated from a young age, with baseball still reeling from the Andro years, among other scandals. Rodriguez was the one who was going to write the steroid users out of the record books, the agile shortstop who was the game's Great Clean Hope. And he became a victim of his success in this role that was set forth for him, even though all he did was step in the direction he was being pushed. When he hit free agency, he rode this wave of acclaim for his talents and a cresting market for free agent salaries to the richest deal ever given to a baseball player, a mammoth $252 million dollars. Which might have been fine, if he had signed with the Seattle Mariners, the team he came up with through the minor leagues. But instead, he left his former franchise to sign with the Texas Rangers. How many people would have refused the largest contract in history to stay with a single team, one offering less money in a sport where money is what you are rewarded with for your services? Especially since A-Rod had no deep roots in the Seattle area, growing up a Mets fan in New Jersey. And yet, this branded Rodriguez as a mercenary, a symbol of decadence, spending and outright greed that would not be matched, as the market for baseball players quickly dove down to slightly less obscene stratospheric levels, Rodriguez's contract casting a shadow over all signed before or after it*.
*Disclosure time: A richer deal has been signed since, for $275 million...by Alex Rodriguez. No other player has a contract that comes close.
And then the Rangers promptly went in the tank. It quickly became clear to management that A-Rod's salary consumed such a large portion of the team's payroll that it would be next-to impossible to build a winning team around the albatross in the infield. After three consecutive last-place finishes, Rodriguez became the symbol of a larger pattern of organizational incompetence by the Rangers. It is always the star who bears responsibility for the team, so A-Rod became the man who was paid more money than anyone else, but still couldn't manage to win. Through it all, he persevered, routinely putting up seasons worthy of MVP awards, and for some reason no one seemed to stop and think that maybe the guy who hits better than anyone else in baseball wasn't really the problem here. After a third straight last-place finish, the Rangers traded Rodriguez twice. The first time was to the Red Sox, with A-Rod volunteering to reduce his salary to help make the trade work. When this was shot down by the Player's Union, the Rangers traded him to the New York Yankees.
Unfortunately, the Yankees already had a shortstop of their own. He was about the same age as Rodriguez, team captain, and a worse player in every regard. Rodriguez agreed to change positions to accommodate him. Since then, he has won two MVP awards, and been roundly criticized by the New York media and booed by fans for the crime of not being Scott Brosius, who was not, technically, very good at baseball. But what has he ever done to deserve all this? Nothing. Through sheer virtue of his skill, he became the great hope of baseball during an era that will remain tainted until the end of time. And we as a people discovered that we did not actually want a person to take that place. Nobody could walk the path we laid out for A-Rod, and yet he has been savaged for any mis-steps he makes along the way, real or imagined. And now that he has tested positive for steroids, that title has been stripped from him. He has had the title we never gave him a chance to earn taken away, and his reputation is ruined. And I should be giddy about this, but somehow I can't quite summon that emotion. Amazingly enough, it turns out it's always sad to see innocence lost.