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Why we feel free to hate A-Rod

Mike Krzyzewski said something the other day that, to me anyway, was both nonsensical and really astute at the same time. He was trying to explain why so many people felt so free to despise Duke, and he basically came down to the idea that Duke is not a state school. As such, Duke really has no home base, no geographic core of fans to tell the haters, in a metaphoric sense, to please go to hell.*

*You know, if you think about it, "Go to hell," as an expression, does seem a bit over the top, doesn't it? I mean, you overhear a conversation that goes something like this:

Fan 1: "You really think Kobe is better than LeBron?"Fan 2: "Of course he is. Look at the four rings."Fan 1: "Four rings? Kobe plays nursemaid to Shaq for three of them, and then wins one with a freaking loaded team with Gasol and Odom and Fisher and ..."Fan 2: "Fisher? You think Fisher's good?"Fan 1: "I think Fisher's better than the garbage LeBron has been carrying on his back."Fan 2: "You're crazy. LeBron is never going to win one."Fan 1: "Go to hell."

In this case, a disagreement about the playing ability of two of the finer players in the NBA has led one to consign the other to eternal damnation in an everlasting furnace of fire with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Seems a bit much. Now, if Fan 2 was saying Kobe was better than Jordan, OK, maybe I can see it ...

The nonsensical part of what Krzyzewski said, of course, is that there is no shortage of Duke fans more than happy to tell haters to go to Hell. And, conversely, people across America have PLENTY of hate for state schools. You telling me people don't have Florida? Or North Carolina? Or Kentucky? Or Texas? Oh yeah, in college sports, people hate a' plenty.

But the astute part of what Krzyzewski said, I think, is that it does seem true that when you despise Duke (or Notre Dame, for that matter) you are not hating something concrete like a state school. It's more like you are hating an idea. Ohio State fans hate Michigan because it's required by state law, but everybody knows that Michigan is a real place with real people who are not so very different from Ohio State fans.

Duke, on the other hand, doesn't exist in that same context. Duke is this private school that feels VERY different. Duke is where Richard Nixon got his law degree, and where Mike Krzyzewski created a dynasty with players (we are constantly told) who do everything right and are so much more awesome than you or anybody you know. Duke is that magical place that Dick Vitale will never stop praising. Duke is that mythical place where the students come up with hilarious chants and mesmerized referees see charging calls in their sleep.

No, you don't need to defend WHY you despise Duke -- you can just do it without fear of contradiction. This week, I spoke at a high school journalism event and one of the seniors said she could NEVER go to Duke; the implication was that being a Kansas fan, she clearly despises Duke. But it is anything but clear. There's no rivalry between Kansas and Duke -- no natural rivalry, no geographic rivalry, they hardly play each other ever, and when Duke beat Kansas in the 1991 championship game, she wasn't even born. But DUKE, all caps, represents something to her, and it represents something to people, and that something is easier for many to despise than anything real.

When she said she despised Duke, everyone around her just kind of nodded ... like it was obvious. There aren't many things you can hate in America without guilt. Duke, though, seems one of those things.

Another guilt-free hate: Alex Rodriguez.

I realized this about a year ago when I was getting absolutely lambasted by a friend and Yankees fan for some of the stuff I have written about Derek Jeter. He gave me a solid 20-minute beatdown about how off I was about Jeter, how he was beyond awesome, how he was the greatest defensive shortstop in the world, how he was this unparalleled leader, how he was all that is good about the game of baseball. I do not exaggerate. He explained that he had seen almost every game Jeter has played since he was called up to the Yankees, and that no words had yet approached the Captain's greatness. It is fair to say it was the greatest short display of Yankee amour I have seen up close.

And he wrapped up the epic poem to Jeter by saying this: "If you're going to rip somebody, rip that piece-of-#$#*$ A-Rod. What a fraud that guy is."

There you go. When someone this much in love with the Yankees is encouraging you to rip A-Rod, you know there aren't too many PerryMasons out there ready to defend A-Rod from the haters.

Yes, Alex Rodriguez too has become something less like a person and more like an idea. The overpaid guy who only cares about money. The liar who took steroids. The big star who, until recently, shrunk in the spotlight. The guy so hungry for attention he's making late-night visits to see Madonna. All those things. It doesn't matter how true or real these things are ... they are a part of Rodriguez's aura now. A-Rod has become so comically overblown, that it's hard to find anything real in there ... and when there's nothing real, when there's no real emotion invested, the hate thing is easy.

In this, A-Rod may be singular in our sports scene. Everybody else has rabid defenders. If you take a moment to bash Bob Knight ... or Tiger Woods ... or Tony La Russa ... or Derek Jeter ... or Terrell Owens ... or Kobe Bryant ... or Ben Roethlisberger ... or Michael Vick ... ... or Peyton Manning ... or Tim Tebow ... or Phil Mickelson ... or Randy Moss ... or Roger Clemens ... or John Calipari ... or Roy Williams ... or Barry Bonds ... or just about any other athlete or coach who might spark negative views (even if it is because they are so positively portrayed), there will likely be a swarm of people who will tell you (with gusto) that you are wrong. There are a lot of people who believe John Rocker was misunderstood.

But you more or less can bash A-Rod with impunity. Few will disagree. Not many believe him misunderstood. Here is absolutely one of the greatest players in baseball history -- he's a former Gold Glove shortstop who this year will hit his SIX HUNDREDTH home run, probably before he turns 35. Here is a player who had a 40-40 season when he was 22 years old. He is a right-handed batter who hit 54 home runs playing half his games in right-handed-death-trap Yankee Stadium. Here is a player who led the league in runs five times, hits once, doubles once, homers five times, RBIs twice, batting average once, slugging percentage four times, OPS twice and total bases four times ... and he has always played a key defensive position. Here is a three-time MVP who scored and drove in 100 runs for ELEVEN straight seasons -- only Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse himself, had done that.

But, the funny thing is: To bash A-Rod properly is to concede the numbers. It is to admit -- even relish -- the idea that he has been a player who had done extraordinary things. It is to grant him his natural talent, perhaps even to grant him his intense work ethic. To bash A-Rod is to outflank him. It is to say he has done those extraordinary things only for the glory of himself. It is to say that he wants constant praise for his hard work. It is to say that while the numbers look good, they do not reveal his inner weaknesses. It is to say that he cheated to compile those remarkable numbers --- he could not have done it naturally. It is to say that he does not play the game right.

All this came up again this week when Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden took great offense to A-Rod running across the mound after a foul ball. To be more specific, Robinson Cano fouled off a pitch with A-Rod on first. It looked like the ball might drop fair and so Rodriguez rounded second and was headed to third when it plopped a few inches foul. A-Rod had to go back to first base, and so he ran straight across the field, using the mound as a shortcut. He ran right by Braden and stepped on the mound and kept on running to first base.

Braden was almost comically enraged by this bit of ceremonial indiscretion, and raged at length on the subject -- even trying to hurt A-Rod where it hurts by saying that maybe he should "watch his captain a little more often." My Yankees friend, undoubtedly, appreciated that. Most other players I've heard or read seem to find the whole thing amusing, but some have called A-Rod's mound-clomp bush league or against the spirit of the game or a clear violation of baseball's unwritten rules.

Now look: Baseball almost certainly has more unwritten rules than any other sport in the world -- probably more than all other sports combined. I think it is part of the character of baseball for those rules to be "unwritten" -- this goes along with it being a "police yourself" kind of sport. So, you don't:

• Step on the foul line• Bunt for a hit with a no-hitter in the works• Peek back at the catcher to see where he's setting up• Aim for the head• Talk about no-hitters while they're happening• Throw behind the batter• Charge the mound with your bat in your hands• Steal bases when your team up a certain number of runs (the number is negotiable)• Swing for the fences 3-0 when your team is up a certain number of runs (the number is negotiable)• Shout anything racial when you are verbally and viciously taunting your opponent• Start walking to first base before the umpire says "Ball four"• Stand at home plate for too long and watch your home run fly (time is negotiable)• Shout as you are running by when an opponent is trying to catch a fly ball• Spend too much time celebrating strikeouts• Help an opponent• Crash into a catcher in an All-Star Game• Rabbit punch someone during a bench-clearing brawl• Spit at an umpire.• Slide into second base, spikes high.• Tag somebody hard in the face.

And many, many others. So if someone had asked me, "Is it OK for a hitter to walk/stomp on the mound after a foul ball," I'm sure I would have said, "Probably not." In the convoluted maze that is baseball protocol, your best bet is ALWAYS to guess that something is against the unwritten rules. And, sure, I can see why a pitcher would get mad about a hitter running across -- the mound is his castle. I don't think anyone should come in my car and mess with the radio. I don't think anyone should come in my house and sit in my chair ... you know, like that.

But to be honest, I also have never heard that "don't cross the mound" rule. I wasn't a great baseball player by any stretch, but I played a lot of it -- and I never heard the rule. I don't claim to be the most insightful baseball analyst going by any stretch, but I've covered a lot of baseball and talked to a lot of baseball people -- and I never heard the rule. And I am quite sure that through the years, I have seen numerous players walk either right by the mound or right over it ... some to pass along a little message or joke to the pitcher, some (A.J. Pierzynski comes to mind) to be irritating, and some simply because it's a direct route. I don't know if I have seen any of them actually step on the rubber like Braden claims A-Rod did. And I would not doubt for one minute that A-Rod did the run-across to be annoying or intimidating. I don't know why he did it -- but it's certainly possible that he was sending one of those goofy and childish coded A-Rod messages, like the time he yelled "Ha!" when running by someone trying to catch a fly ball.

Still, it seems to me the key factor here is: It's A-Rod. And all that entails. I mean, let's face it ... if that was Albert Pujols running across the mound, and that was a pitcher who has accomplished as much as Dallas Braden griping about it -- say Anibal Sanchez or someone -- it seems to me there would be a whole lot of "Shut your fat face, kid," talk going on across the country.

But it's not Pujols. It's A-Rod. And because it's A-Rod, there are suddenly a lot of people saying: "Yeah, you can't just run across the mound -- everybody knows that!" Because it's A-Rod there are people admiring Dallas Braden for standing up to the big bully who dared stomp on his new carpet. Because it's A-Rod, the story is lively and the coverage is intense and the opinion seems to be at least leaning Dallas Braden's way. Hey look: Another reason to despise A-Rod! Dallas Braden got it right in this way. In this world of ours, you can't go wrong standing against taxes, the declining levels of our schools and Alex Rodriguez.

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