Long the most successful, most talented kid in his class, Alex Rodriguez finds himself in an odd place: being picked on by both the jocks and the geeks
This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2013 issue
It's hard to believe that 38-year-old Yankees third baseman/wrestling heel Alex Rodriguez was once a teenager enrolled at a small private high school in Palmetto Bay, Fla. His skill, his build and his personality all fall so many standard deviations from the mean that A-Rod must have been forged in a lab somewhere, unleashed upon major league baseball only after 18 years of troubleshooting. But, no, no matter when his PED use started, he was a kid once, I swear.
Evidence of his youth is right here, preserved for all time in a USA Today story from April 1993: "Pressure is overrated if you keep everything in perspective.... The key is to stay humble, credit your coaches, teammates and the Lord," the 17-year-old senior who was the country's top-rated high school player told the reporter from a national newspaper.
Oh, right. His formative years were nothing like ours; hell, he had been featured in SI a month before USA Today came calling. He was already broken then, spouting the focus-grouped clichés that so many other athletes use to hide from the media and revealing in the process that he wasn't entirely sure how to deploy them. (A tip, Alex, 20 years late: You're supposed to do those things, not tell the reporter that you will do them.) The machine had made him a star, and he hadn't even left high school.
I've got high school on my mind because the Yankees, since Rodriguez's return in early August, have conjured no other image. The quality of his team's play has been better than what you'd see at Westminster Christian School—even with Eduardo Nu√±ez and Lyle Overbay playing every day—but the emotional climate couldn't be more frenzied and more petty. The homecoming king got caught stuffing the ballot box, and the rest of the class has done nothing but gossip, shriek and bully.
Even the nerds are going after him. Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman has said he cannot talk to A-Rod because of the "litigious environment" Rodriguez's attorneys have created by questioning the judgment of the Yankees' medical staff. (Was there no such litigious environment when the Yankees' attorneys investigated voiding Rodriguez's contract after the Biogenesis story broke?) And team president Randy Levine has gone full birther on Rodriguez, demanding he produce his medical records for public consumption.
The league took Rodriguez on, too. On the Today show, while chatting with Rodriguez's lawyer, the usually fuzzy Matt Lauer whipped out an authorized letter from Major League Baseball, waiving confidentiality for this particular drug case. Who knew 79-year-old Bud Selig and his lieutenants had such a flair for the dramatic?
But the worst treatment, as it so often does, has come from the jocks. Red Sox pitcher John Lackey told the press that Rodriguez had no right to play while his suspension was under appeal. "I've got a problem with it. You bet I do," he said. While presumably happy with the union's accomplishments when it ensures that he's guaranteed to receive every penny of his silly $82.5 million contract, however mediocre he might be, Lackey is contemptuous of the union when it guarantees players suspended for arbitrary lengths of time the right to see an arbitrator.
Ryan Dempster, Lackey's rotation-mate, didn't bother critiquing Rodriguez in the press. He simply threw at him, on Sunday Night Baseball, as the Fenway crowd whooped. The fans applauded, too, as Dempster exited the game. (He had allowed four runs in 51/3 innings and left the bases loaded. All the runners would score, and the Red Sox lost.) It was Carrie-style bullying, abetted by schadenfreude-happy bystanders. Only one of Dempster's teammates, David Ortiz, dared question his teammate's mission: "I didn't like it. I don't think it was the right thing to do," he told USA Today. (Two players did tell SI last week that they thought A-Rod was getting a raw deal, but they only said so once the conversation had gone off the record.)
Ortiz's voice of moderation was sounded too late, though. That's kind of the story of Rodriguez's life.
The apparatuses that usually shepherd players toward functional adulthood—college and the minors, where the jock must survive in an unfamiliar town on a small budget and do battle with the problems of everyday life—never came to help A-Rod. He played baseball too well to need them, debuting in the majors before he turned 19 and finishing second in the MVP voting at 20. By 1998 he had power, speed and plate discipline in excess. By 2001 he was making more money than anyone in the game's history. And by 2004 he was in New York, playing for the first time on a team that could expect to contend for a title every year. It appeared until recently as though Rodriguez would have one of the best careers in major league history.
That's all baseball success, of course. But no development of emotional intelligence or self-awareness came with it—hitting a ball very far cannot make someone into a new man. Rodriguez looks like baseball's answer to Michael Jackson, a singularly gifted but immature and inescapably single-minded talent, scrutinized by the press from a young age without a shred of empathy, so threatened by the march of time that he asked several doctors to fix him. Don't plunk; pity.
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