On Sunday, Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez announced that this week will be his last as a player. After Friday’s game, the Yankees will release him and he’ll begin a new role as a special adviser with the team, ending a 22-year playing career that ranks among the most accomplished in baseball history, but won’t be remembered that way.
Objectively, Rodriguez is unassailable: 696 home runs, 14 All-Star appearances, three MVP awards, 117.9 WAR. (He’s one of only six 21st-century players to cross the 100-WAR plateau.) He won a batting title at 20, the first of 19 consecutive seasons in which he posted a 110 OPS+ or better. He is one of only four players to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season, and one of only eight to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases in his career. He’s in a class with Barry Bonds, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols as the best position players of the past 20 years, placing him in such rarefied territory as to invite comparisons to other sports. For instance, Rodriguez was one of the best power hitters of his era, despite playing about half his career as a shortstop. He put a small man’s skills in a big man’s body in a way unlike any of his contemporaries beyond Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James.
Subjectively, Rodriguez is unlovable. He never achieved the global superstardom of LeBron or Ronaldo, and it’s because after more than 20 years, baseball is still deeply ambivalent about one of its greatest players. A discussion of Rodriguez’s on-field triumphs must include the longest PED suspension in baseball history, but not only does his list of transgressions pale in comparison to transgressions that were forgiven, his on-field achievements should have earned him enough social capital to soften the blow when he did cross the line. But they didn’t — because he doesn’t fit in.
It’s very easy to think of sports in terms of a heroic epic, that the great players fit into an archetype: hero or villain.
Trout burst onto the scene in 2012, earning but not winning the AL MVP as a rookie. Trout’s age-20 season was the best since Rodriguez in 1996, and since then Trout has just been sort of quietly inexorable. What do you know about Trout as a man? He’s a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan. His hobbies include meteorology. It took four big league seasons — the last one under a six-year, $144.5 million contract — for him to move out of his parents’ house in New Jersey, if only for a new home a few minutes away. Two months ago he hired skywriters to propose to his high school girlfriend. In addition to his speed and plate discipline, Trout is known for his giant, open-mouthed smile. He’s beyond guileless — he’s like a big puppy with a career 169 OPS+.
Bonds, by contrast, embraced the role of the villain. He transgressed against baseball’s most sacred records and served as a brooding, surly foil to the effervescent Ken Griffey Jr. Bonds would’ve been a Hall of Famer even if he’d never heard of BALCO, as his 494 home runs, 471 stolen bases, and .412 OBP through age 35 suggest. But as steroids and the OBP revolution turned baseball into a sport played at walking pace by men who looked more like weightlifters than ballplayers, Bonds broke the single-season home run record and started walking nearly 200 times a year. At the peak of his powers, Bonds was a godlike figure in his home ballpark and a pariah everywhere else. It might not be entirely fair, but at least it’s easy to understand.
Rodriguez isn’t as easy to classify. People say they hate him because he’s a PED cheat, but Bartolo Colón and David Ortiz are two of baseball’s great beloved elder statesmen. They say he’s a choker, which Rodriguez’s .365/.500/.808 line en route to the 2009 World Series, and .822 career playoff OPS, would expose as a lie even if the concept itself weren’t bullshit. And even if it weren’t bullshit, the Hall of Fame is full of beloved players who won less and performed worse when it counted. They say he’s a narcissist, and they said it with a straight face while celebrating the single-minded drive of Michael Jordan and (before their respective falls from grace) Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. They hate him because of his 10-year, $275 million contract, which is just petty.
Something about Rodriguez always just felt off. He dated Cameron Diaz — but not until she was in the Bad Teacher phase of her career, and at any rate, no relationship that precipitates the Popcorn Incident of 2011 can survive long. Where Serena Williams took an iconic, intimidating, all-things-to-all-people portrait on a throne, Rodriguez kissed his own reflection. For most of his career, Rodriguez was a handsome, superathletic, bilingual star for the coolest (Griffey’s Seattle Mariners) and biggest (the New York Yankees) teams in the game, and — not that it matters — he was either the best or second-best player on the planet for most of his career.
You almost have to try to screw that up, and that’s ultimately Rodriguez’s mortal sin: He tried. Rodriguez never acted like someone who wanted to be an antihero, and every attempt to put on the white hat just felt a little off. It’s like someone gave him a book on how to act like a star, but it was based entirely on hearsay and translated poorly from Estonian. Every one of Rodriguez’s string of highly publicized embarrassments was objectively funny on its own, but he was so widely ridiculed probably because he was trying hard to be cool. Trying comes with the tacit admission that you’re not actually what you want to become, and what might have been insecurity ended up reading as insincerity.
Perhaps in retirement, when the black type on Baseball-Reference remains but the memory of the centaur painting starts to fade, Rodriguez will get his due as one of the greatest players of his or any generation. He’ll have to settle for that, because he could never get people to like him.