In “The Education of Alex Rodriguez,” last week’s ESPN The Magazine account of Rodriguez’s time wandering in the wilderness during his record 162-game PED suspension, author J.R. Moehringer describes the self-recriminations that keep A-Rod up at night. “You had pocket aces!” Moehringer paraphrases. “Pocket. Aces. And somehow you blew the hand.”
A-Rod’s inner monologue isn’t original; it’s a cover of the second verse from “I Threw It All Away,” the same refrain that runs through the mind of anyone who’s made a costly mistake. The magazine story mostly concerns A-Rod’s disgrace and attempted rehabilitation: how he lost the life he had. But Moehringer’s reporting on A-Rod’s nadir and road to recovery makes his initial rise even more of a mystery. The A-Rod portrayed in every profile, Moehringer’s included, is painfully sensitive and cripplingly unconfident — the exact opposite of the archetypical elite athlete who succeeds because he can’t conceive of failing. How could a guy who’s so good at hitting a baseball inhabit the same brain and body as the guy who’s so awkward at everything else? Why didn’t his social sensitivity follow him to the field? Was he simply so talented that he became one of the best ever despite a psyche that would’ve sunk a lesser player? Maybe that’s the greatest testament to Rodriguez’s skill: For most of a Hall of Fame–caliber career, he was too good to sabotage himself.
Despite his latest attempts at ingratiation, redemption and affection are out of present-day Rodriguez’s reach. So as we wearily process the reports from spring training, it’s tempting to join A-Rod in imagining an alternate past. If he hadn’t kept ingesting pills and disgorging denials, A-Rod could have been — well, probably not beloved, but at least respected, and eventually enshrined. And sure, a career-capping retirement tour would have been a better outcome for him, and for baseball, than years of discussion about suspensions and sunk costs. But baseball’s long history includes a lot of legendary players; what it lacks is a legendary heel. So while Rodriguez lies awake and wonders where he’d be if he’d stuck to the straight and narrow, I wonder what would have happened if he’d strayed even further from the righteous path. I’m haunted by the heel turn not taken.
Baseball, with its strict unwritten rules and swift retaliation for any expression of ego, is not a sport that suffers heels. Plenty of players have been ornery and unlikable; Ted Williams spat and gestured at fans and complained to writers about how they portrayed him. Many players have been bad people, and others have been self-important and unpopular. Very few, however, have embraced the heel’s calling to the point that they’d go out of their way to be booed and bask in the audience’s anger. A.J. Pierzynski is probably the closest to holding the heel title today, but his bona fides are based largely on apocryphal stories.
There has to be a better precedent. So I put the question to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball: Who’s the biggest heel in baseball history? “The man you are looking for might be Art Shires,” Thorn replied.
Shires, who played four seasons in the late 1920s and early 1930s for the White Sox, Washington Senators, and Boston Braves, was a heel ahead of his time. “[He] arrived on the major league scene in 1928 with much fanfare, almost all of it of his own making,” his SABR bio begins. “The Italy, Texas native nicknamed himself ‘Art The Great,’ once boasted that, next to Babe Ruth, he was the biggest drawing card in the American League, and frequently stopped passersby on the sidewalk to ask them if they were going to that day’s ballgame to watch the outstanding first baseman, referring to himself.” Shires was a man who could cut a promo.1 He was also an alcoholic and a domestic abuser, a violent man who was twice charged with assault — as self-aggrandizing as Floyd Mayweather, and as all-around revolting, too. No sport needs more men like that. But despite his ugly deeds, his words could be compelling, which made him an object of interest long after his last game. What if a player could channel the public persona — without the private sins — of the 21-year-old Shires, who after going 4-for-5 in his first look at the American League, disparaged the competition and proclaimed that he’d hit .400?
Fittingly, he worked as a wrestler after an injury ended his baseball career.
Rodriguez is widely despised, but it takes two parties for a heel to hit his ceiling: an aggrieved audience and a willing villain. To find out whether A-Rod fits the description, I asked Grantland’s Masked Man, David Shoemaker, to tell me the most important attributes of a successful heel.
The first item on Shoemaker’s list: rule-breaking. Uh, check. Second: a “tendency to cheat.” Even if we exclude the chemical kind of cheating, there’s plenty to work with here: the 2004 ALCS glove-slap that A-Rod would’ve needed a personal umpire to pull off; the 2007 “I got it!” that turned a popup into a run-scoring single (with a two-run, ninth-inning lead and Mariano Rivera warming, no less). One could spin both plays as savvy attempts to survive near-certain outs, but from the players’ perspective, they fell too far toward the “bush league” side of baseball’s strange gamesmanship spectrum. Third: “disrespect toward opponents/referees/fans/America.” A-Rod isn’t the Iron Sheik, but some sportswriters treat his defacement of the national pastime’s sacred stats as a threat to national security, and his lack of deference to his opponents and to his team is well-established. Fourth: a “supremely punchable face,” with bonus points awarded for a “pompous strut.” Jason Varitek proved that Rodriguez’s face is supremely punchable, and while A-Rod hasn’t matched the struts we’ve seen in other major sports, he did something even more difficult: He made sliding seem pompous.
Up to a point, then, A-Rod’s heel qualifications seem impeccable. But there’s one tool that Rodriguez lacks: the “willingness/ability to ‘show ass’ or look bad,” which Shoemaker calls “surprisingly uncommon.” A-Rod, Moehringer writes, is a “natural storyteller.” But he’s also a selective one. “But to tell a story in which he’s the villain?” Moehringer continues. “It’s like purposely striking out, and that he physically cannot do. He’ll try, he’ll start to tell about that time he did that dumb thing, but the story veers off and ends up with him as the hero getting a Champagne bath.”
That transparent desire to be the babyface, or at least to escape derision, might be the biggest barrier between Rodriguez and the public approval he appears to crave. It’s also the quality that keeps him from becoming a convincing bad boy. To be a transcendent heel, Shoemaker says, you have to embody the above unattractive traits “and still seem borderline likable. You have to make the character believable, so that you don’t seem like you’re putting on a show — you’re just a dick, but such a successful one that you’re owed a grudging respect.” A-Rod has been baseball’s best player, and also its best-paid player. For that, he is owed a grudging respect. But he’s never seemed natural enough to earn it.
The thing that makes the dream of a true A-Rod heel turn so tantalizing is that he has had heel moments. Stepping out with strippers; bringing his own meals to restaurants; hobnobbing with Barry Bonds; dating a WWE Diva. Admiring oneself in a mirror, as A-Rod did in Details in 2009, is a heel greatest hit. Lex Luger did it during his run as “The Narcissist”; Shawn Michaels brought a mirror into the ring; more recently, Cody Rhodes made a mirror part of his entrance.
At times, A-Rod has hinted at his heel potential with words as well as poses. As my friend Alex Rubin2 says, “The thing that makes a heel great is that when they talk there’s something right about what they’re saying, but they’re clearly warping reality or wrong in some other way.”
A wrestling expert as well as a catcher framing pioneer.
Rodriguez briefly found that sweet spot in November 2013, when, upon learning that Bud Selig wouldn’t have to testify at his arbitration hearing, he cursed loudly, “banged a table and kicked a briefcase,” and stormed out of MLB’s offices and into Mike Francesa’s studio, where he denied any wrongdoing and called Selig (“the man from Milwaukee”) a coward. There was just enough truth to the claim that MLB was going to unreasonable lengths to play “Pin the PED on A-Rod” that Rodriguez got Francesa on his side despite insisting on his innocence throughout the interview. Two months later, when the suspension was official, A-Rod sued the Players Association, a betrayal worthy of HBK in the barbershop. Off-the-field insolence pays off during play: A heel can compel people to watch, if only to root for him to fail. Forget the lies and the legal proceedings — Evil A-Rod’s finest hour came in August 2013, when he hit a revenge homer off Ryan Dempster (who had beaned him earlier in the game) in front of a full house at Fenway that hated his guts.
Those are the sights and sounds of a capacity crowd united in animosity — and an isolated antagonist reveling in that crowd’s frustration. That’s baseball theater of a sort we rarely see. And while A-Rod might be much diminished, it’s not too late for him to treat us to more of those moments. All it would take is a disdainful quote or a taunt or two — a crotch chop, a cocked head and cupped ear, or even a self-satisfied smile. Maybe he could even bring back the black glasses, gloves, and fedora from the 2009 ticker-tape parade. If anything, a show of defiance might make us like him more.
In 2004, Bill Simmons wished for a Kobe Bryant heel turn, and Bryant eventually obliged. If only A-Rod had learned the same lesson. Instead, he’s once again acting contrite, doing inadequate damage control with a handwritten apology that has little chance of changing anyone’s mind. We’ve settled into a cycle where A-Rod does something innocuous, a writer makes it sound selfish, and readers shake their heads at everyone involved. Rodriguez could spend the rest of the spring saving 8-year-olds from oncoming traffic, and people would blame him for trying to cheat death. So why resist the resentment? Why not steer into the scorn?
Ultimately, the A-Rod heel turn can’t happen because heel work requires athlete and fan to broadcast and receive on the same frequency, and A-Rod’s transmissions are mostly static. But if Rodriguez can fantasize about a world where everyone likes him, I can fantasize about one where he’s accepted and embraced that few fans ever will. And in that world, last week’s apology would have been a better read.