On Friday night, one of the most turbulent chapters in baseball history will draw to a close. Alex Rodriguez, the most polarising athlete of modern times, will play his final game for the New York Yankees. After one more show beneath the bright Stadium lights, the man they call A-Rod will exit the grandest stage of all, never to return.
The baseball world is struggling to define what it all means. In a statistical sense, Rodriguez is one of the greatest players of all-time. Some people love him because of that. But every hit and every bomb, every contract and every plate appearance rests under a shadow of suspicion, for he was also one of the most prolific cheaters this game has ever seen.
It may seem strange now, but I was once a huge fan of Alex Rodriguez. In broad terms, he appeared to be the most talented player of my generation. The poise and power. The energy and dominance. The long, soaring parabolas from his bat to the deepest enclaves of Yankee Stadium. He was a God. All you could do was watch in awe and admiration.
But now, from a position of retrospect, there will always be a caveat to those achievements. His efforts will always be sullied by repeated use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). How can we believe what we saw back then?
Here’s a guy with 696 home runs, 2,084 RBI and 3,114 hits. Only three men have more homers; only two have more RBI; and only nineteen have more hits. Alex Rodriguez is a three-time MVP, a fourteen-time All-Star and a one-time World Series champion. Nobody has ever hit more grand slams. No right-handed Yankee has ever hit more home runs in a single season than his 54 of 2007. Nobody has ever earned more money for playing this grand old game. And yet, here we are. It almost means nothing, because there’s no way of verifying the authenticity of anything this guy ever did.
Anybody who still feels sorry for Alex Rodriguez should buy a copy of Blood Sport by Gus Garcia-Roberts and Tim Elfrink. Anybody who still fawns over A-Rod’s career statistics should read it from cover to cover. It’s impossible to do so without having your blood boil and many years of fandom flash before your eyes. The book explains in painstaking detail how Rodriguez cheated for vast portions of his career, from the failed tests of 2003 through to the recent Biogenesis explosion. It even includes authentic documents belonging to Tony Bosch, the Biogenesis kingpin, chronicling A-Rod’s extensive PED regime.
Of course, there was always whispers, but Rodriguez denied any involvement with PEDs early in his career. That changed in 2009, when Sports Illustrated revealed that he tested positive for two anabolic steroids, testosterone and Primobolan in 2003 while with the Texas Rangers. In those days, baseball didn’t have a strict testing and punishment policy, but the players agreed to anonymous sampling to see if such a program was needed. If more than 5% of players failed those sealed tests, a new system would be introduced. In total, 104 players tested positive, including Alex Rodriguez, who won the MVP award that year.
Amid the storm, A-Rod gave an interview to Peter Gammons of ESPN, in which he admitted taking PEDs between 2001 and 2003. Citing an “enormous amount of pressure to perform” following his 10-year, $252 million contract, Rodriguez described his naïve mistakes and apologised to the fans. His reputation was tarnished forever, but many people respected his admittance.
Therefore, when the Biogenesis scandal broke a decade later, and it became apparent that Rodriguez relied on a cocktail of substances to aid his performance, fans not only felt violated, but also disrespected in the strongest terms. Alex Rodriguez was caught cheating once, but that didn’t stop him doing so again, despite his soppy press conferences asking for forgiveness. What bridges were left went up in smoke.
The Yankee star was banned for 211 games, which later became one full season due to a lengthy appeal process. Rodriguez then fought anyone and everyone in court. He attempted to sue Yankee management for mishandling an injury. He did the same with Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association, hoping to overturn the longest PED-related suspension in the game’s history. He lost all credibility, and created for himself a world of pain.
Nobody would ever look at Alex Rodriguez in the same light again.
Amid the scandal, I vowed never to admire A-Rod again. But it was the aforementioned book, Blood Sport, that formed something close to hatred for his actions within my soul. You see, I love baseball history, and Alex Rodriguez did one of the few things a player can actually do to harm it. By all accounts, he loves the game, too, but that counts for nothing now. By cheating so blatantly, A-Rod distorted a large chunk of history, and that can never be fixed. Even when he rides into the sunset this weekend, we will still be left with another sheaf of bloated numbers lacking in substance. We’ll have to clear the rubble of his greed. That will always be the case, as time ticks by, and that hurts deeply for people who really care about this game.
Sure, other players cheated. Lots of them, in fact. But this is Alex Rodriguez, one of the most high profile players who ever lived. Everything he ever did was big. Everything he ever did carried significance. All his life, A-Rod wanted to be the centre of attention. He wanted his legacy to be louder and more appreciated than anyone else’s. That works both ways, and he must accept his fate as a defining avatar of the Steroid Era, right there alongside Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
This week, I’ve read a lot of articles about Alex Rodriguez, and almost every single one has referred to him as one of the most naturally talented players ever. How do we know that? At best, it’s a wild assumption, given the evidence of regular chemical enhancement. Judging by the statistics, he certainly is a legend. But, again, what are those numbers worth? Not a whole lot, in my opinion. Admittedly, we don’t know exactly how much PEDs help boost performance, but they certainly do. The clue is in the name. So proclaiming Alex Rodriguez as one of the greatest players ever to wield a bat requires giving him the benefit of doubt. And, as far as I’m concerned, he simply doesn’t deserve that.
Here, I see a problem with newer fans who view baseball simply as an exercise in numbers and data rather than legacy and humanity. This new breed doesn’t always appreciate the historical narrative of baseball. They see the sport merely as an end in itself, good for creating GIFs on social media but lacking emotional or moral gravity in the real world. Everybody has a right to enjoy the game differently, but there’s more to baseball than statistics on a web page. There’s also more to being a great player than accumulating those gaudy numbers. That’s why Joe DiMaggio is such a hero. That’s why Derek Jeter means so much. I therefore struggle with anybody using highly suspicious numbers to praise Alex Rodriguez after all he’s done to harm the game. Same with Bonds and anybody else linked to PEDs.
Obviously, we can’t analyse the minutiae of every single personality. Furthermore, many of the greatest players ever were terrible people, such as Ty Cobb. But, in broad terms, we need to realise that human action plays a greater role in baseball and hero-making than is presently acknowledged. Yes, numbers should be consulted when considering the legacy of a player, but so should contexts of time, character and decision-making.
In this regard, there are things that sadden me about the A-Rod story. Here was a vulnerable kid thrust into a world of pressure from the earliest age, lavished with millions he didn’t necessarily want, and saddled with expectations unfit for any teenager to bear. Beneath it all, there probably was a young guy who just loved to play baseball, and I do believe a certain amount of what he said about pressure driving him to PEDs. That’s a deeply worrying polemic against a billion dollar industry that can warp minds and destroy lives. We all make mistakes and many of us deserve second chances. But when trying to sympathise with A-Rod, I still can’t get past the issue of his repeated cheating. At some point, the responsibility to stay clean and avoid temptation is his. So, too, are the consequences.
Last year, when Rodriguez returned from his suspension and experienced a renaissance, I did respect what he was able to achieve. Finally, he said the right things and began a long road towards semi-redemption. He was humbled, as the magnitude of his mistakes finally became apparent. As a person, he showed real signs of progress and resurrection. Yet as a figment of baseball history, he remains a disgraced pariah.
I was born in 1994, the same year Alex Rodriguez made his debut with the Seattle Mariners. I’ve never known Major League Baseball without him, for good or bad. And whether you love him or loathe him, a massive void will be left by A-Rod’s departure from baseball, which will be far less dramatic without him.
For many years, Alex Rodriguez lusted after what Cal Ripken Jr and Derek Jeter had: respect, admiration, adulation. If he played clean, perhaps those things would have turned up eventually. Perhaps. Friday night could have been a monumental event, on par with Jeter’s final game. Instead, a sense of pity will pervade, and a tale of what could have been will take centre stage.
In the long term, there’s no way to tell how history will judge Alex Rodriguez. But in the immediate future, his ultimate legacy will be that few fans really care about him any more. Few cared when he reached 3,000 hits, and fewer still cared about his pursuit of 700 home runs. The unique selling point of baseball is its history, and those who cheat ruin a small part of that with every syringe to the buttocks, every lozenge on the tongue.
The A-Rod saga is about to end. And, more than anything, I’m just relieved he can do no more damage to a game that gave him everything.