By David Roth
They're hard to credit or believe, but they're out there: stories of Willie Mays and Duke Snider playing stickball with neighborhood kids, during some long lost era of straitjacketed propriety and starchy Eisenhowerian prosperity. That such stories are more or less impossible to imagine today -- Chase Utley joining some say-hey pickup game in North Philadelphia; Matt Kemp crashing an Echo Park mess-around and crushing some dingers onto the 110 before work -- perhaps says more about today than it does about those stories. Baseball was different when Mays and Snider either did or didn't jump in those neighborhood games; the culture and the place baseball had in that culture were different; lord knows those neighborhoods were different. It was a long time and a great deal of turbulence ago.
But while we might struggle to imagine a time in which baseball players were as real and as present in the neighborhoods that supported them as those heartwarming bits of baseball apocrypha suggest, a player -- a person -- like Alex Rodriguez would be equally unimaginable to fans of that age. His greatness would've been recognizable, of course. Goof all you like on A-Rod's supreme narcissism and all the preening uglinesses, big and small, that flow from it, but his actual and inarguable baseball greatness is impossible to miss. There's a case to be made that A-Rod is the greatest player of his and our generation, and arguably many others -- it's not a difficult case to make, actually, given that A-Rod has already been worth more Wins Above Replacement over his career than Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and all but 16 other players in big league history. But despite his place in the game's history, A-Rod, for better and worse, belongs to this uneasy time.
This is not just because A-Rod probably took every performance-enhancing shortcut available to him. That it's so very not-surprising to see him named in the latest sketchy, scummy-scammy, outlandishly Miami-ish PED scandal does nothing much to diminish A-Rod's status among his peers, current or historical. This, as colleague Emma Span wrote earlier, has more to do with the PED debate we're continually not quite having than A-Rod himself. If the allegations are true, of course it makes Rodriguez look bad: like a pious liar and a willful and repeated rule-breaker and so something of a low-grade Lance Armstrongian sociopath. But we already knew all this, and don't really need reminding; if it's the sort of thing that still and sincerely makes you angry, you either should get your medication adjusted or get a job hosting a sports talk radio show. Rodriguez's preening pathology -- or that and A-Rod's achy, fading greatness -- is the most and maybe the only interesting thing about the guy.
A-Rod is A-Rod, and just because that's a sportswriterly tautology doesn't make it simple. In his weird artificiality, impenetrable and stupendous vanity, and queasily inauthentic but ultimately undeniable virtuosity, Alex Rodriguez is both a creature of this time, and sadly timeless.
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As nice as it may be to think about Willie Mays goofing around with the neighborhood kids, it's worth remembering that Mays and players of his caliber do not really live in the emotional neighborhoods that the rest of us inhabit. For all the ways in which big-time athletes are recognizably human -- heads, shoulders, knees and toes; all the various organs doing all their various things, in their bodies as in ours -- there is that other, broader way in which they aren't. Their component parts add up to strange sums; everything vibrates at a different frequency. We, they and us, are maybe more different than we are similar.
If you've played sports well enough, or even just long enough, you have experienced those fleeting moments of imperviousness and can't-miss grace: Every pitch leaves the pitcher's hand slow and fat, every shot finds its way home. This is an intoxicating thing, mostly because it fades so fast. To live in that moment of command -- and yes, even A-Rod makes an out more often than he doesn't, but the game is incalculably easier for him than it is for most humans who have ever lived -- must be strange, like a dream of flying that somehow never ends. It seems reasonable to assume that this would do some things to a person's sense of self. In a way, the things we revile about A-Rod -- his prickly superiority and relentless rule-flouting, and the presumption of personal impunity from which those behaviors spring -- all have their basis in a sort of fact. He actually is superior in the ways that matter most at his workplace, and he has effectively bent or broken rules without consequence; we may not like the way that he presumes he can lie or cheat or gamble or otherwise act like A-Rod, but his entire career stands as proof that his arrogant presumption of impunity is not exactly false.
The warping existential challenge of waking up every day as Alex Rodriguez doesn't quite explain how A-Rod wound up being what and where he is, however. Baseball's pantheon, like that of every other sport, is full of athletes whose addiction to dominance crowded out every aspect of their personalities but the most curdled and stubborn vices -- world-historic vanity, a reliance on spite, a certain passive avarice. There is something deeply and weirdly sad about these hypercompetitive ego-mutants, your Pete Roses and Michael Jordans and Lance Armstrongs; so admirable in motion, they were undone utterly as people by their inability to stop churning, accumulating, turning everything into a game and then seeming to dominate it. For all the money and adulation and other fulfillments, they live small, sour-seeming lives -- placing one defiant bet after another on themselves; nursing old grudges with a tenderness otherwise apparently absent in their lives; stalking the echoing halls of some vast, cold manse, mumbling a story about themselves, to themselves. When your more vicious superstar athletes wake up from that long dream of flying, this is the reality that greets them.
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Is it too much to ask to feel some sympathy for Alex Rodriguez? That depends on you, of course, though lord knows the guy doesn't make it easy. But there's something to mourn in Rodriguez, all the same. Yes, he does all those awful things he does, and then he does them again, always awfully, always more or less the same. But what's sad about A-Rod -- the thing to feel for, if you want to feel for him -- is in how he does what he does.
There is something unreal about Alex Rodriguez, even beyond his unreal talent for the game he plays. The only moments in which A-Rod is less than fluent and forceful and otherwise aloft on his own virtuosity are the moments in which he is required to do basic human things. Throw A-Rod a savage slider, darting away from him at 90 miles per hour, and he hits it 475 feet; ask him to high-five a teammate, and his motions are suddenly those of someone in a hazmat suit, futilely mimicking a video, reflected in a distant mirror, of one person high-fiving another. He has been the best player on every team to employ him, he has towered over Hall of Fame teammates, but he has also been at a great distance from all those teammates -- Rodriguez's (steroid-abetted) years in Texas were among the most dominant seasons in recent memory, but he was still enough of a high-handed dork to be mocked by Hank Blalock. No teammate would gainsay A-Rod's talent or drive to extract the most from it; no one accuses him of not trying his hardest, or not caring enough. No one really seems to like him much, either.
Occam's Razor demands that we at least consider the possibility that this is because Rodriguez is a narcissistic jerk. But there's some pathos even in that -- Rodriguez is a human, with all the weaknesses and strengths, accumulated traumas and wisdom that humans have. And yet he is, superhuman talents aside, just not a very human-seeming person. To see A-Rod do anything but play baseball is to see something very strange and not a little sobering -- not quite an empty vessel so much as a robot trying, and mostly failing, to do some human thing like comfort or celebrate or express contrition. Everything sounds more or less as it should, looks more or less as it should. But there is the sense, always, that Alex Rodriguez is not quite there, not even in the neighborhood, and is in fact someplace lonesome and very far away.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.