I have told of the night before, the night of the 1998 NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden -- when Alex Rodriguez was still young and with the Mariners -- when I ran into him and Derek Jeter. The place was loud with noise and excitement, and you could see how the kid had been swept away by it all. He was 23.
"This is an unbelievable place," Rodriguez said.
He clearly did not mean just the Garden. He meant New York. He meant everything he was seeing and hearing and feeling.
"I have to play here someday," he said.
But he was a shortstop, on his way then to not just being one of the best hitters of them all but maybe the best shortstop to ever play the game. Of course, no one knew at the time that he would be willing to move to third base when he was desperate to get out of Texas and the Rangers were just as desperate to get out from under as much of the money they still owed him over the last seven years of his $252 million contract as they could.
"The Yankees already have a shortstop," I said, nodding at Jeter.
And Rodriguez smiled and said, "The Mets."
He never made it to the Mets because he got swept away as a free agent by the Rangers, when Texas became the first team to throw an insane amount of money at A-Rod. He finally made it to New York because Aaron Boone, the hero of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series for the Yankees, the hero of the bottom of the 11th of Game 7, tore up a knee and the Yanks needed someone to play third, over to Jeter's right.
Now Rodriguez retires from the Yankees, before the end of his 12th season with them. He retires after winning a World Series for them, the only one in which he played, and winning two AL MVP awards with the Yanks, and getting an even more ridiculous contract from New York when he opted out of his old Rangers contract during the 2007 World Series. He finally got to 696 home runs, just 18 short of Babe Ruth.
But on this day when Rodriguez says goodbye, even leaving himself wide open if he wants to come back and try to play against next season with another team, you wonder, once and for all, if he wonders how much better he could have done things, and not just in New York.
He got choked up on Sunday talking about all this. He got choked up before the 2009 season, with his teammates in attendance that day, when he talked about the Sports Illustrated story first linking him to performance-enhancing drugs. Then he seemed to have hit his way past that in October, when he hit .455 against the Twins in the ALDS with two homers and six RBI and .429 against the Angels in the NLCS with three homers and six RBI, and then hit another home run and had six more RBIs in the World Series against the Phillies. He ended up a Yankee hero in the Canyon of Heroes.
After that, for reasons Rodriguez will likely never explain, he must have gone straight from the parade to Anthony Bosch, the patron saint of Biogenesis, and joined the parade of Biogenesis All-Stars who got suspended by then-Commissioner Bud Selig. The rest of them wore it. Rodriguez chose to stand and fight and shamelessly act like a victim, or some kind of baseball political prisoner, and it ended up costing him a whole season out of what was left of his career.
Now, at what is the end of his Yankee career and, more likely, his baseball career, you wonder what to make of it all, and how he will be judged by history.
"That's not for me to say," he said on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, speaking of history -- and it's not. He just hopes that whenever the clock officially starts on his Hall of Fame candidacy, that he can continue to work his public relations magic and change people's minds about his legacy, and his good name.
There is a word that Bob Costas always uses about the numbers put into the books by such as Rodriguez, whom we once thought might be on his way to being called the greatest baseball player of all time: inauthentic. Costas doesn't call them immoral, or even illegal, because only subject-changers and point-missers try to make this a moral issue. What Barry Bonds did at the end of his career with his "Game of Shadows" body was inauthentic. And so, like it or not, is the career of Alex Emanuel Rodriguez, because we will never know what he used or how much he used, with or without positive drug tests; because when baseball finally took a season out of his career, it was for what is known as a non-analytic positive. Baseball drowned him with its case because Rodriguez never had one.
Bud Selig and Rob Manfred had him and Rodriguez knew it, even if he was willing to attack everything and everybody to somehow beat the rap. He didn't care whom he hurt, or tried to drag into his drama, or his people tried to intimidate. He hired all those lawyers and he was going to sue everybody. He was going to sue Selig and Major League Baseball and his own union if he had to and team doctors, and he kept running to talk radio acting as if he could win his case there, because he was never going to win it in front of an arbitrator named Fredric Horowitz.
And after promising for months that he would tell his story at the appropriate time, when he had his chance in a Park Avenue conference room in front of the arbitrator hearing what had been a sham of a case, he slammed his hand down on the table and said this was "bull----t," and stormed out to a waiting car, past yahoo demonstrators and hustlers who really did act in those days as if Rodriguez were a political prisoner.
Over the past two years, we have heard plenty from Rodriguez about his passion for baseball. And that is authentic with this guy. But again and again: Where was that passion when he was conducting his scorched-earth policy against a Yankee doctor like Dr. Christopher Ahmad when Rodriguez was in the barrel for Biogenesis? At the time, the only passion he seemed to display was for saving himself.
At his best, over such a long time, A-Rod looked for all the world like one of the most complete players of all time. At his worst, he was as big a phony as I have ever met covering sports. Now he is 41, and it is time for him to go, because he is too old. But I couldn't help remembering on Sunday what it was like when he was young, that night at the Garden, big young guy standing there with another big young guy like Jeter, everything still ahead of both of them.
We know how Alex Rodriguez finally arrived at this moment on Sunday, with his .204 batting average this season and being able to only get off the Yankee bench by agreeing to walk away. We know what he did on a baseball field and what he did to himself off it. Maybe someday he can tell us all why.