NEW YORK—This is what Joe Girardi will remember about Alex Rodriguez: “Some of my most enjoyable times at the ballpark were [when] I’d be in my office and I can hear the young guys laughing with Alex and enjoying his company.” Not polite chuckles, noted the Yankees manager. Belly laughs.
This is what Brian Cashman will remember about Alex Rodriguez: “This doesn’t come to this franchise’s trophy case without his significant contributions,” said New York’s general manager, taking off his 2009 World Series championship ring and displaying it on a table in front of him.
This is what Mark Teixeira will remember about Alex Rodriguez: “The only guy who likes to talk about baseball more than Alex is Cal Ripken,” said the Yankees first baseman.
This is what Rob Refsnyder will remember about Alex Rodriguez: “About a month and a half ago [Alex and Carlos Beltran] said they wanted to hit with me. In college those were the two guys I would study the most. I don’t think they realize how much help they give,” says New York’s 25-year-old infielder. “That’s the kind of thing fans don’t see.”
There is no athlete American fans have seen as much of over the past 23 years than Alex Rodriguez. They first saw him in 1993, when he was the No. 1 overall pick in the major league draft, by the Seattle Mariners. They saw him in 1994, when he debuted as a skinny shortstop at Fenway Park. And in 1996, when at age 21 he became the third 40/40 player in baseball history. And in 2000, when he signed the richest contract in sports history, a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
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They saw him in 2004, when he was traded to the Yankees in a stunning move that aligned the best player in the world with the most dynastic team in sports. They saw him win a championship in 2009, delivering so many clutch hits that postseason that, as one teammate said, “They all ran together.” And they saw him climb the ranks of baseball’s all-time legends, through a 2015 season in which he surpassed Willie Mays in home runs and reached the 3,000-hit mark.
Of course, they also read reports of his performance-enhancing drug use. They saw him opt out of one quarter-billion dollar contract during a World Series clincher in order to sign another. They saw one tabloid headline after another concerning his dating life. They saw pictures of him kissing himself in a mirror and read stories that he had paintings of centaurs in his house. They saw him be thrown out of baseball for a year for his PED transgressions and saw pitchers throw at him just because they could. They vented about his place in history and his unworthiness for the Hall of Fame.
Yet they never stopped watching. Rodriguez’s was a baseball life to the extremes. He was a supreme talent with a gargantuan contract, celebrated for reaching heights no other player could touch and denigrated for plumbing depths no one could have imagined. “He made you pay attention,” said Teixeira.
Indeed, on Sunday at Yankee Stadium Alex Rodriguez did something he had not done in weeks: made headlines. This time it was to announce that he would play his final major league game on Aug. 12, next Friday, against the Tampa Bay Rays in the Bronx. As with all things A-Rod, it was a little more complicated than that. He would be released as soon as that game ends, giving his departure more the feeling of a delayed termination than a celebrated send-off. And, it’s worth pointing out, he didn’t actually say he wouldn’t play again if another team came calling.
Rodriguez then spent the rest of the day doing something he has done plenty of in recent weeks: sitting on the bench. Along with 39,720 fans at Yankee Stadium he watched New York beat the Cleveland Indians 3-2. The closest he came to the field was when he greeted teammate Didi Gregorius on the top step of the dugout after the shortstop’s fourth-inning home run and excitedly pulled the helmet off his head.
Rodriguez’s role as cheerleader is not new. He has started just once in the team’s last 10 games, going 1-for-7 in that time with five strikeouts. It has left him with a sickly .204/.252/.356 batting line and four home runs shy of reaching 700 for his career. It has however, wounded his pride. “The last four weeks have not been fun,” he said before the game. “It’s been very painful and embarrassing to sit on the bench. It’s been awkward.”
Last week Girardi stressed that he didn’t envision the three-time AL MVP getting many at-bats, and Cashman dodged questions about whether Rodriguez would soon be released, which would mean eating the remainder of his salary for this season and the $20 million he is due next year, the last on the 10-year, $275 million contract he signed after the 2007 season. It ultimately fell to team owner Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner, to initiate conversations with Rodriguez about winding down his time in the Bronx. Cashman and Girardi stressed that they were not a part of those discussions and the players said they got their first hint of what might be coming at the same time the rest of the world did, when the team sent out a press release at 8 p.m. Saturday announcing the press conference.
Rodriguez took the podium in an interview room in the bowels of Yankee Stadium shortly after 11 a.m. ET. Dressed in his uniform pants and a workout shirt, he came close to breaking down several times during his statement, which he began by saying, “This is a tough day. I love this game and I love this team. Today I’m saying goodbye.”
Rodriguez’s departure is the latest sign that an era has ended in the Bronx. If the retirements of Jorge Posada (2011), Mariano Rivera (’13), Andy Pettitte (’13) and Derek Jeter (’14), and the club’s mediocre play—no more than 87 wins in any of the past three seasons and a .500 record entering play Sunday—weren’t sign enough that glory days are long gone in the Bronx, then events of the past week should make that clear. Since July 25, Beltran and relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller have been traded out of town, bringing back an impressive haul of blue-chip prospects, and last week, Teixeira announced he would retire at season’s end. The departures of Teixeira and Rodriguez leave just two players remaining from the team’s most recent championship, in 2009, outfielder Brett Gardner and starting pitcher CC Sabathia. Asked later if A-Rod had stolen his retirement thunder, Teixeira said with a smile, “No. Alex’s thunder is always a little louder than mine anyway.”
The Yankees’ hope is that Rodriguez will be a bridge to their next run of success. They have agreed to a contract that will make him a special advisor and instructor through Dec. 31, 2017, and they already have reason to believe he will be more of an asset in that role than he was while taking up a roster spot in the Bronx. Cashman praised Rodriguez’s eye for talent, noting that he correctly forecast future stardom from Manny Machado, another Miami-area shortstop, before the Orioles chose him with the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft. (On Sunday, Machado was in Chicago further validating Rodriguez’s prediction, hitting three home runs and driving in seven runs in his first three at-bats.)
Girardi recalled with fondness the way Rodriguez mentored a young Robinson Cano, taking the then-callow second baseman out to a back field at spring training one year to help with his hitting approach with men on base. Refsnyder recalled seeing Rodriguez pull Aaron Judge, the slugging prospect who could be the one who replaces A-Rod on the roster later this week, aside during camp this year to talk hitting more than an hour after all the other players had left.
It is that camaraderie that Rodriguez will surely miss the most. Words like “steroids” and “suspensions” and “lawsuits” were nowhere to be heard in New York’s clubhouse on Sunday. Instead, those that echoed loudest were spoken by Teixeira: “We all love Alex as a teammate and as a person.”
Rodriguez’s retirement brings to a close one of the most polarizing careers in American sports, one that stands in sharp contrast with not just those of his former Yankees teammates but those of fellow 1990s-era legends who left their respective sports earlier this year. But if Peyton Manning was universally beloved, Tim Duncan admired and Kobe Bryant respected, what to make of Rodriguez? The players have their perspective. The fans and media have theirs. Hall of Fame voters will surely have their own. There will be no consensus, only, as is perhaps fitting for a man who defined a love-hate relationship among his own fans for more than a dozen years, disagreement.
So how will Alex Rodriguez remember Alex Rodriguez? “I do want to be remembered as someone who was madly in love with baseball, someone who loves it at every level. Someone who loves to learn it, play it, teach it, coach it. And also, I’m going to be hopefully remembered as someone who tripped and fell a lot, but someone that kept getting up.”