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.

Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”