Alex Rodriguez and MLB's 30 Most Vilified Players Ever

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IAugust 9, 2011

Alex Rodriguez and MLB's 30 Most Vilified Players Ever

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    New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez just began in earnest his journey back to the team, but even while he has been off the diamond, he has been in the spotlight. Media hordes have hounded Rodriguez as much as ever during this DL stint, as the Yankees (minus their cleanup hitter) streaked into first place and allegations surfaced about Rodriguez and some Hollywood stars engaging in illegal underground poker games.

    He's no stranger to the scrutiny, some of it earned, some of it decidedly not so. With each passing year, Rodriguez seems to become more comfortable in his role as media lightning rod and bearer of heavy burdens. Yet, the accumulated criticism with which he has dealt over the years clearly pains him.

    Such is the life for some of baseball's all-time greats. Many have dealt with both unfounded and legitimate media lashings, public disdain and teammates' scorn. Some of the greatest suffered worst. Here are the 30 players in MLB history who, by hook or by crook, became most vilified.

An Explanatory Note

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    Webster's Dictionary defines cliche as 'that thing where people lead off a discussion of a topic by defining a key word from Webster's Dictionary. It's the worst.'

    Nevertheless, sometimes, a definition is just the thing: Knowing which operative word is crucial and what it means can set strict parameters that make it easier to frame a debate. So here we go: Webster's defines vilify as 'to utter slanderous and abusive statements against.'

    There is more to it, then, than being portrayed as a villain. Vilification suggests vicious treatment, partially deserved, partially unjust. A person is vilified if and only if they do certain things to make a villain of themselves, but ultimately get more rebuke than they deserve. By this reckoning, John Rocker is not vilified: He's a dope, and deserved every ounce of what he got from fans and the media.

    The guys who DO make this list fall primarily into seven categories:

    1. The Heels- These guys are the worst sort of villains, bad in the clubhouse, bad to media types, bad to fans. Rudeness, cheating and general snobbery run rampant in this crew. But each also got a bit worse than they earned at times.
    2. The Heretics- Gross violations of baseball's ancient honor codes branded each of these as intolerable rebels.
    3. Grumpy Old Men- Unwilling to engage the media or go through the usual motions of acknowledging the fans, these got a reputation for being surly or cold.
    4. The Goats- Blowing key moments made each a hated villain.
    5. Martyrs- In the causes of changing baseball forever, these men bore the brunt of harsh criticism from many corners.
    6. Clubhouse Cancers- That most nebulous of negative labels for those perceived as self-aggrandizing or aloof.
    7. Carousers- Party animals who never lived up to their potential because of drug or other off-field problems, these players got a healthy dose of undue judgment for their struggles with addiction.

    So now, we're set. The 30 players who have felt the greatest wrath of the baseball public over the past 150 years are as follows:

1. Barry Bonds, Heel

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    Looking for one last good book for the summer? Pick up Jeff Pearlman's biography of the despicable Bonds. Yes, he cheated. Yes, he abused fans, players, coaches, reporters and staffers at every ballpark he entered. Bonds was and is a bad dude, all the way down.

    At the same time, Pearlman's reportage gives some impressive insight into what created the Bonds monster. Bonds had some very real problems, and to reduce him (as reporters and fans frequently did in later years) to a muscle-bound recluse with an explosive temper is to put too fine a point on things.

2. Bill Buckner, Goat

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    He may have been a light-hitting first baseman, but Buckner was a very serviceable player throughout his career. He deserved to be remembered for his defensive contributions, and for his 453 strikeouts in over 10,000 career plate appearances.

    Instead, for two full decades, he had to wear the memory of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series around his neck like a scarlet letter. His error makes up a disproportionate part of the Red Sox's now-defunct curse mythology, and Buckner needed the team's wins in 2004 and 2007 worse than anyone.

3. Joe Jackson, Heretic

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    One of the great players of his era, Jackson fully belongs in the Hall of Fame. He's not there, though, because baseball dogma is an immutable set of tenets. Gambling ran amok in baseball in those days, mostly because of selfish owners and the middling pay pro players got. Jackson was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a great player who took gambler's money and tried to make them look like fools. He gambled, but only with his career, and though he lost it (and the respect of so many), he was a true competitor.

4. Alex Rodriguez, Heel

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    Selfishness has always been Rodriguez's greatest crime. He admitted to steroid use; he won an MVP award with the last-place Rangers in 2003; and he has had a rocky and very public personal life since arriving in New York. He also announced his decision to opt out of his 10-year mega-deal in October 2007--during the fourth and final game of the World Series.

    Still and all, some or the reportage of Rodriguez's divorce, flirtations with local starlets and general carousing have been exaggerated, and others have been downright irrelevant. He's gotten a bad rap, in some ways.

5. Carlos Zambrano, Clubhouse Cancer

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    When on his game, Zambrano is one of the most fun players in baseball history to watch. He pitches, runs and hits with remarkable vitality, and his stuff on the mound is sometimes electric.

    So, too, though, is his temper. The latter has become his most famous trait, after Zambrano fought with Michael Barrett, Derrek Lee, Carlos Marmol and multiple pieces of ballpark equipment over the past four seasons. Zambrano got ill-deserved and stunningly harsh criticism for some of those run-ins, from both the media and the fans. He's clearly worn out his welcome in Chicago, but someday, he will be a productive pitcher again. Hopefully, someone will be willing to look past his indiscretions and take advantage.

6. Pete Rose, Heretic

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    Rose's hustle and raw hitting talent made him an MVP. The compulsive energy that drove him to develop them made him bet on the game, spend all of his money and retreat to Las Vegas to make some of it back.

    Rose was in the wrong, to be sure, but both his gambling and his all-out style (see Harrelson, Bud; and Fosse, Ray) rubbed people the wrong way all the time. He got fried on the open flame of the modern newspaper, and while it was not without merit, that criticism was sometimes a bit harsh.

7. Jim Bouton, Martyr

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    After writing a shockingly revealing account of baseball in the 1960s, Bouton must have known he would be rebuffed by his peers for years afterward. And so he was. But before doing so, he made sure the public had a chance to hear all about what he felt were some iniquities within the game. It was a daring move, and one for which he still takes flak, but well worth it.

8. Roger Maris, Martyrs

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    For his public reticence and general ambiguity about baseball itself, Maris got a miserable reputation with the New York media. During his race toward the home-run record against Mickey Mantle, Maris heard such vitriol from the fans, and felt so little support from his Yankee teammates, that he all but withdrew into himself in late 1961. Though it's true Maris had little patience for some of the riff-raff who followed the team everywhere, he fell far short of deserving the kind of abuse that became the norm from the dozen or so daily newspapers in New York at the time.

9. Ted Williams, Grumpy

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    Williams famously refused cap-tipping and glad-handing with media and the fans. His was a precise mechanism, and he dared not compromise it by wasting time on distractions. He also did not hit especially well in the clutch, leading more than one reporter to question his motives or interest. But Williams is an all-time great, and the disrespect he's felt over the years never made sense.

10. Fred Merkle, Goat

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    Merkle's baserunning foible probably cost New York a pennant in 1908. This sort of thing was virtually unprecedented back then, and once it happened to Merkle, the papers nearby helped everyone decide that their first baseman was a loser. Merkle's redemption came nearly a half-century later, but not soon enough to wash away some of the sting of mean fans.

11. Roger Clemens, Heel

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    Clemens, he of the Mike Piazza thrown-bat incident and a generally foul disposition, may have made his own bed every bit of the way Bonds did. Still, some of the attacks that went his way eventually centered on his family and family life, and that's never fair. Clemens' HGH use also counts against him, but then, star players got far too much flak (and role players far too little) for the PED problem in baseball.

12. Jackie Robinson, Martyrs

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    During his rookie season, Robinson endured daily taunts and epithets of every kind. Yet he stuck it out, with the rather think support system he had in place, and over 60 years later, he is a treasured part of baseball lore and a perpetual inspiration. It's brutally unfair that he had to handle what he did along the way. At the same time, he was not free from responsibility in some instances, as he occasionally gave in to his wild temper and lashed out at his tormentors in the stands or opposing dugouts.

13. Roberto Alomar, Heretics

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    Players live by their honor codes, and those odes have strict rules of engagement when taking on an umpire. Alomar crossed the line when he spit in the face of John Hirschbeck, and the hefty suspension he served was not penance enough. Alomar carried a hot-head's reputation around for the rest of his career, and may have been held back a year in Hall of Fame voting because of the Hirshbeck incident.

14. Bobby Bonds, Carouser

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    The elder Bonds had a serious alcohol problem. It was partially biological: He was diagnosed later in life with (essentially) an alcohol allergy, whereby he got drunk much faster and much more dangerously than the average person. But he certainly never handled the substance well.

    Bobby was every bit as toolsy as his son when he played. He was actually faster, at his peak, and had a much better throwing arm. He just never reached his potential, because he never had the focus to make adjustments or the durability to find a rhythm. The press, hating him for being outspoken over the treatment of black players, grilled him on a near-daily basis, and Bonds responded poorly. 

15. Dick Allen, Grumpy

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    It took Dick Allen nearly a decade in the big leagues to even let the press know he wanted to be called Dick. For years, they had called him Richie, which Allen suspected was a means of making he, a black man, seem more child-like and less threatening. Others believe it was mostly an effort to fill the hole of departed Richie Ashburn, but either way, Allen felt the press tried to put him in a box ill-fit for him.

    A prodigal talent, Allen never gets his due praise as one of baseball's great stars. He belongs in Cooperstown, but because of repeated run-ins with the press, a surliness that turned off teammates, and a black mark on his record earned when he pummeled Phillies teammate Frank Thomas (Thomas was the aggressor in the fight, though), he will never get in. 

16. Ty Cobb, Heel

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    Cobb was the game's first transcendent offensive star, and is one of the five best hitters ever. For the lion's share of the game's history, he was almost universally admired, even by those who hated him for spiking on of their hometown players or who saw some of the dark underbelly of Cobb. Recently, though, he seems to be remembered less fondly by the day, and with good reason.

    Cobb was a relatively high-ranking member of the Klu Klux Klan, or so the story goes. Legend says he once stabbed a black waiter for no offense much greater than the color of his skin. He became a bitter recluse in his later years. He was a mean cuss.

    Partially, of course, these traits reflect the time and place from whence he came. At the dawn of the 20th century, in Georgia, Ty Cobb was not the worst Southern sumbitch around. But with retrospect on our side, we have come to see Cobb as a true villain, a sort of counterweight to contemporary superstar Babe Ruth's affability and acceptance.

17. Eddie Cicotte, Heretic

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    Just as Joe Jackson was at the peak of the hitting profession in 1919, Cicotte was at the pinnacle of pitching. He was a gifted knuckleball specialist and dominated competition that season while playing for a measly $6,000.

    When the scandal broke, it put baseball forever in jeopardy. Fans needed to know this game was not fixed in order to enjoy it, so the league called upon Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be their Sheriff Bart. Landis, full up with Prohibition-era haughtiness toward gamblers and drunkards, banned Cicotte, Jackson and others for life. So it goes. Someone had to stop the rampant gambling that threatened baseball's integrity. When fans look back with personal disgust at the 1919 White Sox, though, they overlook the scope of the problem at that time, and the seeds owners had planted by restraining player movements and salary.

18. Curt Flood, Martyr

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    Curt Flood could do a little bit of everything on the ball diamond. He was a tremendous fielder, had speed on the bases and posted a .293 career batting average. But the St. Louis Cardinals refused to keep his salary commensurate with his expectations, and once the ball got rolling, things got ugly.

    Flood would be black-balled, more or less, from baseball beginning at age 31. He wrote an open letter to then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, sued the team and the league and fought hard for free agency. He never got it, not really, but he did make waves of change that have only grown with time. Baseball finally forgave his iniquities (already looking minor by comparison) i the mid-1980s, but Flood never felt at home in the game after 1969.

19. Reggie Jackson, Clubhouse Cancer

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    In Oakland, Jackson won three World Series titles on teams that barely held themselves together through battles with ownership and clubhouse brawls. The same thing was true in New York, where he won two more. If Jackson was the straw stirring the drink, one could argue he might have been better off to let it sit awhile and calm down.

    The media certainly felt Jackson was out for his own interests, and were never shy about pointing it out. But for all the rancor in the two clubhouses with which Jackson is most closely associated, he seemed affable enough, and teammates reportedly both loved and hated him.

20. Lonnie Smith, Goat

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    Smith was on first base in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. It was the top of the eighth inning, and there were no outs. What happened next is hard to tell.

    Terry Pendleton hit a deep double to left field. Smith stumbled briefly around second base, but he still seemed a sure bet to score. He was fast, after all. He should have had an easy time.

    For reasons that might never be clear, though, Smith stopped at third. He had been duped by a feigned relay reception from Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. It was a bonehead play, and when the Braves failed to score (they went on to lose 1-0 in 10 innings), Smith's uncomfortable place in history became secure. 

21. Joe Garagiola, Heel

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    Like it or not, the incident between Jackie Robinson and Garagiola at home plate in September 1947 is an indelible part of Garagiola's legacy. He felt awful about the encounter, and seems not to have been as bad a guy as history (and modern mythology) have made him out to be, but Garagiola never did produce the same way he had prior to that incident, or do anything to overshadow his one ugly moment.

22. Mickey Mantle, Carouser

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    Mantle's antics off the field are now legend, bu in the 1950s and 1960s, they were relatively badly-kept secrets. Still, though the press spared him by electing not to publish reports of his drunken benders, they were wont to criticize his every mistake more harshly because of what they knew. Fans, meanwhile, expected Mantle to be like DiMaggio and Ruth, only better. At times, Mantle lived up to that. When he did not, though, he became an easy target for hecklers and boo-birds.

23. Jose Canseco, Martyr

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    Canseco fits on a number of these lists. he could be a heel, a cancer and a heretic. But when he made it his mission to educate the public about steroid use, and was vindicated on so many accounts, he turned out to be something baseball really needed during that time: a whistle-blower.

    Canseco has been demonized for being money- and attention-hungry, and it's true. He's also a cheater. But he did baseball a service by speaking up the way he did.

24. Steve Howe, Carouser

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    How Howe got so many chances in the game is a wonder, especially because his name was mud almost as soon as fans and reporters found out about his drug problems. He never kicked them, and it's a shame, because he might have been one of the all-time great closers. Instead, he became reviled for his well-publicized addictions even as the country made drug prevention a national priority.

25. Sammy Sosa, Clubhouse Cancer

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    Although never directly linked to steroids, Sosa could do no right by the public once the steroid scandal began to unravel. His selfishness and clubhouse clique became the subject of scathing columns almost weekly, and when he left the final game of the 2004 season before it began, a mystery teammate smashed his trademark boombox to bits.

    Still, Sosa does not deserve all the criticism he has gotten from so many quarters since. He was always more affable and accessible than Bonds, and more fun to watch than McGwire. He just could not hold it together as his career began to unspool.

26. Juan Marichal, Heretic

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    Marichal was an incredible, Hall-of-Fame pitcher with a beautiful, high-legged delivery. But for too many, the only image of him that rings a bell is when he wielded a bat in a brawl against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and specifically, catcher John Roseboro. Marichal, like Alomar, violated unwritten rules of engagement there, and it took him years to overcome it, even as he and Roseboro became friends.

27. Will Clark, Heel

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    No single event marked Clark as a jerk. That makes it all the more impressive (is impressive the right word?) that he is known, almost without exception, as a first-class nightmare of a teammate. He was surly, rude, selfish and often standoffish. And he got fat pretty quickly after a very good start to his big-league career.

29. Dave Parker, Carouser

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    Parker took his own promising career off the rails with consistent cocaine use in the late 1970s and the 1980s. He should be in Cooperstown, but never really earned the honor. After serving suspension time and getting off (too easily) in the hoopla surrounding the Pittsburgh cocaine trials in the 1980s, Parker never really redeemed himself, and remains defensive about his drug use to this day.

30. Dave Kingman, Grumpy

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    Sportswriters of Kingman's era were predisposed to dislike him: he was not their kind of player. He was too willing to trade a strikeout for a chance to it a home run, which was considered selfish in that era. When he showed signs of disliking them back, the media wrote him off as a black cloud.

    Yet Kingman reportedly got along just fine with teammates, and was even an occasional clubhouse prankster. He simply did not like talking to reporters, and he got a very rough rap for it.