Bryan Curtis has a great story about Alex Rodriguez over at Grantland. It’s not about his playing as much about his image. An image that, for 20 years, baseball writers have been trying to shoehorn into classic baseball stereotypes, mostly unsuccessfully:
It’d be nice to think we treat each new ballplayer who comes along like a beautiful, unique snowflake. But sportswriters are comparative mythologists at heart. What we’re really doing is wedging ballplayers into archetypes that have been around long before they were born: The Natural, The Overweight But Jolly Slugger, The Veteran on His Last Legs.
No one in recent baseball history has been fitted for more of these archetypes than A-Rod.
Curtis takes us through various dramas and iterations of A-Rod’s career and reminds us of how he was thought of at different times by the sporting press. He was the young Wholesome Superstar, the Greedy Mercenary, the Celebrity, the Charlatan, the Cheater, The Monster and now, to some degree, The Man Who Would Be Redeemed.
As Curtis correctly notes, it’s not often that baseball players get more than one or two of these stereotypes applied to them. Barry Bonds stuck with Surly Jerk. Occasionally you get the Odball or Eccentric. There are a lot of Role Players. Most stars go from Wholesome Superstar to Grizzled Veteran. It’s not all that hard for baseball media, which isn’t all that creative most of the time, to be honest, to keep those players in their proper little narrative boxes and to make them dance in their stories and columns.
But not A-Rod. He has worn all manner of faces in his career. Part of this can be chalked up to what seems to be, if you believe some of the better stories about him, some basic insecurity that inspires him to try to please people or play roles he thinks he’s supposed to play. Part of this is because he has done some remarkable and some inexplicable things. Part of it is because, well, he’s a human being who, like most of us — but unlike most athletes, who tend to be more disciplined than normal folks — is just kind of making it all up as he goes along.
I think the volatility of the A-Rod narrative over the years that Curtis describes has a lot to do with baseball writers getting irked at A-Rod more than they get irked at any other player. He screws up their narratives. No one in the media business likes to appear as if they don’t know what’s going on and what’s supposed to happen next, but A-Rod flummoxes those who would play Authority. Sometimes, they even admit it:
“I’ll tell you this,” [Bill] Madden said. “After Bonds passed Aaron, nobody was rooting harder for A-Rod than I was. We needed a clean home run champion after Bonds.”
Then, the fall. “Disappointment is the best way to put it,” Madden said. “Utter disappointment. It’s just too bad this guy couldn’t be what he was supposed to be.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that quote. Starting with the idea that A-Rod was “supposed to be” something. Like he was a part of a predetermined drama rather than a person with free will and foibles. But it explains oh so very much about the coverage Rodriguez has received over the years. And oh so very much about how a media, which likes to tell you that it calls things like it sees them, actually sees them.