I was at a baseball card show in the winter of 1996, and I crossed paths with Alex Rodríguez. He had just spent a few hours signing autographs, and was wandering the floor of the convention hall, sifting through baseball history laid out on 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch pieces of cardboard.
I didn’t like him. He wasn’t a Yankee, but more importantly, he wasn’t Derek Jeter. In those early days of the late 90s, Jeter and A-Rod were intertwined (along with Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra) as the glamour shortstops of the day. You couldn’t read a feature article about one without seeing references and comparisons to the other, and they were often side by side on magazine covers ranging from Sports Illustrated to GQ. (Looking at one of those covers in April of 2000, my wife casually mentioned that A-Rod was better looking. What’s interesting is that I wasn’t bothered that she was saying this about another man, I was bothered that she had chosen him over Jeter.)
But it didn’t take me long to come around once he inevitably arrived in New York, so I’m sad to see him go. No story about Alex Rodríguez will ever be written without mention of his PED issues, both his admission to use in Texas and his season-long suspension in 2014, but those high profile scandals were only the most egregious missteps of a career fraught with controversy. Whether he was posing shirtless on the rocks in Central Park, commissioning a portrait of himself as a centaur, or dating Madonna, he was as bad at publicity as he was good at hitting a baseball.
But there was baseball drama as well — he scuffled with Jason Varitek, he slapped a ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove, and even yelled (“Ha!“) at two infielders who were trying to field a pop-up — and those childish antics couldn’t have endeared him to his bosses. What other elite player in the prime of his career would ever be slotted eighth in the lineup in a playoff elimination game? Only Alex. What other elite player would force his general manager to publicly tell him to “Shut the fuck up“? Only Alex.
He was the most talented player in baseball, and probably the most insecure. Four or five years ago, back when he was still one of the most feared hitters in the game, rather than posing after hitting a majestic home run, A-Rod would instead snap his head to the right and look immediately into his own dugout, preferring to watch the celebration of his teammates rather than the flight of the baseball. Even with hundreds of home runs on the back of his baseball card, he still needed the approval of his peers.
Somehow all of this made me love him. His tragic flaws could’ve been penned by Shakespeare, and just as Hamlet and Othello were doomed, A-Rod’s destiny was always written in the stars, and once again that destiny was intertwined with Jeter, now his teammate. When the Captain notched his 3,000th hit with a home run, the world stopped and grown men cried; when A-Rod matched that feat with a home run of his own a few years later, his teammates stood on the top step and applauded politely. When Jeter left the game he did so with a season-long parade; A-Rod’s announcement on Sunday morning put an end to what had been a month-long march into oblivion. Yes, Rodríguez was always a superstar, but he was never beloved.
But as you might expect from a player as complicated as this, there’s much more to A-Rod’s legacy. We’ve always heard about his ability as a teacher of the game, and on Sunday morning manager Joe Girardi credited Alex for elevating Robinson Canó from an average hitter to a superstar. We’ve seen A-Rod laughing with the younger players on the bench, and Girardi talked about that also, remembering the sound of their laughter echoing from the clubhouse down the hall to his office. And the general manager who publicly feuded with his all-star third baseman? When asked about A-Rod’s legacy as a Yankee, Brian Cashman didn’t mention any of the controversies. Instead he pulled an enormous championship ring from his finger and dramatically slapped it down on the podium. “That’s the ’09 ring. That doesn’t come along to this franchise’s trophy case without Alex’s contributions, significant contributions.” (A-Rod slashed .365/.500/.808 and hit six home runs during that postseason.)
This is the way it is with retirements. We gloss over or choose to forget the negatives and instead accentuate the positives. Not even in your line of work do people stand up and complain about the boss who made them stay late on a Friday night. But there was something genuine in the voices at the podium on Sunday. The tears that welled in Girardi’s eyes weren’t manufactured, and Cashman wasn’t exaggerating when he threw down that ring.
Somehow A-Rod had mended those relationships, and somehow he made me a fan as well, even though I know that doesn’t make sense. He cheated and lied, he squeezed every penny he could out of the Yankees, and he embarrassed the franchise on several occasions, but there was still something about him that allowed me to overlook all that. More accurately, I was able to accept all of that as well as his other weaknesses. He was human, and he gave proof of that humanity with each misstep. His personality flaws were on display for all to see, but he never shied from the spotlight.
It will likely take decades for baseball fans and historians to reconcile A-Rod’s momentous statistics with the reality of this Steroid Era, but right now I can say two things. I’m glad he was a Yankee, and I miss him already.