Today is the official start of the baseball off season. The playoffs are over – which means I can stop halfheartedly cheering for teams I actually have no interest in. (Except for Baltimore. Although it’s unusual for a Yankees fan to like the Orioles, I actually do – but just don’t want them to ever play better than the Yankees) I don’t have a whole lot of commentary about the World Series other than I was hoping for the Royals to sweep the Giants, but in the end I don’t really care who won (congratulations to the Giants anyway).
What’s more exciting to me, now that the 2014 Major League Baseball season is over, is that so is Alex Rodriguez’s historic suspension. As a longtime Rodriguez fan, I hope he plays again next year, and I want nothing more than for him to come back to the Yankees and be productive. For someone who has followed his career for most of the 20 years since he was drafted, I almost need him to come back and do something positive – just to show that these years following his career weren’t a total waste.
At the same time, I am realistic. He will be 40 next year, hasn’t played baseball in over a year, and he has had multiple surgeries. I’m still hopeful though – and I wouldn’t be a very supportive fan if I wasn’t.
I’ve been a Rodriguez fan since I seriously started watching baseball back in 1997. Growing up outside Cleveland, I didn’t have many opportunities to watch the Seattle Mariners. My best friend had MLB Extra Innings on her satellite TV (so she could watch Derek Jeter playing in New York) and many summer nights were spent staying up late to watch games in Seattle and debating who the better shortstop was. Rodriguez as a Mariner is actually my favorite part of his career – even though he signed a contract with my favorite team 10 years ago.
Back then, there was (at least not that I was aware of) any connection to steroids/PEDs. There was an instance during a series in Seattle that Orioles manager Davey Johnson suspected Rodriguez was using a corked bat. Rodriguez handed over his bat without an argument – and then went on to hit a three-run homerun using a teammate’s bat. There was also no enormous contract. The 1997 season was the first time he made over $1 million in a season, and from 1994 to 1996 he actually made less than $500,000. Rodriguez was just an incredibly talented kid from Miami taking Major League Baseball by storm.
The stats during his time in Seattle show just how talented he was at such a young age. In 7 years (not all full seasons at the major league level) he played in 790 games batting .309, with 966 hits, 595 RBI and 189 homeruns (1 HR every 27 games). He also had 133 stolen bases during that time, became the third member of the 40-40 club, was an All Star 4 times, and was in consideration for American League MVP 4 times. The most incredible thing about all these statistics is that he accomplished all of this by the time he was 25 years old. How could any baseball fan not be excited about that?
Obviously, things were not always that seemingly innocent. In 2009, Rodriguez admitted to using steroids during the 2001-2003 seasons when he was with the Texas Rangers. There are some people who believe he has used banned substances throughout his entire career and even as far back as high school. I personally don’t believe those rumors.
Even though my favorite player is the most notorious PED user in the history of Major League Baseball, I do not support the use of banned substances. It’s disappointing to me, as a fan, that any player would use something to gain an edge on their competition. At the same time, I do not believe PEDs will make an average player a superstar – there has to be underlying talent. PEDs will help a player hit the ball harder and further, but it won’t make a batter suddenly able to connect the bat to the ball, at precisely the right time and location, to send the ball over the outfield wall.
Rodriguez himself said he felt an enormous amount of pressure when playing for the Rangers, and that pressure is what lead him to using steroids. Is it a good enough excuse to completely ignore his wrongdoings during those years? Of course not – but it makes sense to me. During the 3 years he played in Texas, he made $22 million a year for a team that finished last in their division each year he was there. The Rangers did finish first in the 1998 and 1999 seasons, so it is possible Rodriguez signed the contract honestly believing he could help the team move back into first place. It’s easy for us to say anyone making $22 million to play 162 baseball games should have no reason to complain or feel any pressure – but what if that was you? What if you were told you were the best player in the sport, signed the biggest contract in the history of the sport, and while you performed well as an individual, your team couldn’t win?
The 3 seasons in Texas (steroids or not) brought more impressive statistics for Rodriguez. In 485 games he totaled 569 hits, 382 runs, 156 homeruns (HR ever 3.1 ggames), and a .305 batting average. There were 3 All Star appearances, 3 Silver Slugger awards, nominations for American League MVP in all 3 seasons, and he won his first MVP award in 2003. He could have stayed in Texas. He had already signed most lucrative contract in sports history making him the highest paid baseball player in the game. It would have been easy to continue playing as the brightest star for a last place team. If he was as greedy and arrogant as everyone says, why not just stay? Just continue collecting the money and putting up big numbers without anyone knowing (yet) the numbers were boosted with the help of steroids?
But that’s not what happened. Rodriguez and the Rangers could not part ways quickly enough – so much so, that when he was traded to the Yankees, the Rangers agreed to pay $67 million of the $179 million remaining on his contract with them. Texas wanted him gone so badly they agreed to pay that huge amount of money for him to leave! (Side note – the $67 million in 2004 is more than the Yankees owe Rodriguez today, in 2014, if they were to buy out the remainder of his contract. Let that sink in.) Don’t forget that before the trade to New York occurred, Rodriguez had agreed to deal that would send him to the Boston Red Sox – and for less money than he was getting from the Rangers! For being the “greediest player in history”, that shows how badly he also wanted out of Texas. The deal that almost was is so significant in baseball history that ESPN actually filmed a 30 for 30 documentary (simply called The Deal) about just that. When the MLB Players Association blocked the trade – because Rodriguez would be taking a voluntary salary reduction! – the Rangers agreed to pay that $67 million to get rid of him. And in addition to that, Rodriguez agreed to switch positions to third base (even though he had been a shortstop his entire professional career) since the Yankees already had Derek Jeter. There is probably more to that story – no one knows the details of the relationship Rodriguez had with the Rangers front office – but his departure prior to the 2004 season is an important thing to keep in mind when evaluating his entire career on the field and off. (And remember, this trade occurred when Rodriguez was still only 29 years old.)
Rodriguez has now played 10 seasons in New York to mixed reviews. The sample size for his production with the Yankees is obviously larger due to the length of time he has spent with the team, and all 10 seasons playing on the major league roster (aside from rehab work in the minor leagues). As a Yankee, he has played in 1,293 games and recorded 1,404 hits, 309 homeruns, 979 RBI, 910 runs scored, and a batting average of .291. In those 10 years he made 7 more All Star appearances, received 7 more considerations for MVP (winning twice in 2005 and 2007), won 3 more Silver Slugger awards, and finally won a World Series championship with the Yankees in 2009. Of course those 10 years with the Yankees lead up to his involvement in the Biogenesis case, so there is the question of what seasons were affected by PEDs and to what degree. Again, I do not believe PEDs will magically turn a man into a phenomenal baseball player. There has to be natural talent there, even if chemicals are going to bloat the statistics.
If instead you look at his fielding abilities, which arguably would not be affected by increased power due to PEDs, there are 12 seasons as shortstop at 10 seasons at third base to compare to the rest of baseball. As a shortstop, Rodriguez’s error total is 131, and his .977 fielding percentage is tied for 20th place all time, with 6 active players and 2 Hall of Famers above him. For thirdbasemen, Rodriguez has a total of 103 errors with a .965 fielding percentage, tying for 27th on the all time list with only 3 active players and 2 Hall of Famers above him. Comparatively, his hero growing up and arguably one of the best players in the history of the baseball, Cal Ripken, has a career .979 fielding percentage at shortstop (11th) and .961 fielding percentage at third base (51st).
There are, aside from the Biogenesis case, two significant things that happened during the 10 years in New York. In 2007 there was The Opt-Out Controversy, when agent Scott Boras announced during the World Series that Alex Rodriguez would not renew his contract with the Yankees. It was terrible timing and disrespectful to the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies who were in the 8th inning of Game 4 of the World Series, and to all of baseball. I don’t think there is a written rule about announcements like this waiting until the official off season – Joe Maddon and the Cubs just announced their new partnership before this year’s World Series was over – but the decent and respectable thing to do it wait until the season is done. That being said, it was Boras who made the announcement, and as the story goes Mariano Rivera convinced Rodriguez to speak with the Yankees directly. Soon after, a new contract was signed and Boras was eventually fired as Rodriguez’s agent. Maybe – just maybe – it was a move made entirely by Boras without Rodriguez’s approval or knowledge. I’ll never know that for sure, but as long as there is that small possibility of innocence in the situation, I choose not to blame Rodriguez.
Another significant negative for Rodriguez is the downfall of his personal life. After reports of affairs and prostitutes, Rodriguez and his wife Cynthia divorced in 2008 after 6 years of marriage. I don’t support cheating in a relationship, and frankly if you’re not mature enough to handle a committed relationship, you shouldn’t be in one. However, he is not the first person to cheat on their spouse, and certainly won’t be the last. Being a professional athlete and being in the spotlight, especially after signing those huge contracts, puts a person under a microscope. There are people all along who hope that person will fail, and when they do make a mistake, they can’t do it privately. Again, is it an excuse? Of course not. But think about any mistake you have ever made in your life – would you want all the world to know about it? (If there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t made a mistake their ashamed of, I’d like you to let me know because I have to meet you.)
Which leads me to the Biogenesis case, and the most frustrating time for me as an Alex Rodriguez fan. Unsurprisingly, I followed the case very closely – and continue to do so since it’s an ongoing story. My biggest disappointment is how the entire investigation and appeal process was handled – on both sides. As a Rodriguez fan, I disagree wholeheartedly with the plan to attack anyone and everyone involved in the case – the Yankees organization, team doctors, and the MLBPA. Attorney James Sharp in Washington, DC was already in place as Rodriguez’s lawyer since 2009, but actually stepped down during the suspension appeal because he did not like the approach Rodriguez’s legal team was taking. Who can blame him? (He has since resumed responsibility as Rodriguez’s lawyer.) The appeal and multiple lawsuits were a mess, and I honestly believe if things had been handled differently, the suspension could have been less. (For a time, I thought the result would be 100-125 games) If you piss off MLB, they’re probably not going to be very lenient.
At the same time, I am a baseball fan – and the way MLB handled the investigation was questionable at best. After reading about the investigation, how the information was collected and from what sources, it makes me very disappointed with MLB and their investigators. The investigation led to more than a dozen players receiving suspensions, and my personal opinion is that Bud Selig (and thus MLB) specifically targeted Alex Rodriguez and Milwaukee Brewer’s Ryan Braun. Any other players named were coincidental and collateral damage. (Weren’t there supposed to be more players named recently? Still haven’t heard any names announced, although I have my suspicions.) During the 2014 season, there wasn’t a whole lot said about the other players connected to the case. Francisco Cervelli, for example, returned to the Yankees and had a nice season. Nelson Cruz signed a deal with the Baltimore Orioles, whose fans didn’t seem to acknowledge his prior suspension, and went on to lead the American League with 40 homeruns. (The only game I ever attended at Yankee Stadium was this summer when the Orioles were in the Bronx. Nelson Cruz played left field – right in front of my bleacher seats, in fact – and Yankee fans did heckle him for prior steroid use. In the two games I attended at Camden Yards and the dozens of televised games I watched at home, there was rarely a mention of his PED use or suspension.)
However, I absolutely agree with Rodriguez appealing the suspension. There’s a lot of debate about this, and I would argue he should have gotten less than the final 162 game suspension. The rules in place currently state a 50 game suspension for a first time offense, and this technically is. While he did test positive as a Ranger in 2003, it was before punishments were in place for PED use, and the results were intended to be kept private. He didn’t have to admit to the positive test – he could have kept up his initial lie denying the use of steroids – but he eventually did the right thing and was honest. Aside from that test, Rodriguez never tested positive for a banned substance. There are ways to punish a player for PED use without a failed test but again, and in this case it still would be Rodriguez’s first failed test. Whatever my opinion might be, Rodriguez eventually accepted and served the suspension, and it’s now done and over with. The 162 game ban can’t be changed and will likely be discussed and argued in the future.
It’s impossible to be so naive to think he did nothing wrong in recent seasons – especially when reports have come out that he did use testosterone for more than one season with a Therapeutic Exception Use approved by MLB. There wasn’t the same amount of pressure to play for a competitive team like the Yankees as there was for a struggling team like the Rangers – so why use a banned substance? My guess is age and injuries. Baseball is the only thing Rodriguez (and almost all other professional baseball players) has done for so many years. Combine that with a man who is reported to be bery insecure with himself, despite his success, and it’s bound to make him panic. His body isn’t working the way it used to (regardless of PED use, a body is going to age and slow down). For an athlete, their entire job and livelihood depend on that body working at an elite level. Again, not an excuse – just a theory I have.
So where did it all go wrong? How does someone go from an incredibly talented young player, to a veteran who’s career is forever tainted? After watching his career and how he has changed in nearly two decades, I think his career took off quicker than he could handle. The Seattle Mariners drafted 17 year old Alex Rodriguez just out of high school in 1993. He quickly made his way through the minor leagues, started at shortstop to make his major league debut at just 18 years old, and was the everyday starting shortstop by 1996 season when he turned 21 years old. He became A-Rod, and was going to be the hero who would lead baseball to a brighter future after steroid use had become so rampant (even if Bud Selig claims he didn’t know). Over time, I think the “A-Rod” persona became bigger than Alex Rodriguez the human.
There will always be heavy criticism of the contracts Rodriguez signed throughout his career, but the funny thing about every contract is that all parties involved have to agree on them! He didn’t simply go to the Rangers, or the Yankees, and demand tens of millions of dollars a year to play for them – the teams had to also agree to the cost and the length of the contracts. Whatever your job is, if someone offered you more than $20 million a year to do it, wouldn’t you take it? Are you really going to turn it down and say “no thanks, I’ll stay at my current pay”? (If you would, then please see me after I’m done with the people who have never made a mistake.)
So now we’re in the baseball off season, and those of us whose teams did not just win the World Series are looking forward to next year. For me, that means the return of my favorite baseball player ever. I have no idea what to expect of Alex Rodriguez next year. After so many public mistakes (and there are others, like the fight with Jason Varitek, that I haven’t even mentioned), I really hope he has something left in the tank and can come back to be productive for the team. Any productivity is good for his career, and would likely be good for him personally as well.
It saddens me to think of what a great career he could have had without PEDs. There’s no way to know what his career numbers would be, but for now he sits at 2,568 games, 2,939 hits, 1,969 RBI, 654 HR and a .299 average after 20 years in the major leagues…and the stigma of PED use. He has already accomplished a lot in his career, and a successful return in 2015 could see him passing even more milestones. There is a chance he may never make it back on the field next year – there are a few scenarios where that is a possibility – but with some hard work, it can be done. Yankees management and some of the team members are confident he can make a return and be a welcome addition to the club.
In his year off, I hope Alex Rodriguez has reflected on his career and seriously thought about his future. (I also have to say I think his current girlfirend, Torrie Wilson, could be a great influence on him. Have you ever seen her social media pages? She’s incredibly positive with everything she posts!) He is an intelligent person, who has made some really bad decisions, and has a great mind for baseball. With some work to improve his image, he could go on to be a coach or analyst after his playing days are over. If you don’t think that’s possible, just look at Manny Ramirez – multiple mistakes and suspensions later, and he’s working in the Chicago Cubs organization.
As for how I think Rodriguez can fit into the 2015 Yankees team, that requires a whole other post. But I do believe there is a place for him next year, and it would be stupid to buy out the rest of his contract. He’s been a productive player so far, and he’s worked all season long to stay in shape, so there’s no reason (yet) to think he can’t be productive next year. Not to mention it’s more than $60 million owed to him – would you just throw it away, or try to get something back for that money?
There’s a good chance I may be the last A-Rod fan on earth, and if that’s the case I accept it. I understand why people hate him, just as I hope people understand why I’ve supported him all these years. (If you didn’t understand before, this incredibly long post should help clarify my reasons.) I may be the only person cheering or him on Opening Day 2015, but I will be content in knowing I didn’t give up – despite the poor decisions, despite the suspension – whether it’s a result of loyalty or absolute stupidity. I can handle the criticism of my decision to not give up on him.
And if I haven’t given up so far, there’s a good chance I never will!