If it’s true that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” as Shakespeare wrote, then it stands to reason the same is true of villainy: Some are born villains, some achieve villainy, and some have a bull’s-eye tattooed on their backs by fate.
Some, however, choose the scenic route, traveling all three roads on their way to everlasting infamy. Like Alex Rodriguez.
A-Rod was destined to achieve a certain measure of notoriety simply by virtue of his God-given talent; no player could be that preternaturally gifted and fail to engender some resentment from the less capable — which is to say, all of us. Rodriguez was the no. 1 pick in the 1993 draft when he was just 17 years old, and he was in the majors with the Seattle Mariners barely a year later, becoming the only player since 1980 to appear in the bigs when he was still 18. He was perhaps the best player in the league two years after that,1 winning the AL batting title by hitting .358, leading the league in doubles (54) and runs (141) and total bases (379), hitting 36 homers, stealing 15 bases, and playing a hellacious shortstop.
It’s almost impossible to reach the apex of one’s profession before legal drinking age and not rub someone the wrong way. Self-confidence will be perceived as arrogance, boldness on the field as brashness. Half of baseball hated Bryce Harper before he ever reached the majors, partly for crimes like confusing eye black with sunscreen and playing balls to the wall at all times, but mostly for having the audacity to be MLB-ready when he was 19. Many considered Ken Griffey Jr. a disrespectful whippersnapper because he had the temerity to wear his baseball cap backward at times.
Rodriguez was bound to become somewhat infamous, whether or not he ever went full-on Bieber. The crown of athletic greatness always comes with tiny horns attached.
Of course, Rodriguez wasn’t merely a victim of age and circumstance; he did plenty to achieve villainy on his own. While Rodriguez has never officially failed a PED test — a designation he shares with Lance Armstrong — he’s left a paper trail that would blanket Yankee Stadium. He’s to blame for the nights out on the town with exotic dancers, the alleged liaisons with strippers and prostitutes, the messy divorce from wife Cynthia, and (worst of all) his dalliance with Madonna. He chose the descent into litigation hell he’s dealt with over this last year: Every other player caught up in the Biogenesis scandal copped a plea, and even Ryan Braun finally admitted guilt and expressed remorse. Rodriguez alone chose to fight and fight, until finally dropping his lawsuit and accepting his 162-game suspension last week.
Yet Rodriguez finds himself where he is today, as the game’s biggest pariah since Pete Rose was banned in 1989, at least in part due to events outside his control, events that have conspired to make him a morality tale rather than a future Hall of Famer. Rodriguez’s decision to sue the Major League Baseball Players Association over his suspension was the last straw for many, as it takes a special kind of intransigence to sue one’s own union.2 And while I doubt it factored into Rodriguez’s decision to sue, one can make a strong case that the MLBPA, inadvertently and with the best of intentions, nudged his career arc the tiniest bit off course — leading to a much less tiny shift in his final destination.
The primordial circumstance that set Rodriguez’s career on an unwanted trajectory was the 1994-95 players’ strike, which began just one month after his major league debut. Rodriguez didn’t have anything to do with the strike, and had in fact gone back to the minors 10 days before it began. But when the strike ended and the players and owners finally hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement, players were awarded service time for the games that were canceled, including guys in the minors like Rodriguez.
The result was that Rodriguez had just enough service time3 to qualify for free agency a year early. At age 25, he was the youngest free agent ever, and he hit the open market in the 2000-01 offseason, the very winter that baseball’s irrational exuberance reached its zenith.
This initially looked like a fantastic bit of good fortune for him. A-Rod signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers that winter, a deal so out of line with anything before or after4 that he was all but certain to be remembered more for the money he received than for the talent that justified it.
Rodriguez played for the Rangers for three seasons, leading the AL in home runs each year, winning two Gold Gloves at shortstop and one MVP, and missing just one total game. Yet seemingly all anyone remembers is that the Rangers never won more than 73 games in those three seasons despite giving Rodriguez all that money. Apparently, it was A-Rod’s fault the team’s ERAs those three years were 5.71, 5.15, and 5.67. Chan Ho Park, who contributed mightily to those marks after signing a five-year, $65 million contract, is rarely vilified.
Meanwhile, in their very first season without Rodriguez, the 2001 Mariners won an AL-record 116 games with Carlos Guillen as their everyday shortstop. Guillen went on to some great years in Detroit, but that season he hit .259/.333/.355 and was clearly the weak link in the Seattle lineup. Had the new CBA not altered his service clock, Rodriguez would have hit free agency after a season in which he was the best player on a team that likely would have smashed the major league record for wins in a season. The Mariners probably would have won a mind-boggling 120 games. The Rodriguez-free Mariners lost to the Yankees in the ALCS; Guillen had been benched for Mark McLemore in the playoffs, and McLemore went 2-for-14 in the series. Three of the Mariners’ four losses came by one or two runs in a tight series, and Rodriguez’s presence in the lineup would have been huge.
If Rodriguez had led the Mariners to the MLB record for regular-season wins and then propelled them to the AL pennant and possibly a world championship,5 he would have cemented a very different legacy very early in his career. Instead, his brilliance was overlooked in Texas, with most people focusing instead on the contrast between his old team having a historic season and his new team floundering in last place.
The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since that remarkable 2001 season, so if Rodriguez’s free agency had come up a year later, the narrative would center on a franchise that never recovered from losing its greatest player, the way the Red Sox flailed after selling Babe Ruth or the way the Pirates endured 20 consecutive losing seasons after Barry Bonds left.6 Instead, the narrative is that the Mariners set the AL wins record the year after Rodriguez took the money and ran.
The MLBPA’s part in that was utterly innocent. The decision that led to Rodriguez becoming a free agent a year early earned him tens of millions of dollars, but it had nothing to do with him directly. The union’s next career-altering move, however, was blatantly directed at him.
After three seasons, Rangers owner Tom Hicks had apparently grown tired of Rodriguez’s consistent excellence, and decided it was time to trade him.7 The Red Sox, who had just lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the Yankees on Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning homer in the Grady Little game, and who were in the process of trading for Curt Schilling in their ongoing game of nuclear proliferation with the Yankees, were interested. And so was Rodriguez.
A deal was reached, and all sides were amenable: The Rangers would trade Rodriguez to Boston in exchange for Manny Ramirez and a prospect named Jon Lester. The Red Sox would then trade incumbent shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez and a prospect named Brandon McCarthy.
Everyone was happy with the deal, but no one more so than Rodriguez, who was so eager to play for a winning team that he did something utterly contrary to his reputation: He offered to take a substantial pay cut. The Red Sox weren’t willing to pay Rodriguez’s complete salary, and the Rangers weren’t willing to eat any of it. So Rodriguez agreed to accept a reported pay cut of about $4 million a year. He even offered to pay a small portion of Ramirez’s contract back to the Rangers. Alex Rodriguez, the symbol of greed in baseball before he became the symbol of PED use in baseball, made a very overt decision at a pivotal point in his career to place winning ahead of money.
And the MLBPA nixed it. The union had to approve any alteration to a player’s contract that would reduce his salary. It also had to look out for the best interests of all its members, for whom Rodriguez’s contract was a benchmark rising tide that lifted all boats. And so it said no.
Two months later, after Boone blew out his ACL playing pickup basketball, the Rangers traded Rodriguez to the Yankees instead. Rodriguez didn’t give up any money to don the pinstripes, but he did something nearly as magnanimous: He offered to give up the glamour position of shortstop and move to third base in deference to Derek Jeter, even though he was arguably Jeter’s superior with the glove.8 That magnanimity was quickly forgotten after Rodriguez and Jeter had a falling-out; you can’t cross Jeter and expect him — or the New York media — to forgive you.
If the MLBPA had relented and approved Rodriguez’s trade to the Red Sox, it would have had an incalculable impact on future events. We can only speculate about what such an alternative reality would look like, but it’s easy to envision one in which Rodriguez would have built a far more complicated and positive legacy, instead of seeing his career potentially end in disgrace.
He could have begun writing that different legacy his very first year in Boston, which would have happened to be the year the Red Sox won their first world championship in 86 seasons, overcoming a historic three-games-to-zero deficit against the Yankees along the way. Instead of having been on the wrong side of an unprecedented collapse, Rodriguez might well have been regarded as one of the heroes in Boston’s victory. After all, in the real Game 4, Rodriguez’s two-run homer for the Yankees opened the scoring and put the Red Sox in a hole it took the Most Important Stolen Base in Baseball History to erase. Rodriguez, not Dave Roberts or even David Ortiz, might now be remembered as the player who lit the fuse on a Boston comeback no one thought possible. Plus, if he’d been on the winning side, he wouldn’t have been tempted to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove in Game 6, and thus would have been spared one of his quintessential moments of indignity.
After beating the Yankees, the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Aside from Game 1, Boston held the lead from the first inning on in every game. The Red Sox were so dominant, they likely would have won the series had Rodriguez made his first Fall Classic a personal tribute to Eddie Gaedel and gone to the plate with a miniature toy bat. Rodriguez would have won his first world championship five years earlier than he actually did, and he would have done so on one of the most iconic teams in baseball history.
It’s hard to overstate how differently Rodriguez might be perceived today if he’d been a lead actor in Boston’s triumph instead of a prop over which the Red Sox ran. History is written by the victors, and it would be a lot kinder to Rodriguez if he’d gotten to write his bit.
Two years later, being a member of the Red Sox would have saved Rodriguez from another of his embarrassing, legacy-defining moments. Yankees manager Joe Torre had a deserved reputation as a players’ manager, but that didn’t extend to Rodriguez. Torre inexplicably batted Rodriguez sixth in the first two games of the 2006 ALDS against the Tigers, even though Rodriguez had literally never started a game batting lower than fifth since joining the Yankees, and had hit .358/.465/.691 in the month leading up to the playoffs. After Rodriguez started the series 1-for-11, Torre demoted him all the way to eighth in the lineup for Game 4, a loss that ended the Yankees’ season.
Torre’s decisions ignited a controversy that couldn’t be extinguished until the following spring, and painted Rodriguez as a player who shrank under the spotlight, a ridiculous notion considering that entering that playoff series, Rodriguez had hit .305/.401/.534 in 31 postseason games. Whatever Torre’s motivations were, his actions pinned the Yankees’ postseason failures on Rodriguez’s shoulders.
Terry Francona, who would have been Rodriguez’s manager in Boston, has an equally deserved reputation as a players’ manager, and has never in his career pulled a stunt like the one Torre did. Francona also probably wouldn’t have called out Rodriguez in his memoir the way Torre did in The Yankee Years, published in 2009.9
In 2007, the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years, and while they couldn’t have done any better with Rodriguez, they probably wouldn’t have done any worse. Rodriguez won his third MVP award that year, hitting .314/.422/.645 with 54 homers. He went a respectable 4-for-15 with a homer for the Yankees in the ALDS, though it hardly matters how well he would have hit for the Red Sox in October; they swept the Angels in the ALDS and the Rockies in the World Series, and while they had to come back from a 3-1 deficit against Cleveland, they won the last three ALCS games by a combined score of 30-5.
If Rodriguez had earned two rings for a team that hadn’t won a championship in the 86 years before he arrived, the now-prevailing narrative that he was a choke artist who posted gaudy regular-season numbers but couldn’t produce when it counted would never have taken hold.
Rodriguez wouldn’t have won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees, but aside from the fact that 2 > 1, his New York championship had a fraction of the impact on his legacy that his hypothetical Boston titles would have. The Yankees had won 26 championships without Rodriguez, including four in the eight years before he got there. Rodriguez earning his first ring simply meant Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera each got an ornament for their thumbs. They were True Yankees; Rodriguez was a hired gun. In Boston, Rodriguez would have been part of the only two championship teams anyone under the age of 90 had seen.
Rodriguez might also have won more than two rings with Boston. While Tampa Bay’s rise kept the Yankees out of the playoffs in 2008, the Red Sox took the wild card. They lost to the Rays in the ALCS in seven games, as Tampa got to host Game 7 at Tropicana Field after winning the division by two games. Rodriguez had his last great season that year, hitting .302/.392/.573, and while it’s impossible to know how much better the Red Sox would have been with Rodriguez that year — they would have needed to find a replacement for Lester, who emerged as a no. 2 starter that year — they might have won just two more games, meaning they would have hosted Game 7 at Fenway Park. And who knows what would have happened then?
Even with just the two championships, though, Rodriguez’s legacy in Boston would have been secure through the team’s collapse in September 2011 and nightmare of 2012. No one holds it against Ortiz that he was on the 2012 Red Sox, or that he hit just .287/.396/.372 in September 2011 when the team imploded.
It’s hard to know what would have happened if the irresistible force that was the 2013 Red Sox season had met the immovable object that was Rodriguez fighting to save his career. It’s easy to say Rodriguez would have been such a distraction that he would have single-handedly torpedoed Boston’s season, but consider that the Yankees posted a slightly better record (28-24) after he returned from the DL on August 5 — with a PED suspension ruling hanging over his head — than before (57-53). Rodriguez also would have helped the Sox on the field, as he hit .244/.348/.423 when he returned; Will Middlebrooks, the Red Sox’s primary third baseman last year, hit just .227/.271/.425.
The Red Sox might not have won their third title in 10 years if the Rodriguez trade had gone through, not because of anything Rodriguez would have done, but because Lester was instrumental last October, winning four of five playoff starts with a 1.56 ERA. Given the razor-thin margin by which the Red Sox squeaked past the Tigers, it’s likely their run would have ended in the ALCS if Lester hadn’t been on the team. But even without a third ring to his name, Rodriguez would have walked off into a suspension-colored sunset remembered far more fondly than he is today.
It’s easy to dismiss the notion that the Red Sox would have won anything with Rodriguez by claiming that his influence in the clubhouse would have hurt the team in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Well, do you remember the other player in the Trade That Never Happened? Ramirez was a walking bundle of contradictions for every minute of his eight years in Boston. He was suspended for PED use twice, with one violation stemming from pregnancy hormones in his system. After the 2003 season — just months before the Red Sox tried to deal Ramirez to Texas — the Red Sox had placed him on irrevocable waivers. Any other team could have claimed Ramirez’s contract for free; none did.
Ramirez got embroiled in multiple controversies over the years when he missed games for what appeared to be minor injuries. He demanded to be traded several times, and was nearly dealt at the 2005 deadline. In 2008, he fought with Kevin Youkilis in the dugout in June, then pushed the Red Sox’s traveling secretary to the ground during a dispute a few weeks later. He was finally traded to the Dodgers the following month. “Manny being Manny” was a saying for a reason.
Yet even after “retiring” in 2011 following his second suspension, Ramirez was not blackballed from the game; he played for the A’s and Rangers’ Triple-A teams the last two years, failing to earn a major league call-up simply because he wasn’t hitting anymore. Ramirez had the perfect defense for his foibles, which were arguably worse than A-Rod’s mistakes: He had hardware.
When it’s come to his public image, Rodriguez has certainly been his own worst enemy at times. The stories about the centaur paintings, and the time he yelled “I got it!” to distract a fielder in Toronto while running the bases, and the photo of him kissing the mirror — those are all on him. But the point isn’t that Rodriguez is an unfairly maligned saint. The point is that it’s quite easy to spin a yarn in which, had certain events outside his control occurred slightly differently, his legacy would be a lot more ambiguous than it is now. If a butterfly had flapped its wings a few times, Rodriguez might have multiple rings, been one of The 25, and been the best player on the winningest team in AL history.
He’d still be dealing with the fallout from the Biogenesis scandal, but so are Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz, and no one considers them pariahs. As it stands, there’s a very real possibility that when Rodriguez’s suspension ends after the 2014 season, the Yankees will release him and eat the $61 million he’s still owed. And there’s a very real possibility that no other team will pick him up. If Rodriguez has truly played his last game, he’s walking away as reviled by fans and players alike as any retiree in the history of the sport.10
Such a weird legacy for such a rare talent. Maybe he was born to be a villain; maybe he did his damnedest to make that label stick. But Alex Rodriguez didn’t have to become baseball’s signature bogeyman. He very nearly wasn’t.
This article has been updated to correct the name of Ray Chapman.