The Alex Rodriguez Farewell was far from being a tour. There was no procession of tributes befitting a ballplayer who’s four home runs short of the milestone of 700 achieved by only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.
But at 41, with the season two-thirds over, the New York Yankees’ third baseman-turned-designated hitter had lost the power in his legs and quickness in his wrists. He had to swing early, had to guess right, and he was grappling with the Mendoza Line.
So the Yankees ushered him into retirement, and it was nothing like the laurel-strewn ride into the sunset of his teammate and fellow infielder Derek Jeter two years ago.
Yet in every way except public relations, Rodriguez was superior to Jeter, who’s a lock to enter Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame. A-Rod might have to break the locks to get in, and yet he was clearly a better fielder, better hitter, better slugger than Jeter.
The baseball world loves Jeter, who’s as decent and bland as Regis Philbin. But A-Rod is reviled because he cheated with drugs, lied about it (like we really expected him to fess up) and put money above everything else, and how un-American is that?
He even came under fire from President Obama, who may have been paying more attention to big-league baseball than to what he called the “junior varsity” of Muslim terrorists.
Which brings to mind what Joe Paterno said of President Nixon: “Surprising that he knows so much about football and so little about Watergate.”
Yes, Obama said in 2009 that A-Rod’s admission to using Performance Enhancing Drugs “tarnishes an entire era, to some degree.”
The Yankees that year went on to win the World Series. So they got invited to the White House, and Rodriguez met the Prez, and that must have been an awkward moment.
At any rate, A-Rod bccame a lightning rod for the absurdly unsuccessful war on drugs. And I get the feeling that America, from the chief executive on down, just wanted him to slip away with as little brouhaha as possible. So there was no grand finale for Rodriguez.
But it was a good one. He hit a run-scoring double Friday night off a 96 mph fastball from Chris Archer while helping beat Tampa Bay 6-3 in Yankee Stadium.
Rodriguez started the game as the DH but took the field, at third base, for the ninth inning, so he could stroll to the dugout after the first out and bask in applause from the crowd of 46,000 and be publicly hugged by his teammates.
It was all polite, but perfunctory, though this was a native son, born in Washington Heights. It would be gross exageration to say there was not a dry eye in the house that’s a block from the one Ruth built.
Still, there was a sense of the surreal about the scene. The public address announcer said, “Alex, you spent 12 of your 22 seasons with the Yankees . . .” And at that second a thunderclap blared in the Bronx sky.
“It was certainly, like, biblical,” Rodriguez said after receiving some gifts before a deluge of raindrops forced everyone to rush into tunnels. No doubt he’s hoping a few baseball writers will infer a symbolic message that they should vote for Rodriguez when they fill out a Hall of Fame ballot. He’s aware his prospects are in doubt, and he understands.
“I’ve given these fans a lot of headaches over the years,” he acknowledged. “I’ve disappointed a lot of people. But like I’ve always said, you don’t have to be defined by your mistakes.”
Well, there actually were some tears in the clubhouse. They were shed by manager Joe Girardi, who said, “I have really strong feelings for him, and this has been extremely hard.”
A-Rod is not going underground. He’s under contract – for $20 million – to the Yankees next season, and they intend to employ him in the farm system as an instructor.
He endeared himself to the minor leaguers by buying dinner for all the players when he was on rehab assignments.
So we’re left weighing the massive accomplishments and failures of a complicated man. Hall of Fame voters will wonder if he’d be on the ballot if he had played it straight, as the president claimed “many players have.”
In 1993, when he was 18 and the first overall draft pick, by the Seattle Mariners, Rodriguez was a skinny kid who was not suspected of using steroids, though they were available at that time in Miami, where he attended Westminster Christian High School. Scouts praised his speed more than his power. As a senior he stole 35 bases in 35 attempts and hit 9 home runs.
In his first two seasons of professional ball, in 1995 and ’96, he had home run totals of 21 and 20. In 1996, he blossomed into a full-fledged slugger: 36 over the fence.
Rodriguez failed a drug test in 2003, and he later admitted to “experimenting” with steroids when he left Seattle to join the Texas Rangers in 2001. In his first year of admitted PEDs, he hit 52 home runs – an increase of 11 from the previous season. The next season, at age 26, he bombed a career-best 57. By then he packed 235 pounds over his 6-3 frame.
My suspicion is he was into the juice well before 2001, and that he would not have hit more than 30 homers a year without it. But he still would have been far better than Jeter, who pulled rank and shoved him away from shortstop, where he might have been the next Honus Wagner.
Hey, Hall of Fame doesn’t mean moral perfection. It means you’re famous for great achievement, and there’s no question A-Rod achieved as well as any of his peers. And for all we know, they may have been cheating too.
Alan Truex covered Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Journal and Houston Chronicle and was a Hall of Fame voter.