Tonight is supposed to be Alex Rodriguez‘s final game. But will it really be his final game?
He won’t be playing for the Yankees any more after tonight, that’s for sure, and he’s supposed to slide into an advisor role next spring. But that’s not set in stone. The Yankees are technically releasing Rodriguez — he’s not retiring — and he can theoretically sign with any team if he wants to play next season. And, of course, if they want him.
Yesterday Jayson Stark of ESPN polled a handful of baseball executives as to their thoughts on Rodriguez and whether tonight will, in fact, be his last game. The results were mixed. Thirteen of the 24 he spoke with said A-Rod will not be back. Nine said he would. Two said he would at least be back in some spring training camp on a Will Ferrell/Garth Brooks gimmick basis.
Personally I think tonight will be his last game. Mostly because, for one of the rare times in his professional life, A-Rod seems to be at peace in his own skin and a good outcome is clearly within his grasp. I think he’ll grab it.
For as much as A-Rod has been portrayed as some sort of alien being over the years, the real source of his foibles and missteps have always struck me as a function of him being far, far more human than your typical celebrity athlete reveals himself or herself to be. He’s always seemed conscious of and concerned about his reputation and legacy and the public’s perception of him. To be sure, in this he is not really different than most celebrity athletes, he’s just not anywhere close to as smooth as the rest of them are when it comes to hiding his desires in this regard. He’s tried too hard or behaved in a misguided fashion or, in some cases, just spazzed out. All of it has come off as the behavioral equivalent of someone trying to read a foreign language phonetically. He’s always known what he’s trying to accomplish but he’s just not connected to it in ways that the native speakers are, so to speak. He had Hall of Fame talents and a Hall of Fame work ethic but his skills as a celebrity navigating the public sphere were high-A ball at best.
It strikes me that A-Rod finally came to grips with all of this stuff a couple of years ago. All of this is armchair psychoanalysis and none of us know what goes on in someone else’s head, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which Rodriguez realized just how much he had lost the plot of the A-Rod Story he was likely mentally writing since he was a kid. The story in which he dominates the sport and is beloved by millions. He certainly dominated the sport, but as he was suspended from baseball it seemed almost certain that his career would end in disgrace with him a pariah. As I said, A-Rod is human, not an alien. It’s hard to conceive of someone who would not engage in a good bit of soul searching as he began his exile.
At some point between 2013 and 2014 Rodriguez changed everything about his approach and demeanor. He started doing the right things and saying the right things and being a good teammate and all of that. Some people say it’s all an act, but ask yourself: when was A-Rod ever good at faking anything? He’s been a horrible actor his whole career in whatever role he cast himself, at least outside the foul lines. No, this is not an act. The only way Alex Rodriguez could appear to be as calm, grounded and well-adjusted as he has been the past two seasons is if he’s — get this — calm, grounded and well-adjusted. The only way he could maintain the equanimity he has maintained since his skills started to abandon him late last season was if he was comfortable with that fact and all that it meant.
I think Alex Rodriguez is aware that the Yankees are giving him an opportunity to end things far better than anyone could’ve possible guessed they’d end. With a hat tip and an ovation in Yankee Stadium. With a role for him after his playing days are over, even if it’s likely more title than substance. The key part is that he can walk into Steinbrenner Field in Tampa next spring and have a place here is expected and accepted, as are most all-time greats when their playing career ends. No one ever would’ve guessed he’d have that chance a couple of years ago. It’s a chance that I’d be shocked if a man as consciously aware of and interested in his own legacy were to pass up.
He doesn’t get that chance if he shows up in a Marlins uniform for some spring training hacks next February. He doesn’t get that if he’s released following a 2-for-22 while trying to become the DH for the Tampa Bay Rays. He only gets it if tonight is his final game. Which I think it will be.