Career Arc: Alex Rodriguez

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty Images Alex Rodriguez

December 2007: “For the record, have you ever used steroids, human growth hormone, or any other performance-enhancing substance?”
—Katie Couric, CBS

“No … I’ve never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I’ve always been in 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 any level. So, no.”
—Alex Rodriguez

February 2009: “I screwed up big time, but I think the only thing I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward. That’s all I can ask for.”
—Alex Rodriguez, admitting his steroid use from 2001 to 2003 with the Texas Rangers

August 2013: “Word is, MLB has evidence to suggest Rodriguez bought or took steroids every year since 2009.”
—CBS’s Jon Heyman on the Biogensis scandal that resulted in A-Rod’s historic 211-game ban

In those three vignettes, we see the framework for Alex Rodriguez’s entire career. We see why, despite his record as one of the best baseball players in history, he’s considered a hypocrite, liar, and phony. We see the method by which he sabotaged his own brilliance, and corrupted his legacy forever. We see why he’s spending the twilight of his career as a walking, talking embarrassment, and why he’s become a reliable target of public derision.

Last Friday, in his first game at Yankee Stadium since returning from a season-long quad injury, and with the Biogenesis suspension hanging over his head (A-Rod is appealing, and resolution won’t come until the end of the season), the Yankees crowd greeted him with a mixture of cheers and boos. The cameras found the supportive fans, clapping and holding signs like “We Are 100% Behind You!” YES announcer Michael Kay calculated the ratio of cheers to boos as 50-50, which felt optimistic. When Rick Porcello struck him out, there was no longer a debate — from the upper deck to the front row, the abuse rained down.

The fact that he can’t even approach a 50 percent approval rating with his home fans says something, and that “something” is that we love to hate him. We hate his mistakes, we hate his stupidity, we hate his absurd contract, and we hate his smugness. But it’s a fun hate; it feels like an outlet, like he exists purely so we can unleash our disdain on a player whose mistakes are manifold and glaring, but isn’t so evil that we find him frightening. He’s not the tyrannical king on the throne. Instead, he’s the court jester — the dancing minion who can be counted upon to play the fool while we laugh and throw rotten fruit. And it makes sense. His record from 2001 to the present is a staggering timeline of idiotic decisions and even worse justifications.

Before then, it gets a bit trickier.

The Beginning — Childhood, High School, Draft (1993-97)

A-Rod was born in Washington Heights to Victor and Lourdes. His father, a former Dominican Republic minor league catcher, was a successful businessman who ran a shoe store, and when Alex was 4, they moved back to the DR. But Victor’s family failed to run the business effectively in his absence, so they returned to the States — this time to Miami — where Victor opened another store.

When Alex was 9, his father left for New York. There was no contact for years, and this abandonment became the central trauma of his youth. He would often cry alone, wondering why it had happened, and he attempted to assert some semblance of control on his world by organizing strict workout regimens, planned to the minute, for him and his friends. He was a natural talent with a compulsive work ethic, and he excelled at Westminster Christian High School, starring in football (he was recruited to play quarterback by the Miami Hurricanes), basketball, and, of course, baseball.

He loved basketball so much that he quit baseball at age 11 after watching a Celtics-Lakers Final to focus on hoops, leading to this encounter with his mother: “And then one day my Mom said, ‘I want to talk to you for about 20 minutes.’ I thought I was in trouble. She pulls out an NBA roster, gives me a highlighter. She goes, ‘Take your time, five minutes, highlight each and every player that’s Dominican.’ I looked at that thing for like seven or eight minutes and I didn’t come up with one.

“Then she goes, ‘Give me that.’ She gives me an MLB roster. There’s about 700 players on it. And she goes, ‘Point out the Dominican guys.’ After like 100, I had to give up. ‘Mom, point well-taken.’ The next day I started baseball again, and the rest is history.”

His mother worked two jobs, and whenever she came to watch him play, he wanted to impress her so badly that he inevitably failed. Case in point: A championship baseball game when he struck out by jumping to swing at a ball over his head and returned to the dugout in tears.

His father was out of touch for almost a decade. The next time A-Rod heard from him was on draft day in 1993, when the Mariners selected him out of high school with the first overall pick. That call was the only communication for another a year and half, until Victor came to a winter ball game in the Dominican Republic. They made lunch plans for the next day, but A-Rod never showed up. In 2005, he admitted that he was still haunted by his father’s departure, and had seen at least three therapists in an attempt to cope.

Call it amateur psychology, but it’s hard not to see that seminal shock as the foundation for what we see in A-Rod today — the profound insecurity, the eagerness to please, and the constant pressure he puts on himself in an effort to prove his worth. The saddest part of it all is that it doesn’t work; all his great effort has failed to make us love him. It’s had the opposite effect, really, and that pattern of rejection must feel familiar.

After the draft, a summer of negotiation followed. Finally, in August, the Mariners reached a deal with the help of agent Scott Boras: Three years, $1.3 million, and a $1 million signing bonus. A-Rod was headed west.

The Mariners Years (1994-2000)

A-Rod made his major league debut on July 8, 1994, at Fenway Park. He faced Chris Nabholz in his first at-bat, grounding out weakly to third on the way to an 0-3 showing. He got his first hit the next day — an infield single on another weak grounder to third off Sergio Valdez. A-Rod went on to play 17 games before the players’ strike cut the season short, batting .204 with no home runs and two RBIs in 54 at-bats. He was up and down between Seattle and AAA Tacoma in 1995, struggling to a .232 major league average. He was on the roster for the playoffs, though, and scored the game-tying run in the deciding Game 5 when he pinch-ran for Tino Martinez in the eighth inning. He finished the postseason 0-2.

Then came 1996. In his first full season, A-Rod was spectacular. He led the league in batting average, total bases, runs, and doubles, posting a .358/.414/.631 line. The American League MVP race that year came down to A-Rod and Juan Gonzalez. For reasons that probably stem from the Rangers making the playoffs and the Mariners finishing in second place, Gonzalez won the vote by only three points. When this race is brought up today, the word “controversial” is the most consistent adjective. After looking at the stats, though, it’s clear that “robbery” is the better descriptor. It’s true that Gonzalez had 11 more home runs and 21 more RBIs than A-Rod, but that’s where his superiority ends. Pick any other major category, and A-Rod had him beat: average, WAR, OBP, OPS, runs, hits, stolen bases, walks, etc. Not to mention that Gonzalez played only 102 games in the field, while A-Rod was considered a strong defensive shortstop.

The snub notwithstanding, A-Rod had arrived. He signed a four-year, $10.7 million deal to stay in Seattle. He came back to earth slightly in 1997, but by ’98 it was back to the stratosphere, with 42 home runs and a league-leading 213 hits. He also won his second Silver Slugger award as the best-hitting shortstop in the American League, the first of six straight he’d win between ’98 and 2003 in what was then a golden age of AL shortstops.

He would never quite top his 1996 season while he played for the Mariners, but he came close in 2000, with a .316/.420/.606 line that earned him third place in the MVP voting (justly, this time … Jason Giambi was measurably better in most major offensive categories). He also led his team to the ALCS.

A-Rod finished the Seattle portion of his career by going 4-5 against the Yankees in Game Six. It was a clutch performance in a losing cause, but it was nothing new; in 15 playoff games with the Mariners, he hit .340 with a .941 OPS.

Big Money, Bad Baseball: The Rangers Years (2001-03)

Seattle had tried to lure A-Rod into a longer deal, but it simply didn’t have the money, and when Texas offered him the most lucrative contract in sports history — 10 years, $252 million — the Mariners were outbid.

In a way, this was the start of A-Rod’s image problem. To that point in his career, he was just a very good player in the Pacific Northwest. A bit lost in the shuffle, maybe, but starting to make his name as one of the best players in the game. Then came the enormous contract, and most of the baseball world was critical of the investment. It tied up too much money in one player, went the prevailing wisdom, and handcuffed the franchise from pursuing other assets, pitchers in particular. This was a criticism of the Rangers, but the numbers were so gaudy that it doubled as a criticism of Scott Boras, the “greedy agent,” and A-Rod himself. He became a symbol of inflated salaries, and it came with its share of resentment. Many casual sports fans had probably never heard of A-Rod, but now he was the highest-paid athlete in the world. For the first time in his life, there were a lot of people who wanted to see him fail.

But he didn’t. Instead, he put together three spectacular seasons in Texas, leading the league in home runs each year and finally taking home his first MVP award (and a chump change $500,000 award bonus) in 2003. His 57 home runs in 2002 remain a career high, and the next year he became the youngest player in major league history to reach the 300–home run plateau. Whether this production justified the contract is an ongoing debate, but the fact remains that A-Rod’s personal stock only went higher.

He was also — for the first time ever, at least that we know — on the juice. It wouldn’t come out until 2009, when a Sports Illustrated cover story by Selena Roberts and David Epstein exposed him, but in 2003 he tested positive for testosterone and Primobolan. The results were meant to remain anonymous, and these early tests were conducted merely as a sort of survey by MLB to see whether more comprehensive screening was needed. They were leaked after being seized during the BALCO investigation in 2004, but the original promise of anonymity prevented Bud Selig and MLB from issuing any punishment.

In February 2004, after a trade with the Red Sox was nixed by the MLB Players Association because A-Rod would have had to take a voluntary salary hit, the Rangers traded him to the New York Yankees.

The Yankees Years: Humiliation, Redemption, Repeat (2004-Present)

Did you know that A-Rod won two MVP awards as a member of the Yankees?

You may not have, or you may have forgotten, because somehow that piece of trivia has been pushed to the periphery of the A-Rod legacy. It’s out there in the ether with a few other salient facts, like his seven All-Star appearances in nine seasons dating to 2012, or his three Silver Slugger awards. None of it matters to a group of fans who would rather boo him, or to a nation who couldn’t care less about previous feats.

A-Rod is his own worst PR man, and his Yankees years have been defined by on-the-field failure (perceived and real), social humiliation, and scandal.

Let’s begin with the actual baseball, and since it’s a piece of repeated wisdom that Yankees players are judged by the playoffs, let’s skip ahead. In 2004, he started the first seven games of his Yankees postseason on a tear, posting a .424/.486/.758 line. It was just more clutch hitting from a proven clutch hitter, and the Yankees beat the Twins and took a 3-0 lead on the Red Sox in the ALCS.

We all know what happened in the remainder of that series, but it’s interesting to note that the collapse neatly coincided with A-Rod’s own fall from posteason grace. He went 2-17 in the final four games as the Red Sox pulled off the unthinkable comeback, and from Game 4 to the end of the 2007 postseason three years later, A-Rod went an atrocious 9-61 (.148) with two home runs in 76 plate appearances. In Game 6 of that series against Boston, he had what might be his quintessential moment, in the worst way possible, when he slapped the ball from Bronson Arroyo’s glove after a weak grounder. If anybody had been seeking an opportunity to Photoshop a purse on A-Rod’s arm, they had their chance.

And so the new narrative was built: A-Rod was a choker. Maybe an embarrassment too.

Both labels were turned on their head in 2009, when he led the Yankees to the World Series with a spectacular playoff stretch and won the Babe Ruth postseason MVP award along the way.

But even in a culture quick to forgive errant sports stars, Yankees fans had cultivated a policy of short memory toward A-Rod’s triumphs. His performance in the next three postseasons marked a return to the dreadful — 12-75 (.160) and zero home runs in 21 games — and the hatred built up to new, unforeseen levels. The regular season didn’t matter; it was almost like fans were seeking out reasons to validate an instinctual distaste, and all they had to do was wait for October.

Oh, but A-Rod didn’t help. His arrival in the Bronx brought on increased scrutiny, and suddenly whatever dams had protected A-Rod from the total exposure of his personal life burst in the New York glare. The sheer amount of mistakes he made is incredible to behold, and the onslaught needs no embellishment:

2005: A-Rod is warned about participating in illegal poker games by Bud Selig.

2006: A-Rod is photographed sunbathing in Central Park and featured on the back page of the New York Post after he makes three errors that night.

2006: A-Rod is called out by his own teammate, Jason Giambi, who says, “A-Rod doesn’t know who he is. We’re going to find out in the next couple of months.”

2006: After a disastrous start to the postseason, Joe Torre moves A-Rod down in the lineup for Game 4 of the ALDS against Detroit. He goes 0-3, and the Yankees are eliminated.

2007: A-Rod insists to Katie Couric that he’s never taken PEDs.

2007: The Post strikes again, with the words “Stray-Rod!” on the front cover next to a picture of Rodriguez accompanying a blonde stranger to a strip club. Less than a month later, in the Daily News, an “exotic dancer” claimed he preferred the “she-male, muscular type.” A-Rod had been married to Cynthia Scurtis since 2002, and had a daughter, Natasha.

2007: Early in the season, he yells “Ha!” to a Blue Jays third baseman while running the bases, resulting in a dropped ball and inviting more scorn about “how he plays the game.”

2007: Rumors abound in September that A-Rod might opt out of his contract after seven years and sign a deal with the Chicago Cubs that involves an ownership stake in the franchise. The announcement that he is indeed opting out comes during the eighth inning of World Series Game 4, as the Red Sox are about to close out the Rockies and win their second title in four years. Again, the criticism rains down.

2007: Mariano Rivera, of all people, convinces him to cut Scott Boras out of the loop and talk directly with Yankees management. Those talks produce a new 10-year, $275 million deal, and if the intelligence of the Rangers contract is in question, this one is not; it can now be considered an unmitigated financial disaster for the Yankees, who have to hope the suspension is upheld so they can recover insurance money.

2008: A-Rod’s second daughter, Ella, is born. Rumors swirl that he is seeing Madonna on the sly. Cynthia, at last, files for divorce, telling friends that Madonna has brainwashed him using Kabbalah mysticism. Madonna, 49 at the time, later dumps A-Rod for a younger man.

2009: The Roberts and Epstein Sports Illustrated report emerges, implicating A-Rod as having tested positive for PEDs in 2003. He admits the allegations are true, and asks the American people to judge him “from this day forward,” adding that “all my Yankee years have been clean.”

2009: The Post reports that A-Rod has dated Kristin Davis, the madam who supplied Eliot Spitzer with prostitutes and rendered the same service for A-Rod.

2009: In The Yankee Years, a memoir, former manager Joe Torre writes that A-Rod was image-obsessed and unpopular in the clubhouse.

2009: An ex-girlfriend tells Us Weekly that A-Rod owns two portraits of himself as a centaur — half man, half horse. That same year, a Details Magazine spread comes out with photos of A-Rod kissing himself in a mirror.

2009: According to Jon Heyman and other sources, this is also the first year he begins to receive injections from Tony Bosch and Biogenesis at his home in Florida … one of which causes him to bleed everywhere when Bosch can’t find a vein, inspiring a bout of rage that ends with Bosch being kicked out of his home.

2010: Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden goes berserk after A-Rod walks across the mound running from third to first after a foul ball. Afterward, Braden says A-Rod broke an unwritten rule, and that he should “probably take a note from his captain.” Even though A-Rod was almost certainly oblivious to the “rule,” many in the media accuse him of gamesmanship.

2010: MLB begins investigating A-Rod for visiting a Canadian doctor named Anthony Galea in 2009 for treatment after his hip surgery. Galea is accused of supplying other athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, but it is never proven that he did the same for A-Rod. Galea pleads guilty in 2011 to transporting mislabeled drugs — namely HGH — across the border.

2011: A-Rod turns up at the Super Bowl with Cameron Diaz, who is caught on camera feeding him popcorn.

2011: It comes out that A-Rod still employs his cousin Yuri Sucart, even though Sucart was his steroid mule during the Rangers years and was banned from MLB clubhouses. No punishment is handed down, but in 2013, it emerges that Sucart appeared in one of Tony Bosch’s handwritten notes at Biogenesis, and may still be subpoenaed to testify. Earlier this year, Sucart also sought legal counsel and threatened to sue A-Rod for $5 million in damages for convincing him to use steroids.

2011: Star Magazine reports that A-Rod was involved in a high-stakes poker game run by Russian gangsters in Beverly Hills, despite the 2005 warning from Selig. In at least one of the games A-Rod attended, other players used cocaine and got in a fight. Again, he escapes punishment.

2012: While sitting out an ALCS game, A-Rod throws a ball to an Australian bikini model in the stands, asking for her number. She declines, and goes to the press instead.

2013: While sitting out the first half of the season due to a quad injury, A-Rod seeks a second opinion because he doesn’t trust the Yankees doctor. He speaks out to the media, speculating on why the Yankees are keeping him out of the lineup, and GM Brian Cashman tells a reporter that A-Rod should “shut the fuck up.”

2013: The Biogenesis scandal comes to light. Most players involved receive 50-game suspensions, but because A-Rod allegedly attempted to “obstruct” the investigation (a likely reference to accusations that he bought the Biogenesis records with the intent to destroy evidence), he receives a 211-game ban. Alone among the suspended players, A-Rod is appealing.

Meanwhile, the drama keeps unfolding. A 60 Minutes story alleges that someone in A-Rod’s inner circle leaked the names of fellow players, including Francisco Cervelli and Ryan Braun, who had used PEDs. A day later, A-Rod’s new lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, accuses Yankees president Randy Levine of misleading A-Rod about the extent of his hip injury, and implying to team doctor Bryan Kelly that he wanted A-Rod’s hip surgery to fail. Levine denies everything, and challenges Tacopina and A-Rod to release their medical records.

Take a breath. Digest the humiliations, major and minor, along with the bad luck, the lying, and the unbelievable lapses in judgment that have turned A-Rod from an icon into a cautionary tale. The end of the story isn’t written, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess what happens next. Selig will make sure A-Rod’s appeal fails, he’ll be banned for all of 2014 and some of 2015, and since he’s approaching age 40, he’ll probably never play again. He’ll leave the game with so many goals unmet. He was the youngest player to hit 300, 400, 500, and 600 home runs, but what once seemed like his destiny — becoming baseball’s career home run king — has slipped through his fingers.

When we look back at A-Rod’s career, we won’t focus on his gaudy numbers, and we won’t ask why he screwed up so often. We won’t ask whether losing a father at age 9 created a lifelong fear that made him take illegal steps to succeed — do anything so the rug wouldn’t be pulled away again. We won’t try to understand his insecurities, and his need for approval and attention, and his amazing ability to attract a negative spotlight even in the innocent moments — jogging back to first base, eating popcorn at a football game. We won’t consider the pressure. We won’t remember the kid who spent hours crying for his dad, and who jumped in the air to swing at a pitch over his head while his mom looked on from the stands.

There’s a tragedy here, but all we’ll remember is the failure and the joke.

Filed Under: MLB, Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, career arc