Step 3 in the fall of Alex Rodriguez was simply joining the New York Yankees. It put him in the pinstripes so many people in America love to hate, and it put him under the most intensive media microscope in baseball.
Here’s a short, incomplete and fairly revealing list of Alex Rodriguez headlines to appear in the New York Post and New York Daily News.
He had some amazing seasons with the Yankees. He won the 2005 MVP when he led the league in slugging, homers, runs scored and OPS. In 2007, he won another MVP — in the process becoming the first right-handed hitter in Yankees history to hit 50 homers in a season, this was something even Joe DiMaggio couldn’t do (though, to be fair, DiMaggio played in old Yankee Stadium, which was a tough place for right-handed power hitters).
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Alex Rodriguez attends a press conference announcing him as the newest New York Yankee on Feb. 17, 2004.
One former girlfriend said that Rodriguez had a painting over his bed of himself as a centaur, something Rodriguez denied (unquestionably one of the oddest denials in baseball history).
Along the way, Rodriguez also developed a reputation as someone who came up small in the postseason. It wasn’t entirely fair. Yes, he did struggle against the Angels and Tigers in 2005 and 2006 playoff series, and again last year as he dealt with a hip injury that probably should have prevented him from playing at all. Take those dreadful series away (something A-Rod would love to do), A-Rod is a .300 postseason hitter and has slugged .545 – essentially his career numbers. But those bad series locked in the perception of A-Rod as a postseason failure … or, as the New York Post put it on their back page: “Bronx Bum$.”
More, playing third base in New York meant playing next to the man he had once called his mirror image: Derek Jeter. They still had so many similarities. Jeter was also one of People Magazine’s most beautiful people. Jeter dated models and actresses too. Jeter signed an astonishingly expensive contract. Jeter, like most great ballplayers, also had some epic failures in individual postseason series. He could be aloof and off-putting at times.
But Jeter was respectful and he personified winning … and throughout the game he was respected, admired, commended. The stories about him tended to gush to the same extremes that A-Rod stories tended to malign. His New York persona was almost unmatched. When Curt Schilling ripped Rodriguez for trying to slap the ball out a glove during the 2004 ALCS, he added: “Would Derek Jeter ever do that? No chance.” When Dallas Braden ripped Rodriguez for walking across the mound when returning to first base on a foul ball, he added “(Rodriguez) might watch his captain a little more often.” People saw praising Jeter as a way to get at Rodriguez. And people for a long time wanted to get at Rodriguez.
Or, as one leading crisis manager says: “If people think you’re a jerk and a phony in America, they’re going to make you pay for your mistakes or your perceived mistakes. It isn’t fair, but it’s a simple fact. People think Jeter is real and classy. People think Rodriguez is a jerk and a phony.”
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Step 4 in the fall: The PED connection. The one thing that Alex Rodriguez maintained – through the tabloid scandals, through the boos, through the embarrassments and jokes and disdain – was his baseball performance. That could not be denied. Three-time MVP. Five-time home run champ. Two-time Gold Glove winner.
At 25, he already had 241 homers — more than anyone, 62 more than Henry Aaron at the same age.
At 30, he had 464 career homers — still more than anyone ever, 170 more than Barry Bonds, the eventual home run champ, had at the same age.
At 31, he became the fastest man to 500 homers. There seemed almost no doubt at all that he would soon hold the home run record himself. He hit 35 more homers the next year, then 30, then 30 more to surpass 600 homers. Yes, people could deny him his respect. They could deny him the affection and admiration he seemed to hunger for. They could deny him the standing ovations and love. But, no, they could deny the brute power of what he did on the baseball diamond.
“For the record,” Katie Couric asked him on 60 Minutes. “Have you ever used steroids, human growth hormone or any other performance-enhancing substance?”
“No,” Rodriguez said.
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Alex Rodriguez talks during a news conference on Feb. 17, 2008 at which he admitted taking a substance known as "boli" acquired with his cousin in the Dominican Republic in 2001.
“No,’ Rodriguez said.
“You never felt like: ‘This guy’s doing it maybe I should look into this, too? He’s getting better numbers, playing better ball …”
“I’ve never felt overmatched on the baseball field,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve always been a very strong, dominant position. And I felt that if I did my work as I’ve done since I was, you know, a rookie back in Seattle, I didn’t have a problem competing at level. So … no.”
In 2009, Sports Illustrated broke the story that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003. Rodriguez soon came out and, in a shaky voice, admitted to using steroids the three years he played for Texas. “Back then, it was a different culture,” he said. “It was very loose. I was young.”
And, like that, Alex Rodriguez was stripped bare of his baseball performance in the minds of so many. “I feel personally betrayed. I feel deceived by Alex,” Tom Hicks the Ranger owner who gave Rodriguez the big deal, told reporters. Well, everyone was piling on, even owners who drove their team into bankruptcy. There were those who, for a while, gave some credence to the idea that Rodriguez had only used PEDs in the early 2000s, before official testing.
Then, in the last few weeks, the Miami New Times wrote a story that Rodriguez’s name was all over the records of the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic in Miami, and that many of those records allegedly connect him to PEDs. Rodriguez has said that the records are “not legitimate.”
Shortly after the report, anonymous New York Yankees officials leaked to numerous reporters that the team would explore opportunities to void the contract of Alex Rodriguez or get some relief. Rodriguez, who renegotiated his deal in 2008, and still has five years and $114 million left on it.
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And finally, Step 5 in the fall of A-Rod: He just got old. This happens to every ballplayer who ever played the game, and yet it always comes as a surprise. Through age 32, Alex Rodriguez was a lifetime .306 hitter. He has not hit.290 since then. He has not played 140 games in a season since then. The injuries have piled up. He has not managed 20 homers in either of the last two seasons.
“He got old very fast,” one scout says, but I don’t think that’s true. Rodriguez has been in the big regularly since he was 20 years old. He has more than 11,000 plate appearances – more plate appearances than Ernie Banks or Babe Ruth or Tony Gwynn. He has played more than 10,000 innings at shortstop, stolen more than 300 bases, scored almost 1,900 runs. The body only has so many games.
That’s where we are now. Alex Rodriguez is injured – he had hip surgery in the offseason – and nobody is entirely sure when he might return. MLB is investigating Biogenesis. Rodriguez is being excoriated everywhere and, more to the point, being written off. His baseball achievements put him with the giants of the game, and people talk about him never reaching the Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez himself has stayed out of the public eye, though various reports emerge of him being alternately defiant and enraged and paranoid. No matter what, it’s hard to find the kid who loved baseball. It’s hard to find the talent who was going to change the game. It’s hard to find the joy that once made him unique.
And even going step-by-step, through the fall, it still defies belief that it ended up like this for one of the most extraordinarily talented young baseball players in the history of the game.
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“Let me just say this,” Allard Baird is saying now. “I wasn’t the only one who felt that way watching Alex Rodriguez. I am speaking for all the scouts who saw him. He was a joy to watch play baseball. He was one of those guys who was just really, really special.”
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Rapper/producer Jay Z and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees talk before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic on May 28, 2009.
He wanted to be famous. He became famous.
He wanted to date movie stars. He dated movie stars.
He wanted to hit a lot of home runs. He hit a lot of home runs.
He wanted to make more money than anyone who ever played the game. He did that.
He wanted to be the best player. He was a three-time MVP.
He wanted to be a star in New York. He became a star in New York.
These are not sinister motives. They are the dreams of a lot of 17-year-olds.
“Whatever he has done since then,” Baird says, “it does not take away from what he was at that particular time when he was 17 years old in Miami … if you could freeze those moments …”Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.
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