It happened Thursday night with two out and no runners on base in the bottom of the third inning: Alex Rodriguez belted his 661st career home run—passing Willie Mays for sole possession of fourth place on the all-time list—by sending a 1-1 offering from Orioles starter Chris Tillman over the left-centerfield wall at Yankee Stadium. It looked like many A-Rod homers before it: the deliberate leg kick, the powerful swing, the majestic path of the ball, this one traveling 423 feet. And while A-Rod was greeted with a standing ovation from the fans in the Bronx, for baseball lovers around the country the moment likely drummed up feelings of anger, annoyance or apathy, for those are emotions the 14-time All-Star can generate in others like few players before him.
The home run marks the latest significant number in Rodriguez’s infamous career, joining one (World Series win), two (times busted for PED use), three (MVP awards) and 252 (million dollars over 10 years, the extravagant contract he signed with the Texas Rangers in 2000 that started his descent from loved to hated). But it means next to nothing, and many won’t deign to acknowledge it (the Yankees—who are trying to avoid paying him contractually obligated $6 million bonuses if and when he catches Mays, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron and passes Barry Bonds—did, but with as little fanfare as possible), because his reputation is so tarnished by now that you would have an easier time extolling the virtues of rush-hour traffic.
I, however, am rooting for Rodriguez this season. And maybe you should, too.
Why do people hate A-Rod? Why does the mere mention of his name engender feelings of disgust, as if saying it aloud could cause everything in one’s vicinity to smell like rotting garbage? To understand, let’s start by recognizing what he is not.
A-Rod is not the only cheater in professional sports history, or even in Major League Baseball. He is not even the only high-profile one. There have been countless others, from Jose Canseco to Roger Clemens to Barry Bonds. And while some have been largely forgiven (see: Pettitte, Andy), others generally have not been (see: Braun, Ryan).
But A-Rod has been confined to a place all his own. He is A-Fraud, The Bad Guy, the serial PED user who poses in front of mirrors and reportedly commissioned a painting of himself as a centaur. (No matter how often this is referenced, it will always be funny.) He is considered a distinct brand of awful, for reasons his fault (his slap of Bronson Arroyo’s glove in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS; his repeated failings in the postseason) and not (he comes across as wildly insincere; he isn’t Derek Jeter).
Or perhaps it’s this: He’s hated because he’s the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with sports, celebrity and talent worship. He symbolizes the shortcomings, gives a face to the flaws. A-Rod was even called “the devil” in a New York Daily News story last November, which feels a bit too strong for a guy whose laundry list of misdeeds includes: taking drugs to hit baseballs unfathomably far; lying about it; allegedly peeing on the floor of his estranged cousin’s house; and, by all accounts, being narcissistic and insecure (traits that are typically not unrelated).
For most, Rodriguez is far past the potential for public redemption. Given what he did, in the grand scheme, isn’t that a bit harsh? And isn’t the fact that he has persevered, come back and continued to smash homers kind of, well, admirable?
In an Esquire profile of Lance Armstrong published in 2014, Armstrong, one of the few people on Earth who can reasonably approximate what it feels like to be in A-Rod’s position, said: “People are fine that Michael Jordan was a jerk, they’re fine if Wayne Gretzky was a jerk, but they weren’t fine with me being an a******. They expected that perfect story.” Other than being the exact type of thing a jerk might say, Armstrong has a point. We do see Jordan and Gretzky differently than we see Armstrong or Rodriguez, even if none of those men was as great as their athletic exploits led many to believe.
The difference between the first two and the second two? Jordan and Gretzky were not defined by their less desirable qualities. Their greatness transcended their faults. In Rodriguez’s case, it’s exactly the opposite. His shortcomings have obscured the career of one of the best players to ever put on a major league uniform, as well as a human being who is not actually the devil.
A-Rod is an athletic prodigy who lived up to every bit of the hype, who got paid an outlandish sum of money, who cheated, who cheated again, who never seemed to genuinely apologize, who was scapegoated by his own team and by MLB and who, at 39, is still doing the thing that fueled his rise to prominence at a level that is statistically far above average. That’s a hell of a life.
His trajectory reads like something straight out of Greek mythology. He may have been doomed from the instant he signed the then-richest contract in professional sports history, and he's done plenty to damage his standing since, but his pursuit of (already tainted) records has continued apace. A-Rod and Sisyphus have a lot in common: Screw-ups cost them everything, but they keep pushing the boulder anyway, and that quest to attain the unattainable is something to be applauded.
[daily_cut.MLB]Does this all say more about me than it does about Rodriguez? Of course. That’s true of any opinion about A-Rod. But he has endured loads of deserved criticism. Now, I’m rooting for the most reviled athlete of his generation to go out with a flourish.
So, do it, A-Rod. Keep mashing baseballs 423 feet through the air, high and arcing and crisp. Keep pursing your lips and trotting around the bases whether fans shower you with cheers or boos. Keep walking out to “Numb/Encore” as your at-bat music, because even if Jay Z’s lyric “Now can I get an encore, do you want more?” is a great way to stick it to your haters, you had to spoil it by selecting the mash-up featuring Linkin Park, which is kind of the perfect summation for your career.
You may be about as popular as bed bugs, but with 661 in the books, know that you still have at least one person in your corner.