Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 7, 2016

A Complicated Career Comes To A Close

At the end, tears were shed. Scarcely a minute into the Sunday morning press conference at which he announced that his final game as a player for the New York Yankees would be next Friday, Alex Rodriguez began to cry as he thought back to when he was an 18-year old Seattle Mariners’ draft pick, “just hoping to make the team.” He choked back sobs again when he said “Saying goodbye may be the hardest part of the job. But that’s what I’m doing today.”

There are fans who in that moment saw nothing more than crocodile tears, a final act of self-pity from a player who for much of his career seemed supremely self-obsessed. But sports, like life, can be complicated; and while there are those who will quickly reduce A-Rod to a caricature that he all too often invited upon himself, the truth is that over the last two decades there have been few superstars more complicated than Rodriguez.

He has been both a prodigy and a pariah. He was blessed with enormous natural talent, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries. Yet he was unable to resist the temptation to try to enhance that ability chemically. Scouting reports on the teenager at Westminster Christian School in Miami praised his work ethic and approach to the game. But when, in his first shot at free agency, he signed what was then the richest contract in sports history, he was condemned as greedy and selfish, caring only about his bank account at the expense of his new team’s ability to afford a complete roster. On the field he possessed an exquisite sense of timing and understanding of what was happening around him. Off it he regularly appeared tone-deaf, never more so than when he opted out of that massive contract in the middle of the 2007 World Series. More recently he spent months lashing out at all around him, suing the Players Association, Major League Baseball and the Yankees. Then one year later he became an elder statesman in New York’s clubhouse, mentoring young players and offering advice and support to all who would listen, of which there were many.

Over twenty-two seasons he has hit 696 home runs, the fourth most in the history of the Great Game. With Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron he’s one of just three players to record more than 2,000 runs and RBI. A 14-time All-Star, Rodriguez was voted the American League MVP in 2003 while with the Rangers, and in 2005 and 2007 as a Yankee. Last season he recorded his 3,000th base hit, a home run into the right field seats at The Stadium, as fans stood and cheered. He also won a pair of Gold Glove Awards for his defensive abilities, and stole 329 bases. His 24 steals in 2007 is the single-season record for any player also hitting 50 or more home runs.

Then there are the things which no fan would cheer. As harmful as the image issues noted above were on their own, they all helped feed a new narrative in the spring of 2009. That’s when the supposedly confidential list of players who had tested positive for PEDs during the 2003 season as part of a joint agreement between MLB and the Players Association was leaked to the media. Selena Roberts was the first to report in Sports Illustrated that Rodriguez’s name was on the list. He had always forcefully denied doping, and after his admission in a press conference at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, he was quickly labeled not just a cheat but also a hypocrite. Rodriguez said “I was young. I was stupid. I was naïve.” He also insisted that his PEDs use had been limited to a three-year period from 2001 to 2003.

But four years later A-Rod, or A-Roid as he was now nicknamed in the twenty-nine major league ballparks not located in the South Bronx, was at the center of the Biogenesis scandal. The Florida anti-aging clinic was eventually determined to be the center of a widespread doping ring, with thirteen players receiving various suspensions. Rodriguez’s was the most severe, banishment for an entire season. It came even as he was rehabbing from hip surgery, and he immediately appealed. As the appeal ran its course, he returned to the field for the first time in the 2013 season in August, where he was met even in New York by a mixed response, equal parts support and disdain.

Perhaps it was the healing power of time, or maybe just the fact that with the retirement of the Core Four Yankee fans didn’t have more familiar heroes for whom to cheer, but by Opening Day 2015 the boos had been muted. The fact that he had set aside his disputes with the team, the union and the game and had also issued a written apology to the fans probably helped as well. Then when he went out and put up numbers unlikely for a player turning 40 in midseason, the cheers in New York grew louder and louder. After missing the playoffs for two straight years the Yankees returned to the postseason, if only for nine innings, helped by A-Rod’s 33 home runs and 86 RBI.

Time remains the implacable foe of every athlete, and this year time came calling on the career of Alex Rodriguez. There was no reprise of his unexpected 2015 performance. While he was a respected figure in the clubhouse, at the plate he was batting just .204 with 9 homers and 29 RBI. In July he spent his 41st birthday where he has spent most days of late, on the bench. Now we know that last week owner Hal Steinbrenner reached out to Rodriguez, telling him that the team did not intend to play him again either this season or next, the last year of his contract. But then Steinbrenner offered A-Rod a new role, that of special advisor and instructor, working with the team’s young players and reporting directly to the owner. The offer gave the Yankees a chance to get something in return for the $27 million they are obligated to pay A-Rod through next year, and gave Rodriguez a chance to end his career with some dignity while remaining associated with the Yankees brand. Sunday morning, through tears, A-Rod accepted.

It is fitting that this week the Yankees travel to Boston for three games against the Red Sox before returning home for Friday night’s A-Rod farewell. If Joe Girardi pencils him in as the DH for any of the games at Fenway Park, one can be assured that most in the stands will rain down boos as Rodriguez walks to the plate. In contrast next Friday he will receive a standing ovation each time he steps out of the dugout on the first base side of the field. In their way both responses will be appropriate but too simple, and thus incomplete. After a career at once glorious and fraudulent, Alex Rodriguez deserves both the cheers and the jeers.

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