Alex Rodriguez is the one indisputable villain of the sports world, a player whose ignominy proceeds him like bad cologne. He’s a cheater. He’s a liar. He’s a showboat and a gloater. He’s the antidote to Derek Jeter, a man so celebrated and beloved that the Yankees were comfortable making an entire losing season into a memorial service for his career. During that season, A-Rod was banned from the game for using performance enhancing drugs. Yankees fans tore at their clothing contemplating Jeter's absence. No one missed A-Rod. People jeer A-Rod.
But we’re not going to. We’re not saying we enjoy his personal stylings, but we're rooting for him.
Here’s why: Rodriguez, like almost every other slugger of his generation, used steroids to inflate his statistics, to bring his team a championship, and to hit enough dingers to put him on the front of a supermarket worth of products. Like every other slugger, A-Rod has always been surrounded by rumors - most of which were pretty much confirmed by the time A-Rod had won his long-awaited first World Series in 2009. Rodriguez juiced, because that was what was expected of him. Whether it was right for him to try to make as much money as possible using the methods employed by almost all of his competitors is up to debate. For retired sluggers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, the returns are split. Bonds has returned to our good graces, while McGwire remains marginalized.
What made A-Rod a true villain was never the steroids; it was the lying, the scheming, the general surliness. No one loved that behavior, least of all Yankee fans and their attendant newspaper columnists. So Rodriguez ended up on the wrong side of an aggrieved league looking for a fall guy. A-Rod, banned from the game, made a mockery of himself in the tabloids by attempting to sue his employer. Still, he persisted. He kept saying that he was going to come back, that we was going to contribute to his team in 2015, and he was going to do it clean.
For a 39-year-old with serious hip problems, A-Rod is in a tough spot (albeit not financially). The Yankees want him gone but had to invite him back to camp. In essence, A-Rod is no longer the centerpiece of a franchise; he's just another player in Florida, looking for a spot on a big league team. Even if you don’t like the man, there’s something to be said for a guy who still thinks he has something to contribute after everyone has already told him to go to hell. You have to admire that persistence. And, come this season, you might even find yourself rooting for that once-disgraced millionaire.
There’s precedence for all this nonsense. Last week, Jason Giambi retired after 20 seasons in Major League Baseball. Former A-Rod's teammate, Giambi had a career that mirrored in many ways Rodriguez’s. Like Rodriguez, Giambi came up in the post-strike live-ball nineties and early aughts, gladly partaking in steroids in order to puff up his stats, help his team, and make a whole lot of money. Like Rodriguez, he took the huge payday, and came to the piggy bank of Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees. They even shared the same discontented clubhouse together between 2004-2008. Like A-Rod, Giambi’s use of PED’s eventually caught up with him, and he was implicated on multiple occasions for using the illegal substances. He admitted his abuse, and left the Yankees in 2008, having found his skills and reputation greatly diminished.
But Giambi didn’t stop playing baseball. For the next five seasons, Giambi hung around the league, a seasoned bat looking for pinch-hit opportunities. With the A’s, then the Rockies, and eventually the Indians, Giambi swung a feared bat that could still do damage. And he got a ton of respect for taking on a small role - to the point that the Rockies seriously considered making him their next manager. Giambi’s retirement wasn’t met with a recollection of his misdeeds, but rather an appreciation that he was a product of his time who found peace and maturity in a league that no longer had much use for him.
Not that A-Rod will ever truly regain a sterling reputation, but a partial redemption might be possible. If he can stay healthy and swing that bat, who wouldn’t be on their feet, cheering as he trots out of the clubhouse with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth? Perhaps A-Rod was never meant for the mundane, for the tedium of a full Major League workload. Maybe we’ll find this new, grizzled A-Rod to be something that we can actually get behind. We'll never love him - it’s too late for that - but the past is in the past and we like an old guy with something to prove.
Photos by Associated Press