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No room for absolutes in Rodriguez saga

August 4, 2013

On August 4th, 2007, Alex Rodriguez was on top of the world. His 500th home run–the one that would make him the youngest in baseball history to reach that feat–had cleared the left field wall only hours before, the ball probably still warm from the mid-day sun.  In that moment, at that time, he was the king of all baseball royalty.  Gliding effortlessly through his third MVP season, he had become the Yankees’ hero–shedding, in one perfect year, the questions and accusations that had dogged him through his first three seasons in pinstripes. Headcase. Choke artist.  Not a “real” Yankee. With each flick of his bat, Rodriguez made them all disappear.

And as he did, he carried the team on his back. Once down 14 games to the first-place Red Sox, the 2007 Yankees would claw their way back to earn a playoff berth, relying, day after day, on a golden season from their larger-than-life third baseman.  But in that moment, at that time, there was no pennant race. There was only Rodriguez, baseball history, and the city that was finally–finally–falling in love with him.

Six years later, the love is long gone.  Lost somewhere along the way to PEDs allegations, on-field inconsistency, and Rodriguez’s at-times grating and out-of-touch public responses, it has been replaced with stunning vitriol. With the Biogenesis saga clearly the final straw, Yankee fans have become villagers with torches, storming the monster in the castle and uniting in a way usually reserved for championships. Rodriguez is an easy villain to many–unrelatable, with his hundreds of millions and rumored unwillingness to give up a penny; distasteful, with his dismissive, sometimes smug sound bytes and calculated PR strategy; and disappointing, with injuries and inconsistency making his heroics (like his contributions to a 2009 World Series win) easy to forget. For a team–and a sport–antsy for a scapegoat amid an unsettling and distracting season, Rodriguez and his legend are a perfect fit.

But like nearly every hero who falls from grace, good and evil are rarely absolute. Once upon a time, Rodriguez was easy to root for. Charming and handsome, the Mariners’ 1993 first-round draft pick brought a shiny newness to a game that had grown stagnant. Rodriguez was raw talent somehow polished to a sheen by the time he was 17, the perception of cockiness that would go on to be his undoing then merely just one part of his mythos.

Another part was his embodiment of the American Dream. Raised primarily by a single mother who worked two jobs to keep the family in Miami,  and taught fundamentals at the local Boys & Girls club, Rodriguez paired opportunity with otherworldly skill to  ascend to the game’s highest level. Just inspirational enough to be intriguing, with the untouchable aura that accompanies all superstars, the young shortstop was magnetic. Magnetic, bankable, and on top of the world.

In some ways, to call Rodriguez a tragic hero is equal parts dramatic and unnecessarily flattering. But nothing about Rodriguez’s career has been commonplace. From the moment he set foot in the Kingdome, expectations–both self-induced and bestowed on him by an eager media corps–have been sky-high. For better or for worse, Rodriguez has shouldered responsibility and blame on every step of his journey, triggering public opinion that runs improbably feverish, even in recent times of weary apathy.  When he was the best of the best, he reaped the rewards, but on his free-fall down to earth, there has been no one in the game who’s spiraled faster.  Though hardly Icarus flying too close to the sun, there have been times in Rodriguez’s career when he seemed as though he thought he would never fail. And in the trope of the tragic hero–a parable meant to illustrate the danger of ignoring the inescapable frailty of human nature–the fatal flaw as old as humanity itself has always been hubris.

Indeed, the perception of arrogance has followed Rodriguez for years. There was the 2001 Esquire interview where he painted a unflattering comparison between himself and close friend Derek Jeter, implying that the Yankee’s role on his team wasn’t nearly as challenging as his own. There was the very public opt-out of his existing contract with the Yankees in 2007, announced,  inexplicably, during (not after) Game 4 of the World Series. And then there have been his links to PEDs. For the slugger formerly touted as the first “clean” challenger of the career home run record, the repeated banned-substance allegations have carried with them an uneasy symbolism of betrayal of a sport looking for a post-Steroid Era savior.  In 2009, Rodriguez was forced to admit, following an adamant denial on 60 Minutes, that he had used anabolic steroids during his time with the Rangers. Citing the pressure of the mammoth contract he had inked with Texas–one that he had accepted in favor of a hometown discount for the Mariners–Rodriguez claimed the transgressions were firmly behind him. Still, even before the baseball world learned of his connections to Biogenesis and its defiance of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, Rodriguez’s steroid use was seen as an implicit acknowledgement that he was above reproach. Fair or not.

This is not to say that Rodriguez is consistently callous and smug. For as much as baseball and its fans seek to paint him as a money-hungry villain, the true tragic hero is nothing more than a product of his humanity.  At times, Rodriguez appears almost earnest, as though wanting nothing more than for everyone to like him.  In fact, on many occasions, it seems as though the need for approval has fueled his decisions. Following the opt-out, Rodriguez famously came back to the Yankees, seeking a second chance (“Groveled,” some said, while others claimed the market necessitated it.) Other times, he seems downright sympathetic. A full read of the Esquire article reveals a taunting Scott Boras pulling the strings, prompting Rodriguez to make the comments about Jeter and recalling a prior conversation where it almost appears as though he had coached him on the concept of the Yankee shortstop as follower.  And sprinkled in between are glimpses of Alex Rodriguez, the person. His almost-scholarly appreciation of baseball and its history. The way he lights up when talking about his daughters. The credit the younger players give him for pushing them to be better.

There’s an easy seduction in delighting in Rodriguez’s misfortune. There are times when he seems to believe he’s bigger than baseball–an unforgivable sin to many. But for all the bloated contracts–obscene by any standard–questionable comments, and nagging, persistent penchant for drawing the wrong kind of attention, Rodriguez’s foibles are still a product of his humanity. The Alex Rodriguez who was untouchable that August afternoon six years ago is the same one who now faces the ire of an entire game. But like a true tragic hero, he allowed himself to be overcome by his fatal flaw–the one thing that had threatened to undo him his entire career. It’s too late to warn that 17-year-old with the polished talent and the world at his feet, but it’s not too late to alter the perception that Rodriguez, and other ballplayers, can be only saviors or villains, with no room in between. Ultimately, Rodriguez’s legacy will likely be cemented by the ways in which he was felled by his own arrogance. But the very thing that has made him reviled may be what finally makes him relatable after all.

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