It’s Been Something, Alex Rodriguez
It’s essentially always been this way when we talk about Alex Rodriguez. This weird, delicate balance not so much between love and hate, but from a healthy appreciation of his talent and the need to give extremely HOT TAKES about his personality. A-Rod was drafted #1 overall and had the #1 overall agent in baseball, Scott Boras, representing him. What followed fairly predictably was a lot of what we’d come to know and associate with Boras, but when Rodriguez held out, and when Boras had him enroll at the University of Miami to demonstrate he wasn’t bluffing, a lot of anger and a lot of histrionics got directed at 18-year old A-Rod.
In June of 1993, the M’s had enjoyed all of one winning season, and had never come close to the playoffs. They’d hired Lou Piniella, had the game’s most famous and recognizable player, a freak of nature as their best pitcher, so they weren’t the complete joke their cumulative record made them out to be, but they had the #1 overall pick for a reason. And when Rodriguez threatened to hold out for more money instead of leap at the Mariners’ early offers, well, people suddenly felt pretty aggrieved about this cocky kid’s lack of gratitude, his focus on money and not improvement, his insincerity. When we first met him, before he’d ever suited up in A-ball, we were doing it, and he was reacting to it by staying preternaturally calm, aloof almost… which just made people madder.
That seems like a normal indictment of a certain kind of sports fan, but I’d like to think that we collectively learned a bit from it. Sure, we saw it again with JD Drew a few years later, but to my knowledge, no one absolutely blasted Brady Aiken for not signing with Houston – most blamed *Houston*. When Andrew Miller or Josh Harrison or anyone else threatens to go to college unless they get some sky-high bonus, there’s some chirping of course, but it started to get so routine that the discussion moved on to what the league was going to do, and once the league did something, how draft strategy would adapt.
When he signed that breathtaking 10 year deal with Texas, he played against the M’s for the first time early in 2001. I remember watching it and thinking that it was the loudest crowd I’d ever heard at Safeco, and that it was threatening Kingdome noise levels. The M’s were a year removed from their beloved icon essentially forcing a trade and leaving. Griffey’s departure stung, and he’d had some harsh words for the organization both before and immediately after the trade to Cincinnati. Of course, when he returned with the Reds, the M’s fans gave him a standing ovation. As much as we try to complicate the story of Griffey, Seattle’s Hero, the fans kept simplifying it again: we love him, and count ourselves fortunate that we got to watch him grow into a superstar. With A-Rod – the A-Rod who’d accumulated 35-38 WAR (depending on what system you use) in his time in Seattle – all anyone could think about was betrayal. People screamed at him, threw monopoly money at him, acted like petulant children in front of their actual children, and just showered the man in hate. Alex Rodriguez’s response was to deny that it had happened at all, telling reporters, “I don’t think it was animosity…I thought they were…supporting their team.”
Playing on a division rival, he’d have to go through that gauntlet several times each season, with the M’s winning most games and Texas increasingly falling behind. Fans loved it: he’d left for money, and all of these OTHER guys, guys who never thought about money for a *second* they were so team-oriented, conquered all they surveyed. The 2001 M’s won 116 games, so there was going to by some mythmaking about them regardless, but at the time we really defined them against A-Rod. You can choose to follow money, or you can choose to win 116 games behind Paul Abbott, Mike Cameron, Edgar and Jamie Moyer and all of those nice guys.
The PED scandals hurt his legacy, there’s no question, but my point is that they were just extra ammunition. He was already guilty of a multitude of sins, so of *course* it was different than, say, Bret Boone or Ken Caminiti or even Roger Clemens. With Biogenesis, the same pattern repeated itself, with MLB and the Commissioner’s office losing its collective mind in the pursuit of A-Rod. By literally buying documents to try to pin down A-Rod’s guilt, the Office scuppered an investigation by an actual government body. This was the bureaucratic of M’s fans’ 10-minutes Hate in April of 2001, and it lasted the best part of a year.
Whether it was his move to New York and relationship with sainted captain Derek Jeter, his struggles in (certain) clutch situations or what, fans and the league itself have had an enormously strange relationship with what was the game’s best player, and one of the most dominant hitters – especially shortstops – in baseball history. Being a fan means looking past so much, from actual, physical violence to personality or health foibles that sap a player’s ability to contribute. This blog didn’t hate Chris Snelling because he got hurt. Yankees fans didn’t hate (and shouldn’t) when CC Sabathia went to rehab before the playoffs. We didn’t hate any number of players who subsumed their identity into the game (we loved it in Lenny Dykstra), and we didn’t hate John Halama when he said he didn’t much care for baseball. What was it that we all found so insufferable about Alex Rodriguez? Why couldn’t three different orgs just cheer for the laundry, alreaedy?
This Jeb Lund piece at RS is the best thing I’ve seen on this strange phenomenon, and why we perceived him as such an alien. I’d still like to learn more about why we just couldn’t stomach his need to be loved (as opposed to, I don’t know, the vast majority of sports and entertainment personalities), or his anodyne public statements about anything and everything (as opposed to an even vaster majority of sports and entertainment personalities). I think it’s been said many times, but the only thing I can think of is that he tapped into a hitherto undiscovered sports version of the uncanny valley – the feeling of revulsion or discomfort at seeing a really, really good simulacrum of a human being, whether a robot or computer-generated image. It’s a famous phenomenon, but I’m still not 100% convinced it actually exists, or at least, that it exists for most people in a clearly definable set of circumstances. But A-Rod… A-Rod makes me think we’ve found something equivalent.
To know for sure, of course, we’d have to replicate this, and that’s going to be tough. Mike Trout is transcendent, but he’s signed to a long-term, team-friendly contract, and even as anodyne as his every utterance is, we latch onto every glimpse of a clear personality willingly, almost with relief: he loves the weather! How funny! How not-like-A-Rod, somehow! Griffey had so many similarities, he’d seem like a perfect test case, but no, fan reaction literally couldn’t have been more different. Barry Bonds is the closest thing to A-Rod, in that people could not stop offering HOT TAKES, but even at the height of his legal troubles, he was absolutely beloved by his home fans. If everyone else hated him, at least Giants’ fans had his back. Why was A-Rod’s support always so conditional and fleeting (it’s not like people never cheered for him, after all)? I still don’t really know, and I’d love to know what you think.
A part of the reason I find this all so strange is that I hold on to this one memory of him, and how normal he seemed to be, at least for a time. In 1995, A-Rod’s second pro season was split between Seattle and the Tacoma Rainiers. He was 19 and would hit his first MLB HR that year. I was 18, and working as a dishwasher at a public golf course in Tacoma, and A-Rod and some teammates would occasionally come play on off-days. We all knew his talent, and the restaurant staff – many of whom were his parents’ age – asked him to sign something, and he obliged them all. I held back and didn’t ask, because I couldn’t get used to the fact that a baseball player ~my age caused this kind of excitement. He and his group approached the first tee, and many of us stopped to watch. He unleashed what would become a familiar swing, and effortlessly sent the ball flying 300 yards, albeit about 100 yards out of bounds. He kind of laughed, and one of his teammates started ribbing him about it, and he sat back and waited for someone else to tee up. He was composed, but otherwise completely familiar and relatable. I’d like to think that somewhere that version of him’s still around – maybe it’s relegated to clubhouses, or maybe it really only comes out when he’s doing something or talking about something OTHER than baseball. That you could tease him about his odd end to his career, or bust his chops about anything from his shifting WBC allegiances to his move to DH and, if you were in just the right spot, you’d see a genuine, human, reaction. Maybe this is the problem, though: that we want to relate to star players like we’re friends, when in reality there’s simply nothing to say. Maybe A-Rod made that a little bit too clear.
If this really is the end of A-Rod’s career, then thank you, Alex. You were something, all right.