The Slugger With a Thousand Faces: Has Any Ballplayer Embodied As Many Sports Media Stereotypes As A-Rod?Elias Stein
The young man drinks nothing stronger than milk, is a devout Christian, still lives at home in the off-season, and loves to unwind with an inspiring game of chess when leisure time beckons. It gets worse … Rodriguez is consistently kind to that evil breed of humanoid known as the sports writer.
—Orlando Sentinel profile of Alex Rodriguez, 1996
When you know about Alex Rodriguez’s penchant for centaurs and public urination, it’s hard to remember this stuff. But the first glimpse we got of A-Rod, nearly 20 years ago, was that of an unspoiled young man. Call this figure The Natural. Baseball writers portrayed the teenage Rodriguez as a boy of summer, peeking into the clubhouse of adulthood.
“By 10 p.m. he is nestled in bed with his Nintendo control pad,” Sports Illustrated reported in a 1996 profile. Rodriguez’s “best friend” was Ripper, his German shepherd, the magazine said; A-Rod called his mom, Lourdes, five times a week.
The qualities of The Natural will be familiar to anyone who has read a profile of Mike Trout: gonzo talent paired with a genuine gratitude for the game. The Seattle Times ticked off Rodriguez’s virtues: “Humility. … Generosity. Curiosity.” The New York Daily News concurred: “A refreshing humility and obliging manner that baseball so sorely needs right now.”
After the 1994 strike, it wasn’t crazy when a Miami Herald columnist suggested A-Rod might “save baseball.” Not just because of his talent but because he retained the wide-eyed innocence that was supposedly disappearing from the game. “In a sporting world loaded with disconcerting images of egomaniacs, whiners, and social misfits not worth spit,” the Orlando Sentinel reported, “Alex Rodriguez casts a wholesome profile, projecting Richie Cunningham values with a Hispanic accent.”
Recognize the guy who’s two homers shy of Willie Mays on the career list? Me neither. I present this LexisNexis time capsule because it reflects a deeper truth about sportswriting. It’d be nice to think we treat each new ballplayer who comes along like a beautiful, unique snowflake. But sportswriters are comparative mythologists at heart. What we’re really doing is wedging ballplayers into archetypes that have been around long before they were born: The Natural, The Overweight But Jolly Slugger, The Veteran on His Last Legs.
No one in recent baseball history has been fitted for more of these archetypes than A-Rod. “He is an immensely appealing blank slate,” said Craig Calcaterra, who writes for HardballTalk. “He always has been. He can look the part of a matinee idol. He can look the part of a villain. He can also look like someone who’s pathetic. It’s uncanny how easy it is for people to project onto him.”
There’s a semantic battle over whether Rodriguez’s 660th homer will count as a “milestone.” But if you read his clippings, you’ll find sportswriters have laid down dozens of milestones for him. Why stop now?
Jeff Carlick/Getty Images
Bill Madden, a writer for the New York Daily News, got to know Rodriguez through Lou Piniella, who managed the Mariners early in A-Rod’s career. “He left Seattle, where he had a good manager who loved him like a father,” Madden told me recently. “He had a good situation up there, a good organization, and he goes to Texas and gets a ridiculous contract from an idiot owner with a team that stinks.”
Madden was describing a process by which A-Rod passed from one sturdy archetype to another. In Seattle, he was The Natural. When Rodriguez signed with Texas, he was the same guy — “I have a love affair with the game of baseball …” — but it was as if a journalistic pall had settled over him. Rodriguez became The Overpaid Athlete. His innocence — or maybe our innocence — was spoiled.
“I can’t speak for him,” Madden said, “but I wonder: If he was in a happy, secure situation with Lou — if he wouldn’t have gotten into steroids.”
Rodriguez’s deal with Texas was for 10 years and $252 million. It was the largest contract in sports history — double the money Kevin Garnett got in Minnesota. The number was so astronomical that nearly every article pitched Rodriguez as selfish. As Madden noted at the time, the contract changed “the perception of Rodriguez from a class act, team leader, and baseball ‘purity’ to a greedy, ego-driven private corporate entity.”
“The coverage of the economics of sports — as bad as it is now, it was worse then,” baseball writer Joe Sheehan said. “Now, people understand that when Giancarlo Stanton gets that money, he generates a lot of money, too. But that argument was just building in the late 1990s and early 2000s. People got hung up on the number 252.”
During the seven years he played under that contract, Rodriguez won three MVPs and hit 329 home runs. As Sheehan pointed out, in terms of production, A-Rod’s deal stands as one of the best free-agent contracts ever signed. But a frame for The Guy Who Actually Deserves $252 Million didn’t exist back then, so few writers called him that.
“We don’t usually begrudge talented people who pull down stratospheric salaries,” the Denver Post clucked, “but there is something obscenely out of whack about the $252 million, 10-year contract Alex Rodriguez has been handed by the Texas Rangers.” Notice the change: The guy who once could save baseball with his innocence was now threatening it with his greed.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
A-Rod began his new contract with a run of bad luck. In 2001, his former team, the Mariners, had one of the great, fluky seasons of all time, winning 116 games and the AL West. The Rangers won 73 games and finished last.
His treatment in the media got worse when he was traded to the Yankees in 2004. Rodriguez arrived at the dawn of the Red Sox dynasty; he played badly in the postseason; he roamed a different astral plane than his manager, Joe Torre — and he did all of these things in the presence of Derek Jeter, who projected a single face to the press and never deviated.
The number of A-Rods began to pile up. He was:
The Vain Athlete: Torre, in The Yankee Years, wrote that Rodriguez cared more about how he looked than how he performed.
The Tone-Deaf Athlete: A mask that attached itself to Rodriguez forever after he opted out of his contract during the deciding game of the 2007 World Series. The New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro called it “a me-first symphony that would be appalling if it weren’t so predictable.”
The Jerk: Born when Rodriguez groused to Scott Raab about Jeter in an Esquire profile.
The Insecure Athlete: Born when Rodriguez called Raab in a panic after the story was published. (It was decided that Raab would send Jeter an apologetic fax.) This might be the only part of A-Rod’s personality normal people can identify with. “He has a massive insecurity,” Sheehan said. “Massive insecurity is something that’s always plagued me over the years.”
The Bush Leaguer: Rodriguez slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove during the 2004 ALCS. “Would Derek Jeter ever do that?” Curt Schilling asked.
The Guy Who Piles Up Stats But Can’t Win: An enormously alluring frame for writers. As Tom Verducci observed in The Yankee Years, “His perceived value on his own team was less than his actual value.”
Finally — and perhaps most deadly in the New York tabloids — Rodriguez was Not a True Yankee.
“Because there were so many different A-Rods,” said ESPN’s Jayson Stark, “you could paint almost any picture you wanted to paint or needed.” A-Rod himself was a source of many of these personalities. He courted the press but never had Jeter’s talent for droning on about nothing. When J.R. Moehringer profiled A-Rod for ESPN: The Magazine in February, he decided not to quote his subject because Rodriguez would mess up the story Moehringer was trying to tell. “Quoting Rodriguez,” he wrote, “is like dropping a Mento into a Diet Coke.”
And as writers were trying to fit A-Rod into their boxes, A-Rod was doing it himself, too. In 2008, he tried on the identity of The Celebrity Athlete, a latter-day DiMaggio. Rodriguez separated from his wife, was rumored to be dating Madonna, and dabbled in Kabbalah. That transformation interested writer Selena Roberts, who told me she began her 2009 Sports Illustrated profile by “looking into the complexities of a guy who started out with one image and was doing a bit of a hairpin turn.” She found out that Rodriguez had tested positive for PEDs.
We’ve become so numb to the tag of The Cheater that it’s worth remembering why affixing that label on Rodriguez felt so important. By 2009, the all-time home run list had been colonized by PED users and PED suspects; two years earlier, Barry Bonds had passed Hank Aaron for the outright lead. But in many writers’ minds, A-Rod, at least pharmacologically, was still destined to be The Savior of Baseball. He was the “great clean hope” (the New York Times) who was going to chase down the cheaters and their career totals like “the Mossad after Munich” (the Boston Herald).
“I’ll tell you this,” Madden said. “After Bonds passed Aaron, nobody was rooting harder for A-Rod than I was. We needed a clean home run champion after Bonds.”
Then, the fall. “Disappointment is the best way to put it,” Madden said. “Utter disappointment. It’s just too bad this guy couldn’t be what he was supposed to be.”
Roberts’s article marked the death of The Natural. The archetypes that remained for A-Rod were the kind given to Pete Rose and Mark McGwire — disgraced athletes. “He would be like everyone else,” Roberts wrote in her book about A-Rod. “Not uniquely gifted. Not singularly spectacular. Not one of a kind. Only tainted — like the others.”
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
One of the funny things about the A-Rod stock characters is that each is so overdrawn that it makes the transformation into the new A-Rod seem like an alien shedding its human skin. Back in 1996, in Sports Illustrated, Gerry Callahan had described Rodriguez’s trusty dog and overweening innocence. In 2009, after news broke of Rodriguez’s PED treachery, Callahan used his Boston Herald column to call him “A-Fraud, A-Roid, A-Hole.”
Similarly, The Cheater was such a slug — Roberts had revealed that Rodriguez was not just a juicer but a slumlord — that it made the next Rodriguez persona a shock. He became The Comeback Story.
In 2009, Rodriguez helped the Yankees squeeze one more World Series title out of their dynasty. Once again, Rodriguez seemed to transform overnight. With six postseason homers, he shed the label of The Guy Who Piles Up Stats But Can’t Win. (“He’s not the player to hate anymore,” a fan told the New York Post. “He’s the player to love.”) And though winning a title and using PEDs don’t exist in the same moral universe, Rodriguez was even forgiven for being The Cheater. (“He doesn’t have anything he has to answer for anymore,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.)
“The most amusing part of the plotline was that now he was a True Yankee,” Stark said. “You know, spray-paint the pinstripes on him and they wouldn’t fall off.” Indeed, within 10 months Rodriguez had managed to both besmirch a proud franchise and restore it to greatness. The True Yankee would flicker through most of the next three years, until A-Rod fell again.
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
The January 2013 report by Tim Elfrink of the Miami New Times revealed yet another A-Rod. It was The Unrepentant Cheater, worse in the eyes of writers because he had squandered his goodwill and made everyone look like an idiot. Madden called him “the Whitey Bulger of baseball,” after the murderous mobster.
Even if you’re not a PED scold, Rodriguez did some pretty despicable things in response to the New Times report. His defense team tried to smear Biogenesis mastermind Tony Bosch as a cocaine user.
But Major League Baseball was arguably even more thuggish. The league threatened Bosch with a lawsuit to gain his cooperation and then allegedly bought evidence to build its case against Rodriguez. “The more it unraveled, the more it seemed like there weren’t any good guys,” Elfrink said. “You couldn’t paint A-Rod as the bad guy and Selig as the good guy, because Major League Baseball did so many bad things.”
A lot of moral clutter, in other words. But as HardballTalk’s Calcaterra has shown in his A-Rod Derangement Watch, the A-Rods that appeared in the media in 2013 and 2014 were nearly all strange, detestable figures. This February, when Rodriguez’s camp delivered a handwritten apology letter to fans, the Wall Street Journal imported a graphologist to decode it. “He writes like a girl,” the man said.
“Hasn’t everyone had enough of Alex Rodriguez by now?” the New York Times’s Juliet Macur wrote the same month. “Enough of the lies and the apologies, and then the lies again, and the apologies again?” Rodriguez had become The Athlete Who Should Just Go Away — a label with which Josh Hamilton was slapped in his final days in Texas.
I found this one particularly odd, because a player who was resuming his career despite being hated by MLB and his own team seemed like the most compelling story in the world. To ask him to leave was almost an argument against journalistic interest.
Mostly, Rodriguez has become an All-Purpose Villain. A writer could look at him and find just about anything he hated about modern sports. Last week, the Baltimore Sun’s Dan Rodricks blasted A-Rod in a column. Rodricks noted that while he hadn’t believed Rodriguez’s protestations of innocence, he had believed those of ex-Oriole and PED user Rafael Palmeiro. It was partly because Palmeiro “was no showboat … he certainly seemed modest and serious about his craft.”
Here was the return of The Vain Athlete. Rodriguez hadn’t just ruined baseball with PEDs, but — like those hot dogs who flip their bats after a home run — he had contributed to a decades-long decline in grace. Where have you gone, Hispanic-accented Richie Cunningham?
Leon Halip/Getty Images
This season has seen A-Rod don one more mask — perhaps his most interesting yet: The Accidental Insurgent. This persona doesn’t require the writer to even like A-Rod. The writer just has to appreciate the burning sensation A-Rod causes media scolds, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, and the Yankees, who have finally found a theme day they won’t co-market with Steiner Sports. It’s another iteration of the old Savior of Baseball, only A-Rod is saving the game by wrecking the home run list, pointing out the dubious vitriol heaped on ’90s sluggers, and — we can pray, anyway — bringing a real end to the steroid era.
“There is a cynical pleasure I get because I’m a big fan of disputing the dominant narrative,” Calcaterra said. “After all the crap that’s been piled on A-Rod, I think it’ll be great fun to have people deal with the fact that he’s not washed up.”
“I’m not so much pro-Alex as anti-MLB,” Sheehan said. “I want him to shove it in the face of the hypocritical coverage, not to mention the quasi-criminal behavior of MLB.”
We can count Barry Bonds as a fan of this archetype. He told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that he’s rooting for Rodriguez to pass Willie Mays, even though Mays was his godfather. That heelish pronouncement highlights a difference between the two men. Bonds picked a persona — The Asshole — and stuck with it.
This year’s A-Rod was expected to be a hobbling, struggling version of the original. But a funny thing happened: Rodriguez came back from nearly two years on the shelf and is actually … good. “He took his punishment for steroid use, lying and general chicanery, mended his body and returned as an exemplary teammate who happens to be swinging like a near-prime version of himself,” Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote this week.
Now what? It’s telling that baseball writers have been inspecting A-Rod for 22 years, trying to wedge him into every frame imaginable, and still don’t have one that quite fits. Even Moehringer’s trip into A-Rod’s psyche revealed that A-Rod is questing, too, trying to find his true self through college coursework, therapy sessions, and Malcolm Gladwell talks.
In 2015, there are notes of The Comeback Story A-Rod. Or The Good Teammate — a compliment that has rarely been paid to him, even in happy times. There’s even a reprise of The True Yankee, since Rodriguez stands, rather incredibly, as one of the last links to the dynasty years. But there’s also a simpler archetype. What if A-Rod is The Slugger? A guy who’s just trying to put the ball over the fence because no other Yankee can do it like he can. As Sheehan put it, “All he can do now is hit.”
Filed Under: MLB, Bryan Curtis on Sports Media, Sports Media, Baseball, Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, American League, Derek Jeter, cheating, PEDs, Steroids, Biogenesis
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