Friday, June 30, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #4: Alex Rodriguez

"Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane."

- Charles Morse

I don't know if Alex Rodriguez owns a plane or not, but he certainly could, having earned more than $400 million as a ballplayer, plus whatever endorsement money he collected over the years. He debuted at a very young age, was great almost immediately, and looked likely to challenge many of the most storied records in the game. What a weird, pathetic path his career eventually wandered though. I spent years strongly disliking him, rooting against him and the teams he played for, but by the end he'd been vilified beyond any reasonable measure, and if he weren't categorically disqualified from pity, I think I'd have felt sorry for Alex Rodriguez.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Three MVP awards and three other finishes in the top three of the voting, two Gold Gloves, ten Silver Sluggers, fourteen All-Star teams, two record-setting contracts, 696 career home runs, 3115 hits, 2021 runs scored, 2086 runs batted in, 329 stolen bases.

Rodriguez made his MLB debut with the Mariners at the age of 18, and played in his first All-Star Game when he was 20. Because he was so young when his career began, he became the rare star to reach free agency before even entering what was likely to be his prime. That paved the way for his 10-year $252 million deal with the Rangers. He wasn't enough to move the last-place Rangers into the postseason though, and after just three years they decided to trade him. In one of baseball's bigger what ifs, a deal with the Red Sox was vetoed by the union because the trade involved Rodriguez agreeing to give up millions of dollars, and so instead he was eventually traded to the Yankees. He was the best shortstop in baseball, but he agreed to move to third base so that New York could protect the ego of Derek Jeter, a great player but also one significantly less great than Rodriguez.

Shouting at an opponent in an attempt to trick him into missing an easy pop fly, swatting at an opponent's glove in an attempt to dislodge the ball, whispers that clubhouse attendants found him difficult, paintings in his home of him as a centaur, photoshoot shots of him kissing himself in mirror, PED rumors followed by PED denials followed by failed tests, followed by PED admissions and promises that his use was a thing of the past, followed by more rumors, more failed tests, and a season-long suspension.

His talent and willingness to move off his position should have been endearing in New York, but after the Yankees blew a 3-0 lead against Boston in the 2004 ALCS, then lost in the ALDS in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and missed the postseason entirely in 2008, Rodriguez became the scapegoat for what was considered a disastrous five-year stretch by fans spoiled by so many World Series crowns. The Yankees did win the World Series in 2009, with Rodriguez playing better than anyone in the postseason, but it wasn't enough to really change the perception of him.

The suspension that caused him to miss the entire 2014 season seemed to end his chance of breaking the all-time home run record, but he came back to hit 33 of them in 2015, his highest total in seven years, and suddenly it seemed like he might get there after all. The Yankees though didn't want him to, because they'd agreed to pay him substantial bonuses for each milestone home run he hit for them, and they believed those home runs no longer had enough marketing value to the team to be worth the bonuses. 2016 was a struggle, and he saw his playing time substantially diminish. In August he abruptly announced he would retire a few days later. Yankees manager Joe Girardi didn't even put Rodriguez in the starting lineup for most of his remaining games, and despite his wish to play in the field again, Girardi allowed him only a single at bat at third base. He received applause from fans who'd spent much of the previous decade booing him, and his career was over.

For me, Rodriguez was a villain for most of his career. I can't say for sure why I first turned against him. I vaguely recall not liking him when he was with the Mariners, but I can't think of a single reason why I would have felt that way. I know I was among those turned off by his contract with Texas, because at that point in my life I was still stupid enough to think there was something wrong with someone being well paid to do something better than anyone else could do it. When he joined the Yankees, my dislike for him was amplified, because to hell with the Yankees.

My most vivid memory involving A-Rod was during Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS between his hated Yankees and my beloved Indians. Stupidly, I hadn't not gotten the night off from the restaurant was I was working my way through grad school. It was not the most attentive night of service I ever provided as a waiter, due to the game being on the TV over the bar. At some point, for reasons I'm no longer sure of because Rodriguez went 0 for 4 in that game, I was standing at the bar next to a waitress named Yvonne. At a moment when things were not going well, she said something along the lines of, "That A-Rod sure can hit," leading me to loudly respond as a stormed away from the bar, "Fuck A-Rod, and fuck you!" It is to Dave the manager's credit that I wasn't fired for it, because dozens of people heard me.

When Yankees fans and New York writers turned on Rodriguez, I initially enjoyed it, but eventually those criticisms became so misguided and over the top that I began to defend him. He was a better player than Jeter, a better player than anyone for the Yankees since Mantle. I'm glad he didn't break any of the big records, but few players in history have played the game as well as he did.

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