On Tuesday, Alex Rodriguez showed up at the Yankees' Tampa facility to take the next step in his rehab from hip surgery -- and that simple act was enough to send the New York media and the Internet at large into another frenzy of disgust. It seems impossible that this situation, a huge star openly disparaged and unwanted by his own team, fans and league, could possibly endure at this high pitch for another five full years. And yet that's the scenario we're facing.
In the wake of the Biogenesis clinic scandal, Major League Baseball would plainly love to see Alex Rodriguez ride off into the sunset. And lord knows the Yankees would like to get out of the massive payments they owe their injured and PED-tainted albatross. There's just one small problem: The evidence simply isn't there, at least not yet. Maybe you believe that's because it never existed; maybe you believe Rodriguez paid to have it destroyed, as "sources familiar with MLB's investigation" have told ESPN. Either way, though, that means Rodriguez is probably not going away any time soon. Which means we -- me, you, the media, the Yankees, the league -- are going to have to make some sort of peace with his continued presence in the game, or risk going completely insane.
Given all that, the battle that Major League Baseball is waging against Alex Rodriguez -- its own star, and not so long ago one of its most marketable -- is, if not quite unprecedented, still fairly astounding. Some obvious comparisons leap to mind: Pete Rose, of course, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who were each banned from the game. Yet neither hung around for years being loathed before their sentences were handed down, and both have plenty of defenders, even now. By the end of his career, MLB was none too fond of Barry Bonds, who felt (not without reason) that he was being blacklisted and forced into retirement; other PED users have also gotten a cold shoulder, but some, like Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi, have been forgiven. And Bonds and A-Rod's fellow Biogenesis-linked bête noir Ryan Braun at least has a home team and fanbase that appreciates and enjoys him.
The same cannot be said of Rodriguez. It has been suggested that he should be banned from baseball, that he should be arrested, that he should be sued -- just about everything short of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman killing him and making it look like an accident for the insurance money, and a poll would probably find some fans supporting that, too. There's so much piling on, it's almost enough to make you take the unnatural step of defending the guy.
Even before he was first accused of, and admitted to, taking steroids, back in 2009, a sizeable contingent of Yankees fans bitterly disliked Rodriguez -- partly because of his legitimately offputting persona, partly because of his massive salary, but also at times for simply ludicrous reasons (the "he's not clutch" meme endures, despite demonstrably having little basis in reality). I can actually remember quite clearly the moment when Yankee fans started to turn on him, before he had even joined the team: That silly Esquire profile way back in 2001. "He's never had to lead," Rodriguez said of Derek Jeter, who prior to that article was a close friend. "You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O'Neill… You never say, 'Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern." The Yankees fan reaction, of course, was Jeez, what a jerk (or more accurately, @%^!, what a #@^$%!&$*@). There is, of course, much, much more to the Alex Rodriguez dislike than just that these days, but it was undoubtedly a turning point. From then on, he was booed in New York, and that has never really stopped, except for the brief minutes when playoff games were actually being won. The long, sad tabloid saga that has followed since is in no way because of that article, but the groundwork was laid, and every other bad thing that came after it just seemed to make sense because, ugh, that's A-Rod.
The A-Rod-vs.-Jeter dialectic has since become some sort of bizarre variation on ancient myths of intertwined gods of lightness and darkness. On Tuesday, as Rodriguez showed up for rehab, we were treated to the following words about him from a column in the Bergen Record (and similar words elsewhere):
Obviously, Alex Rodriguez hasn't figured out he is to the Yankees what Freddy Krueger is to REM-stage sleep - a recurring nightmare.
…the Yankees have been rooting so hard for MLB's investigators while they've zeroed in on Biogenesis' books. Bud Selig is said to be obsessed with bringing down A-Rod and Ryan Braun together. But according to one industry official, the commissioner would like nothing more than to slap a lifetime ban on Rodriguez in particular.
Selig's detectives so far have uncovered nothing actionable that connects A-Rod to performance-enhancing drugs …
And that same day, the following words about Derek Jeter from ESPN, words like many that have come before and since:
"Jeter's intangibles and leadership are what make him a Hall of Famer….
… He became the signature player for the game's signature team when it returned to power, and in an era of drugs and cynicism and ruined reputations, he never embarrassed the sport, his team or, most important, his family name.
There is no metric for that. Just a magical story."
Look, I think we all like Derek Jeter more than Alex Rodriguez. Nevertheless, comparisons between them have been ridiculously over-the-top for the better part of a decade now. We could use significantly less demonizing (Freddy Krueger?) and myth-making (Derek Jeter is not, in fact, made of magic) and more reality, with all its unpleasant complexities.
To be honest, I think it would be quite naïve to believe Alex Rodriguez when he says he has not taken PEDs since 2003 (very conveniently, the start of his Yankees contract). It is no less naïve, however, to think that he can be punished for it without hard evidence -- evidence which is just not currently available. That's both fair and unfair. So it goes.
Rodriguez is far from the first player to use PEDs and never be significantly penalized for it; he is only the highest-paid player to do so. But we will always take into account what we know about him, and what we suspect, when we assess his career over the decades to come. More frustrating to me are the players who used but have never been caught or named publicly at all. We will never know who they were. And that's something we have no choice but to accept if we want to continue enjoying this game. That doesn't mean you stop trying to curb and prevent steroid use, but it does mean that maybe you stop obsessing over it.
In that light, the crusade against Rodriguez looks increasingly quixotic. You absolutely do not have to like Alex Rodriguez, but he is here, and if he can successfully recover from hip surgery at 37, he will be here for a while. There may eventually be a breakthrough in the Biogenesis case that changes everything… but right now, that's not looking likely. So it's time to accept reality.
Alex Rodriguez will continue his rehab, and we will get updates for months. It would be good if, as time went on, we could treat these for what they are: not referendums on the morality of the game, but merely updates on how long it will be before Jayson Nix or Chris Nelson or whatever lifelike mannequin the Yankees have manning third base by then will be replaced by Rodriguez. He comes with a lot of baggage, but that baggage used to include some pretty amazing baseball ability. If it still does, the endless anger around A-Rod may reduce to a dull roar. If it doesn't… well, it's going to be a very long few years, for the Yankees but also for anyone who does not enjoy hysteria in their baseball.