I remember back in February 2004, when I first heard the news that Alex Rodriguez had been traded to the New York Yankees. At the time, I was a soon-to-be 14-year-old fan who had finally stopped taking for granted how difficult it was to win a World Series. After growing up watching the Yankee dynasty win four championships in five years, I had suffered through the Diamondbacks debacle of 2001 and the embarrassing loss to the Florida Marlins only months earlier.
Not to say that my naivete was completely eliminated. Most of my years spent following baseball had seen the Yankees, at the very least, making the World Series. I never assumed anything, and I lived and died (slash cried) with every game, in the regular and postseason. Still, it just seemed like, at the end of the day, the Yankees were there, back on top or close to it.
So my first reaction to hearing that A-Rod was coming to town was not one of elation, or even intrigue. Remember, for most of the late '90s, A-Rod was seen as one of the main rivals to Derek Jeter in the "Best Shortstop in Baseball" discussion. I viewed him as immensely talented, but also greedy, artificial, and full of himself. (And this was years before it was revealed that he has a portrait of himself as a centaur hanging above his bed.)
I wasn't thinking about how he could help the Yankees win. The franchise had already won four titles and six American League pennants in the past eight years. What did they need this hot shot for?
It didn't help that my favorite player at the time, Alfonso Soriano, was involved in the deal as well. I've always had an affinity for second basemen (Robbie Cano is my favorite player today), and Soriano was just plain fun to watch. Sure, he didn't exactly approach at-bats "The Yankee Way," but watching those lightning-quick wrists explode through the zone while whipping that extra-heavy piece of lumber was exciting. I loved the speed he brought to the Yankees, because that always seemed to be the element they lacked. Sure, he couldn't field very well, but he was considerably better than Chuck Knoblauch in his later years.
It is difficult to say I was angry about my team signing one of the greatest players of my generation. I wasn't. But something about it just seemed wrong. Even the number he chose, 13 (because he obviously couldn't keep his customary 3), irked me, and not just because I'm a slight triskaidekaphobic. It seemed like he was trying to one-up the Babe (no pun intended).
Six-and-a-half years later, my feelings have changed, but not really for the better. In the past, there have been times when I have sincerely regretted the trade and held a strong distaste for A-Rod. This was highlighted by the ultimate act of arrogance he conducted, announcing he would opt out of his contract in the middle of Game Four of the 2007 World Series. (Yeah, the Red Sox were putting their finishing touches on the Colorado Rockies, but still, that was inexplicable on A-Rod's part.)
Nevertheless, I can't take away how far this guy has come. I'm not talking about his initial struggles in pinstripes in 2004 and the subsequent home crowd boo-birds—sorry, Alex, but you knew exactly what you were getting into. But he did shoulder a lot of the blame for the Yankees' continual postseason woes throughout the latter half of the past decade. I understand as well as the next fan how mightily he struggled in the playoffs. But baseball is not basketball or football; you can't indisputably point the finger at one player and say, "He blew it for us."
The New York media sure tried to, though.
Granted, as A-Rod extended his postseason drought for season after season, I truly believed he was not built for New York. After all, he started in Seattle, which was Griffey's town, and then went to Texas, where he shined as the Rangers remained in the dark basement of the AL West. Not to mention, he is narcissistic by nature. A player obsessed with himself in a city where the teams mean everything? That is not going to bode well too often.
When A-Rod signed his new deal with the Yankees, basically ensuring his career would end in pinstripes, I told myself to just accept it. The guy is a distraction, a lightning rod for media attention and scrutiny, and almost unbearable to watch during interviews, but he was producing. Two MVPs in four years, his 500th home run at the Stadium, the occasional Gold Glove-worthy play at his new position, third base—there wasn't much more you could ask for on the field.
Then, there was February 2009, five years after the trade. We all know the story by now. A-Rod was discovered to have used steroids during his time in Texas. ("Discovered" is a subjective term, I suppose. It wasn't exactly known, but it certainly was not the biggest of surprises.) To his "credit," the hip surgery that kept him out until May was somewhat of a good distraction. Still, the repercussions were obvious. Legacy: tarnished. Reputation: soiled more than it already was. Future: uncertain, but surely not very bright.
Honestly, I thought he was done. A-Rod had always seemed to be consumed with personal accolades. In interviews, you could even hear the stat-dropping, as if he sat up at night, searching his all-time ranks on baseballreference.com. (Seriously, can't you picture that?) When fans and media and critics took away the one thing that were previously met with suspicion at worst—the numbers—what would he do?
I can tell you this: the last thing I expected was for him to suddenly morph into Mr. Team-First, seemingly caring about the (proverbial) name on the back of his jersey less than the one on the front. But, for the most part, the majority of the discussion last year was about the Yankees as a whole, not A-Rod's rocky road through 2009.
Of course, winning the World Series didn't hurt.
And even when Rodriguez played arguably the biggest role in the championship cast, he never seemed to make things all about himself. Completely out of character, he suddenly said all the right things, as if he had stalked Derek Jeter for years and stolen some of his trademark modesty. (Seriously, can't you picture that?)
But, unlike Jeter, A-Rod still has an air of ingenuity about him. It sounds as if he's actually reading from a script at times. Perhaps it's just what we've come to expect. To be fair, though, it is hard to believe someone so self-indulgent can suddenly minimize his astronomical accomplishments.
The 600 home run chase exemplified this. A-Rod sang the same mantra as each homerless game passed. I memorized the gist of it:
"Yeah, it just didn't happen tonight. It's weird; the times I'm up there at the plate, and there are runners on and the game is close, it's easier to forget about it. I'm just trying to get a hit to help the team. It's the at-bats with no one on and when the game is out of reach that it starts to get in my head a little."
Those of you with everyday exposure to the New York media—doesn't that sound familiar? I think A-Rod said it about 97 times before and after each game that featured the Home Run That Wasn't. I don't know about you, but his speech didn't sound very admirable to me. Okay, so he tries to help the team when he can...but when the situation doesn't present itself, it's acceptable to switch it to All About Me Mode?
I don't think Jeter would agree with that.
There is one sign of improvement, though: A-Rod no longer appears to be obsessed with his legacy. In a recent interview with Michael Kay, the television voice of the Yankees, A-Rod basically said that, when it is time to decide if he is a Hall-of-Famer, he will just have to leave it up the voters. There is nothing he can say to change their minds, and he just wants to show what he can do in his (presumably) clean seasons.
Sure, that sounds respectable. Maybe, finally, A-Rod is growing up. But wait—does he have a choice? Now that he's been revealed to be "dirty," A-Rod couldn't possibly campaign his once-inevitable invitation to Cooperstown. Before the leaked test, it still would have been awkward, but A-Rod could have talked himself up to reporters, mentioning his 700-plus home runs, his three MVPs, and his (at least one) world championship. (Seriously, couldn't you picture that?)
But now? He's caught in his own demise. There is literally nothing A-Rod can do but leave it to the voters, unless he wants to make things even worse for himself.
So, who exactly is Alex Rodriguez now? Is he still the conceited, me-first, media-clouded superstar? No. His selfishness has begun to erode, along with his skill set. (Come on, he's not in his prime anymore.) But is he the perfect team player, sacrificial, Jeter-esque? Not nearly. And I don't think he ever will be. It's not really his fault. Everyone is who he is.
As for me? I don't hate him. Even as fellow fans have booed A-Rod, I've stood pat. I'll support him and wish him the best as he tries to deliver for my team. And when he falters? I'll be disappointed, but no moreso than with any other player. I'm apathetic towards A-Rod, which is one thing I could probably not say about any other player.
Although, I will say one thing: I don't exactly miss Soriano anymore.
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