The Alex Rodriguez story is not a redemption story

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The Yankees clinched a playoff spot last night. It was kind of a big deal considering how many of us figured that they had too many miles on the odometer and didn’t have enough in the tank to make a sustained run this year. My preview back in March may have been among the more optimistic ones. In it I said “it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which they win, say, 88 games and make the playoffs,” though I quickly added that such a thing is not necessarily likely and, ultimately, picked them third. All predictions are just guesses. Most are wrong. Mine are no different.

They’ll certainly take second place and those 87-90 wins they’ll finish with. And I’m sure they enjoyed the champagne. Indeed, among the sights worth savoring last night — or lamenting, depending on how you feel about the guy — was Alex Rodriguez celebrating with champagne and adoring teammates. Who knows what the odds would’ve been on that in Vegas as recently as a year ago? A time when he was living in exile, the Yankees called Chase Headley their starting third baseman, Carlos Beltran was transitioning into the full time DH and they were all in the process of missing the playoffs once again.

How about two years ago, when A-Rod wound down a season on borrowed time, having missed half of it with injury and having the rest of the summer dominated by ugly revelations of his drug use, acrimonious legal proceedings and toxic accusations between him, the league and his employer? When his suspension was issued and then upheld most figured he’d never play baseball again, let alone play for the Yankees. Let alone play well for the Yankees, let alone lead them to the postseason at the age of 40. But all of that happened. And, frankly, it’s been astounding.

But for as improbable a series of events we have witnessed, we should resist, with every bit of our might, to tell it like a story in the non-news sense of the word. More specifically, to make it into some sort of redemption narrative where the once-misguided Alex Rodriguez spent his time in the wilderness, learned things and came back to reclaim his crown. Many will do that today and until the wild card game next week and will do it even more if the Yankees live on in the playoffs and if A-Rod plays well.

We shouldn’t do that. In a broad sense we shouldn’t do it because that sort of narrative is a tired cliche. The sort of monomyth-mixed-with-Prodigal Son stuff you learn in 10th grade English or Sunday school. Those things are useful in fiction or teaching or as parables which help us better understand the world, but real life is random and messy and has the simultaneously wonderful and annoying habit of never ending, thereby robbing us of a tidy narrative structure.

Why put “the end” on A-Rod’s story now, when he has allegedly redeemed himself? It may seem satisfying from a narrative perspective but what if, six months from now, he knocks over a liquor store or joins ISIS or something? What meaning will any of our pronouncements about him have now? Apart from a basis from which to launch additional attacks on the guy, that is. “Not only did he join ISIS, which is pretty darn bad, but he FOOLED US into thinking he had changed and was a hero anew!” Meaningless and self-serving. What a combination.

I suppose a hesitance to declare Alex Rodriguez redeemed is surprising coming from me. After all, I have pretty unapologetically and pretty aggressively defended the guy for years. But it shouldn’t be that surprising. Because what has animated me in all of the things I’ve written about A-Rod has been less a desire to defend his character — I don’t know him at all nor do most of you — but my bristling at the the desire of others to cast him in various roles before. Now it’s redeemed hero, before it was unconscionable villain. All applied based on a slice of a guy’s life, weighted heavily by how he performed in sporting events which are largely random and adhere to no preordained narrative.

Comparing Alex Rodriguez to Whitey Bulger because he took some drugs hundreds of other baseball players did and millions of other Americans have was preposterous. Casting him as some fallen angel or corrupted hero was pretty preposterous too. I have defended the guy from those sorts of attacks for years because they were silly exercises in adhering to the conventions of scripted drama more than they were insights about sports, human beings or life.

But so too is casting Alex Rodriguez as some redeemed hero simply because he and some other baseball players had better years than most of us figured they’d have. To do so may seem more polite than calling him a villain and, in some ways, may be intended by some to make up for attacking him in the past. But it’s just the other side of a bad coin and perpetuates rather than arrests our habit of conflating sports and real life. Of elevating sports heroism above and beyond anything approaching the proper place it should hold in society. Of equating sports infamy with actual infamy and evil in the actual world.

I’m happy that Alex Rodriguez had a good year and seems to be in a better place than he was a year or two ago. I’m happy New York Yankees fans have had a better-than-expected year and that those fans who have liked Alex Rodriguez in the past have a reason to like him again. But I’m just as unwilling to go much beyond that now as I was unwilling to go beyond thinking A-Rod merely messed up before. I’m unwilling to cast his feats or his missteps in any different or more dramatic a light than I am any other athlete.

To do so would be to lose sight of the fact that these are just games and athletes are just people. To do so would make us forget that even without the dramatic narratives, sports are as fulfilling and as entertaining as we need them to be. And that, most of the time, they’re far more enjoyable without those narratives.