In light of today’s ruling by the arbitrator, suspending him for 162 games, commentators will once again rush to the nearest television camera or take to their laptops and websites to tell us how Alex Rodriguez‘s legacy is now “forever tarnished” or words to that effect.
When they do so, however, they will have to forget, at least momentarily, that they declared A-Rod’s legacy as “forever tarnished” many, many times before.
The last time Alex Rodriguez was truly seen as anything other than profoundly damaged goods was when he played for the Seattle Mariners. He was then transformed from a supremely-talented All-Star into a greedy mercenary when he signed his $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers in January 2001 and had that image solidified when he opted out of it while with the Yankees and signed another huge deal in December 2007. He was branded a steroid cheat and effectively denied his rightful ticket to the Hall of Fame when word surfaced of his past performance enhancing drug use in early 2009. He made claims then about how he had only used on such and such an occasion and never did again, but no one believed him, even at the time.
So take your pick on when A-Rod’s legacy truly was tarnished. Some say when he signed that first big deal, some say when he signed that second, some say when he copped to taking PEDs, but it really doesn’t matter. He’s been branded a cheater for more nearly five years and a money-first, me-first player for well over a decade. Sprinkle in all of the petty p.r. things like the magazine interview in which he was pictured kissing himself in a mirror, his on-field controversies like trying to distract fielders and trying to walk over opposing pitchers’ mounds, the lurid stories of Rodriguez cavorting with strippers, pop stars and movie stars and the constant unfavorable comparisons between him and teammate Derek Jeter and you have a player who has long been viewed unfavorably, rightly or wrongly.
Wrongly in my view. We’d all take $250 million if someone was dumb enough to give it to us. Most of A-Rod’s “controversies” have been silly little things. Those less silly — like his marital infidelity — are certainly not unprecedented among the rich and famous, even if we may personally disapprove. His PED use has gained him baseball’s largest drug suspension in history, but unless and until Major League Baseball reveals the evidence it claims to have against him for obstructing justice or doing other bad things which turned this from a first time offense which should have gotten him 50 games to a 162-game ban, we can’t honestly say that it was fundamentally different from that of other players who have been implicated in PEDs.
Many players who were so implicated — Andy Pettitte, Mark McGwire, the dozens of players who have served drug suspensions and returned to the game afterward — are thought of negatively when specific thought is actually put to the matter, but they are not seen as inherently evil pariahs. Pettitte was given a hero’s sendoff both times he retired. McGwire may not get Hall of Fame consideration, but he’s a hitting coach for the Dodgers.
A couple of other players are labeled monsters and thought of as cheaters first, elite ballplayers second in the eyes of most. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are the biggest examples here. But it’s no coincidence that so much of the assessment of Bonds and Clemens follows what people thought of them before their drug histories came out — that they were jerks or standoffish or that their competitive fire burned a little too brightly, quite frankly. So it is too with A-Rod. Most people hated him before and overlooked just how amazing his baseball exploits have been over the past two decades, and now they hate him still, if not more.
Alex Rodriguez is a polarizing figure. He’s been his own worst enemy over and over again. But he’s long been though of as such and thus for us to say that today’s decision does anything to alter his legacy is disingenuous in the extreme. This is not a fall from grace. This is not a hero brought to his knees. A-Rod has been a widely hated and hated-on figure for far longer than he was ever considered, first and foremost, a baseball superstar and this is merely another brick in that very tall, very long and very solid wall.
A-Rod’s legacy, narrowly defined, should be that of an otherworldly talent who did otherworldly things. A shortstop who played elite defense AND hit .308/.382/.581 with 345 homers and 990 RBIs and multiple MVP-caliber seasons while he manned baseball’s most important defense position. A guy who then moved to third base and hit .291/.386/.534 with 309 home runs and 979 RBI, won two more MVP awards and led the league’s signature franchise to its last World Series title. Bill James once said of Rickey Henderson that, if you cut him in half, you’d have two Hall of Famers. The same is true of Alex Rodriguez. Each half of his career — his pre-Yankees and post-Yankees days — are independently historic.
But, unfortunately, that will always be farther down the list when it comes to what history says about Alex Rodriguez. History will throw mud on A-Rod from now until he’s dead and buried and then will continue throwing mud on him after that. It’s all we’ve been conditioned to do since he left Seattle and went to Texas and it only intensified once he got to New York and his mere unpopularity transformed into scandal. And nothing is going to change that. No matter how many people go on television today to tell us otherwise.
[this post was adapted from — with many parts taken from — my August 5, 2013 story on, yes, Alex Rodriguez’s legacy. Alas it’s a topic that keeps coming up over and over]