Say Good Night to the Bad Guys: An Appreciation of Late-Career A-Rod and Tiger WoodsElias Stein
Imagine if sports fans ever turned our judgmental gazes inward. We drone on about concepts like sanctity and integrity like we’re Jesuit headmasters delivering a convocation, war stripes painted on our cheeks all the while. We tut-tut about greed and loyalty while browsing LinkedIn and Monster.com. We throw around the notion of “class” in so many permutations — he’s all class, you stay classy — that we’ve rendered it as meaningless as “hipster” or “troll.” If we ever held our own sports-related behavior to the same impossible standard that we do a general manager or a point guard, polite society would melt down. “You’re a bum!” we’d scream at ourselves in the mirror. We’d demand we be traded, maybe even hit with a lifetime ban.
Everyone has booed a draft pick they later liked, or tiptoed onto a bandwagon and hoped no one would notice. Just like the coaches we rage against, we play weird favorites. If I took an unflinching self-inventory, if I catalogued my own shortcomings with the same rigor I’d use for complaining about Isiah Thomas or Lawrence Tynes, there’s an obvious weakness that would rise to the top.
And it’s this: Outside the goes-without-saying elation of seeing my favorite teams win their respective championships, there are few things I can think of that would make me happier than Alex Rodriguez belting a game-winning homer late in October, or Tiger Woods sinking a putt on 18 to win one more major. (Though let’s be real, I’d gladly take even the Subprime-Mortgage-Backed-Security Open Presented by Fossil for the poor guy at this point.)
Yes, in spite of their past shady dealings, notwithstanding their multimillions, I wish nothing but glad tidings and future glories upon A-Roid and the Lion Cheetah. I am more attached to their play than I am to the careers of bright, young up-and-comers, of genuine good guys. Maybe I’m just kinda classless that way. You should probably trade me. I’m a bum.
Remember when Tiger was a fresh-faced phenom from Stanford? He turns 40 in just a few months. A-Rod celebrated the big 4-0 with a home run last week against the Texas Rangers, the team that discarded him in 2004. He always did seem like the kind of guy who would splurge on a gift for himself.
Both of these dudes have arrived at the life stage in which they are basically the rueful middle-aged pirate in the Jimmy Buffett song: I’ve done a bit of smugglin’ / I’ve run my share of grass / Made enough money to buy Miami / but I pissed it away so fast. They still possess plenty of that plunder, sure. But sports, just like maritime robbery, is an industry reliant on reputation, on bluster, on striking fear into hearts. Instead, A-Rod and Tiger, in recent years, have been the ones walking the plank.
Consider A-Rod. If there’s any athlete who has recently come closest to a Cersei Lannister–style “Shame! Shame! Shame! [clang]” perp walk, it’s him. His reckoning has been very public, very prolonged — and very much his own fault.
Like other players, A-Rod ingested forbidden potions and dabbled in certain dark arts. But he also associated with the sort of seedy lowlifes who proudly hang out at South Florida tanning salons — not quite the world’s most discreet demographic. (Though when you consider some of the photo shoots A-Rod has been involved in over the years, getting involved with these folks was probably as close as he’s ever gotten to truly finding his tribe.) It’s no wonder everything blew up, and in his case it did so spectacularly: an explosion of pure, uncut UV rays.
The story of A-Rod’s last decade is the story of pretty much anything, a grab bag of drama. There were years of rumors and innuendos about PEDs; high-profile girlfriends hand-feeding popcorn; sociopathic interviews with Katie Couric and Mike Francesa; “a yellowish envelope” stuffed with cash; nicey-nice Goldman Sachs interventions; auxiliary characters like “Bobby from Boca”; enough high-powered lawyers to bat around the order; and, as the cherry on top, a suspension for the entirety of the 2014 season. The man is a tabloid editor’s wildest dream.
Most human beings would wilt under the glare of any one of these subplots, and for a long time it felt like perhaps A-Rod was collapsing under all of their cumulative weight. He played only 44 games in the 2013 season, one marred by injury and such deteriorating and hostile relations with the Yankees that GM Brian Cashman was moved to tell ESPN New York that “Alex should just shut the fuck up.”
In many ways it has actually helped A-Rod’s image that his greatest nemesis is his own organization, the one that re-upped him on a 10-year contract in 2007 and has frantically combed through it for loopholes ever since. There’s something pretty delicious about seeing the Yankees — a franchise that prides itself on its staid pinstriped perfection, that looks everyone in the eye and asks them solemnly why can’t they be more like Derek Jeter — reduced to being a Costanza-era caricature of itself.
There were the accusations that the team Twitter feed froze A-Rod out during spring training. There was the infighting over milestone-linked contractual bonuses that made the Yankees look petty, regardless of whether they had a point. There was the sickeningly sweet resolution, which included the gritted-teeth glorification of one dipshit fan. There’s always something, and I can’t get enough. It sustains me. If I could somehow inject it into my bloodstream, I could go out there and belt a home run. I root for A-Rod because I root for the rare holy trinity of hilarity, comeuppance, and spite that wafts around him like a cloud of cologne. I could not agree more with every brilliant word of Grant Brisbee’s prescient ode to the man from the beginning of this year:
If he were a wrestler, he’d be Oblivious Ted DiBiase, and he’d take an extra moment to preen and soak up the boos, but he can’t quite pull that off. He isn’t cartoonish enough; there’s just enough humanity and need to be loved to make him something a little too real, even as he’s made up of intentionally artificial everything-else. Baseball functions just fine without this sort of player, but isn’t there just a little extra excitement when the Yankees come to town?
Yes, there is. And there’s a lot of extra excitement for actual Yankees fans, too: The team is somehow doing well, and A-Rod and his 24 home runs are an undisputed part of its success. He hit three homers in a three-run win a couple of weeks ago, then another on the night he turned 40 last week. A few nights after that he went out to dinner and the whole restaurant serenaded him. All was right with the world.
A-Rod’s 2015 season is nothing but gravy, really. If he were having a bad year, or even a nondescript one, I wouldn’t be particularly upset. I’m a fair-weather A-Rod enthusiast, one in it as much for the sideshow as for the main event. When it comes to Tiger Woods, though, that is unfortunately not the case.
It’s not even that I was some “get in the hole!”-screaming superfan during Tiger’s increasingly distant prime. I appreciated his greatness just fine; I loved that one Nike commercial in which he juggled the ball on the face of his club, black pants billowing in the breeze. Watching him play, I probably made more frequent note of the enormousness of his pecs and biceps than I did the artistry of his shots. I took it for granted that he’d just keep making ’em, that he’d set all the records, that the fists would pump on pumpin’ on. I have super-fond memories of that first Masters when he won by a dozen strokes in that dopey red sweater, but I can’t reminisce offhand, in hushed tones, about particular putts he sank; I never really knew I should be storing them in my mind. That ho-hum innocence is something I’ll never get back.
These days I’m far more tuned in, and it’s not good for the soul. When Tiger hits a bad shot — and ugh, he does, all the time — I’m alarmed by how much it harshes my buzz. When he has a bad round — and ugh, when doesn’t he? — it drags on my day, regardless of how well other golfers are playing. It’s not that I watch the sport only for Tiger; far from it. I’ve enjoyed this year’s tournaments (even and especially that bizarro steampunk U.S. Open that was held on what appeared to be a paintball arena designed to resemble the set of Mad Max) as much as I ever have in years past. I’ve been totally charmed by young Jordan Spieth discussing how he and his buddies played the British Open on a golf simulator before he got to Scotland. I could barely stomach Dustin Johnson missing that birdie putt at Chambers Bay as Wayne Gretzky looked on. I can barely stomach Bubba Watson in general.
The cast of characters in golf at the moment is as varied and compelling as it’s been in quite some time. And yet Tiger is still the one chewing up all the scenery. It’s difficult to look away from his sad attempts at stringing together 72 mostly good holes, his futile efforts to conquer such a whack-a-mole sport. (Short game under control? Time to miss every fairway. Tee shots looking good? Great, your putting’s a mess.) It’s an enormous bummer to watch.
In an essay he wrote last month after Tiger strode into the British Open full of confidence only to slink out in tatters days later, ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg called attention to the willful blindness of Tiger fans, how we parrot the player’s own constant insistence that it’s all coming together, that things are finally falling into place, that he can do it — no, really this time.
A 17th place finish at the Masters, or a 32nd place finish at the Greenbrier Classic, is not enough to suggest he’s close to winning. You can delude yourself into believing those tournaments represent real progress, that they’re evidence he’ll reinvent himself and make one more run at Nicklaus, but it’s a fantasy. It’s a testament to how great he truly was that he makes you forget his bad golf so quickly. When he shows up at the PGA Championship in August, people will forget how poorly he played at The Open and convince themselves he can contend, right up to the point where he shoots 78.
This weekend, most of the notable players in the golf world are preparing for the Bridgestone Invitational. Not Tiger, who is in the strange position of being just about as notable as they come — while also being ranked 262nd in the world, not high enough to qualify for the event. “Which is kind of interesting,” he remarked Monday during a press conference, “because I’ve won Bridgestone, what, eight times, and I’m not eligible.”
During the Q&A Tiger was barraged, as he always is these days, with questions that all got at the same theme: basically, Tough times, eh? Ever think about giving it up? One person asked about all the unsolicited advice he must hear wherever he goes.
“Yeah, I’ve had a lot,” he agreed, and laughed as he added that “just like a body part, everyone has an opinion.” He’s heard it all, he said: He should quit, he should retire, he sucks, he needs to swing slower, he needs to make more putts. “I’ve had people at restaurants say, ‘Hey, all you need to do is just eat a little bit better, and you’ll feel better, and that’ll make you play better,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘OK, great, I’m having fish and broccoli. How much better does it get than this?’”
The problem is, it basically doesn’t. For A-Rod and Tiger, things have already gotten as good as they’ll get. Even the eff-you satisfaction of a late-stage comeback doesn’t really set anyone free; just recently, David Ortiz said-but-didn’t-say that maybe A-Rod’s doing well these days because he’s cheating again.
As these guys contemplate 40, I have reached a strange age myself, at least when it comes to being a fan: Athletes are no longer people I look up to, and that’s not just because of my job. The vast majority of the world’s top physical specimens are now younger — often much younger — than me. Meanwhile, the people who are my contemporaries or a bit older are the ones I feel like I’ve grown up alongside, start to (impending) finish. I remember when Venus, with her bright, clacking beads, was the preeminent Williams sister; I think about a skinny, smiling Kobe Bryant going with Brandy to prom. My understanding of Major League Baseball has always been one in which A-Rod was a prominent and polarizing star.
This vantage point provides perspective and also freedom: I’m no longer held under anyone’s spell. I can’t get let down by my idols because I don’t have any. (OK, if Eli Manning revealed a dark secret, I’d be crushed, but that’s it.) It’s sort of like reaching the age when you realize your parents are just a couple of folks giving it their best shot in a challenging world. I’m far more intrigued by the guys who have gone through hell than the golden gods.
A-Rod and Tiger, though they’ve both had similar trajectories in many ways, are at the moment very different beasts. A-Rod grabs my attention because he’s so larger than life, such a totally out-of-this-realm cartoon character that he is not entirely to be believed. Every wacky photo of him cracks me up; every successful at-bat is like an old man who has given up on decorum hollering at a cloud, Colonel Ludlow post-stroke slurring “screw ’em!” at the world at large. He’s an aspirational weirdo, a guy who knows nothing of normal.
Tiger is the opposite. He’s grown so very small lately, his problems have become so mundane, that watching him play golf can be a little too real, can dovetail a little too nicely with the frustrations of civilian life. The cursing, the disappointed sighs, the overthinking, the missed gimme putts, the shots that you know are bad before the ball has even left your club face. Even his smiles have a sarcastic wariness to them; true delight has become so much more valuable, and also so rare. It’s hard to know what’s worse: that Tiger has become so unrecognizable, or that he’s become so easy to recognize.
What makes elite athletes so compelling isn’t usually their best stuff, it’s what happens to them when they can’t rely on that stuff to define them anymore. “Once I stopped believing I could win a major,” Andy Roddick admitted in a raw Q&A with the New York Times in June, “I didn’t want to continue.” I thought about that when I saw something Tiger said Monday: “There comes a point in time in every athlete’s career where you know that your best isn’t good enough anymore, and I’m definitely not at that point yet.” Some observers may raise an eyebrow at that, but I’d like to believe he’s onto something, no really this time.
It’s easy to point out that guys like Tiger and A-Rod deserve no one’s sympathy, that they’re classless narcissists who violated sanctity and integrity and deserve to reap what they’ve sown. Maybe so, but really, who isn’t? Just as I can’t really temper my emotions when the Rangers lose a Game 7, another part of being so fascinated by sports and athletes is that oftentimes I’m drawn like a moth to the people who are all up in flames. I’m not proud of it, but as these guys might say: It just is what it is. And honestly? It’s just more fun this way, even when it’s also more grim.
It’s all on a case-by-case basis, though, I should note. I don’t lend my mad love to just anyone. Tom Brady, for example? That guy’s a total bum.