Alex Rodriguez: one of the all-time greats whether you liked him or not

Associated Press
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Do you ever sit down at a bar and talk about an athlete’s “legacy” with the guy at the next stool over? Have you ever had a big conversation about a ballplayer’s “legacy” around the office water cooler? Have you ever, while driving home from the ballpark with your kids after a game, talked excitedly of the “legacy” of a player you just saw?

Pretty unlikely. Maybe you talk about some off-the-field matter or another if it’s in the news, but for the most part fans talk about games and home runs and strikeouts and whether a player is good or bad, fun to watch or not fun to watch. An athlete’s “legacy,” taken as a whole, is a topic for journalists and historians. They are writers and maintainers of legacies. Most of us are just fans who watch baseball for its entertainment value.

I mention this because, in the few hours since Alex Rodriguez‘s press conference — whether it’s truly a “retirement” is probably the subject of another post — I’ve seen a lot of talk about his “complicated legacy.”  About his scandals and his tabloid persona and just how difficult a person he was and is. I’ve seen very few people talking simply about Alex Rodriguez as a ballplayer. Maybe because it’s problematic for people who concern themselves with his legacy — almost always cast in the most negative possible light — to acknowledge that he was one of the best ballplayers to ever play the game.

Which he was. It’s undeniable. For a decade he was the best shortstop alive, and one of the two or three best shortstops to ever live. For close to another decade after that he continued to be one of the best hitters alive and one of the best all-around players to have ever lived despite moving to a different position. We could measure this a hundred different ways — I’ll leave it to the number crunchers to properly contextualize it all — but I would hope it would not take number crunchers to convince you that an infielder with nearly 700 homers, over 2,000 RBI a .930 career OPS, over 300 stolen bases, three MVP awards, 14 All-Star appearances, the most career grand slams of anyone ever and a 2009 playoff performance in which he took the most storied franchise in baseball history, placed it on his back and carried the a World Series title was one of the greatest players to ever play the game.

But then comes the idea of “legacy,” and with it all of the topics which have understandably dominated the conversation about Alex Rodriguez for the past several years. His PED use. His year-long ban and his multidirectional lashing out at baseball, the union and his the Yankees in the runup to it. Every other story and side story which accompanied it. It’s obviously a huge part of the story about Alex Rodriguez and one that, if you’re in the business of legacy documentation, you cannot ignore. And which I would not suggest anyone should ignore. Facts are facts and those things happened and they will obviously color people’s opinions of Alex Rodriguez going forward just as they have in the past.

But those things are only a part of the Alex Rodriguez Story, they’re not the whole story. Indeed, they’re a much smaller part of the story than they have come to comprise in the mind of the legacy documentarians and those who listen to them. They have become so big a part of it that we have, for several years now, almost completely ceased to look at Alex Rodriguez as a baseball player as opposed to some tabloid figure or as the repository of whatever “complicated legacy” we wish to compose.

A-Rod’s cheating is obviously going to impact his Hall of Fame candidacy because such things have impacted nearly every PED-associated player’s Hall of Fame case. His 696 home runs and 2,000+ RBI can, if one wants to think about it, be viewed with some sort of an invisible asterisk and adjusted downward. His status as “the best” vs. “one of the best” can be debated and we can and probably should talk about what he was versus what he might have been if he had proceeded differently throughout his career or if he had played in a different era. We as fans don’t usually talk about “complicated legacies” like people in the media do, but it’s clear his career was complicated.

What we should not do — and what far, far, far too many people do with Alex Rodriguez — is to claim that the complicated nature of his career negated his career. To claim that any given home run we enjoyed — or, if we were rooting against A-Rod, enraged us — did not happen. To claim that he was nothing more than an oddity or a villain or that he was something less than one of the greatest players to every lace up a pair of cleats. That that’s the case even if we discount any one of his statistics, even if we find him to be seriously lacking in integrity and character and even if we simply loathe him, as I know many of you do.

The greatest trick the media of the Steroid Era ever pulled was to convince people that baseball was first and foremost a referendum on authenticity or character rather than a form of entertainment. To be sure, one can care about authenticity. One can care about steroids and cheating (especially if one was a player who lost a chance because someone else was cheating). But the degree to which such matters have come to obscure the entertainment value of the players and the games is absurd. At least for and especially for fans who consume baseball games as entertainment, not as referenda on morality and authenticity.

Yankees fans would not trade in their memories of the 2009 World Series. Anyone who has enjoyed a thrilling moment at a baseball game provided by Alex Rodriguez, of which there have been many, cannot claim with a straight face that they did not enjoy that moment at the time. Those things happened. Alex Rodriguez’s career happened and, even if you want to mentally deduct some from his stat line here or there or argue that he shouldn’t be honored with induction into the Hall of Fame, that career was fantastic. It was one of the best careers any baseball player has ever turned in, full stop.

When you think about any player and his legacy, think about why you started watching baseball and why you continue to watch baseball. Ask yourself, when thinking about a player, whether you enjoyed his play or not and why. When you do, ask yourself if your negative or positive feelings about the player have a logical connection to the reasons you watch the game or if, rather, someone else’s values — like that of some radio host or columnist or keeper of legacies — have inordinately colored them.

I suggest that any honest assessment of Alex Rodriguez along these lines should result in the judgment that baseball was better for him having played it, not worse. A judgment that, because of him, baseball was far more entertaining than if he had not played. A judgment that Alex Rodriguez was an all-time great. That he was an all-time great even despite his perfidies and shortcomings. That he was an all-time great whether you liked him or whether you didn’t.