In the cover story for this week's Sports Illustrated, senior writer S.L. Price details the last days of the Alex Rodriguez saga. Price, who had an exclusive interview with the Yankees' slugger, writes about his experiences with A-Rod here. For the complete magazine story (available Wednesday) and to buy a digital version of the issue, go here.
Do the impossible, just for a minute. Forget about steroids, HGH, and the word Biogenesis. Forget about the spasms of oddness that have dotted his career -- that photo of A-Rod kissing his own reflection, that illegal slap at Bronson Arroyo's glove, the Madonna nonsense -- and consider the mental gymnastics required just to be Alex Rodriguez. Focus, in fact, on his use of just one word.
It happened in the early evening of July 18, before his first game with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Rodriguez was holding a press conference under the stands, a near-daily norm during the three-week rehab stint that had tacked about Tampa and sailed through Charleston, S.C., and Trenton, N.J., before landing in tiny Moosic, Pa. He sat at a table in a cavernous space usually saved for batting practice between two, "No Seeds In Cage!!" signs. Local TV wondered how long he planned to stay, a blockheaded feature guy wondered if he'd spoken to Bo Jackson, and much was asked about his recovering hip and improving movement and upcoming return to the big club.
Everyone waited. What hung in the air, of course, was the ever-widening talk about a suspension -- long, perhaps permanent, and seemingly soon at hand -- to be levied upon him by baseball commissioner Bud Selig, and the latest news that a deal was being discussed. Finally, the New York tabloid gang -- the core of what Rodriguez himself called "this little mini-circus" -- realized that they'd have to toss the tough questions themselves, as usual.
One asked if he had any meetings planned with Major League Baseball or the union officials. After Rodriguez said that he couldn't comment, another asked if he'd heard that the head of the MLB Players' Association-- in a key reversal -- had stated that he'd push for a deal if a player faced overwhelming proof of his guilt in the procurement or use of performance-enhancing drugs.
"I can't comment on any of that part," Rodriguez said. "Thanks."
His tone held no hint of sarcasm. In fact, Rodriguez then glanced around so calmly, face blank and ready for the next question, that it took days for the sheer weirdness of the response to register. Thanks? In what beleaguered mind -- much less one savvy enough to know that its time as a sure Hall of Famer and a Yankee great would likely soon be ashes -- does such smarm seem logical? ("President Nixon, about those articles of impeachment. ..." No comment, you nattering nabob -- but thanks!) If you didn't know any better -- and you did -- you'd think the guy was almost enjoying himself.
Such was the incongruity at work as A-Rod slouched toward banishment. Behind the scenes, the Rodriguez camp gamed out scenarios and feverishly massaged the notion that the Yankees did not want their client to return -- only to have his desperation revealed by last week's backfiring bid to publicize a dodgy second opinion on his strained quad. Meanwhile, in public, Rodriguez stayed doggedly, surreally on-message: His rehab tour of the minors had revived his love of the game; he was getting better, fast; he planned on being back with "my brothers", the Yankees -- and soon, thanks.
On many levels, it made no sense to put himself on such display -- though there was the tortured theory that he was angling to build a case for a pre-ban declaration of permanent disability -- yet Rodriguez was hardly shy. In his three games in Moosic, even as his role shrank from full-time to DH to not playing at all on Sunday because of the quad injury, he held daily press conferences, signed autographs for minutes at a time, chatted kids while on-deck. He followed the old press-agent playbook, repeating reporters names', asking them what they thought, and that, too, came off as charming and desperate. He was not, for the moment, scorching earth. This comeback was not, he insisted, about defiance.
"I think in my 20s it would've been, like, I want to show you doubters or haters -- I don't even like using those words," he said. This was two days later, on July 20, as the 38-year old Rodriguez sat in front of his locker and talked to me exclusively in Moosic. "I think today my supporters feel me. Our fan-base feels me. My biggest two fans are my daughters: They feel me. And, you know. ... "
He paused. The sounds of the clubhouse TV drifted over from 25 feet away; the Yankees were playing the Red Sox in Boston, 300 miles to the northeast. His manager, Joe Girardi, and the rest of the commentators had been talking about him for a while now. Rodriguez wanted to hear every word.
"... what I'm trying to say here is that the Yankees have gotten worse production there at third base than any team in baseball. ... So: A-Rod .. doesn't look that bad. And right now when they're as up into the challenge as they are, clinging to every last thread of hope. ..."
Rodriguez had had a couple hits the night before, too, even made a hard slide into second, but his RailRiders stint had hit its peak. Already, Rodriguez was feeling the tightness in his leg that would reduce him to an 0-4 night at DH, knock him out of Sunday's game, and prompt the MRI scan that showed -- to Yankees officials and doctors, anyway -- a Grade-1 strain. He didn't yet sense that this night's contest could well be his last for a long time.
"... Even for me, the way I've felt the last couple days, it feels good," Rodriguez went on. "And I appreciate that. Back when I was 32 or 28, I would go 2-for-4 and I'd be pissed off about the two at-bats I'd missed; I was mad on the way home. Now I can appreciate a 2-for-4 like last night. I was really happy."
Happy? With his reputation in free-fall, and nearly $100 million of his remaining salary at risk? With the daily beating he is taking in papers and talk-shows and websites? With the knowledge that he was gifted enough to hit 600 homers without a drop of illegal help? It was impossible to believe that, of course, and Rodriguez's insistence, his forced equanimity, is a big reason why he inspires such widespread disdain. Many loathe Barry Bonds, perhaps A-Rod's only equal in wasted greatness, but sort of respect what Bob Costas calls Bonds' "odd integrity" -- the stubborn refusal to be anything but miserable, churlish, self-satisfied Barry Bonds forever.
Rodriguez, it seems, never had the strength of even bad character. In 2009, the same year that his steroid use from 2001-03 with the Texas Rangers was reported by Sports Illustrated, it was revealed that even Yankees teammates had dubbed him "A-Fraud". The name and sentiment have yet to fade; like the era in which he played, you watched A-Rod speak and hit and didn't know what to believe. When people discuss his fall, when they hear Biogenesis and consider the new hammer about to drop, no one ever uses a word like "tragedy". Usually, it's some variation on "pathetic".
"It just makes me sad," says Carlos Lezcano, Rodriguez's manager at Single-A Appleton.
"It's sad for baseball," says his first manager in Texas, Jerry Narron.
"It's a shame, because this guy was one of the greatest players of all time," says his high school coach, Rich Hofman. "I'm not sure what this is going to do. But I know that he loves the game more than anything else and his whole life was committed to playing baseball. And if he can't do it, or he's not going to be able to, it's not going to be good."
Indeed, where does Alex Rodriguez go when there's no one left to fool? He'll have plenty of money and time, yes, and no routine, no ovations, no game to distract him as his mind unspools the next brilliant idea. And no one to thank, for all that, but himself.