Back in the 2007 offseason, Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees hastily agreed to an ill-conceived marriage, agreeing to a 10-year, $275 million contract to keep Rodriguez with the Yankees, in sickness and in health, until he turns 42 years old.
The Yankees married Rodriguez for his untainted home runs. Rodriguez married the Yankees for their money.
Like many such marriages, the union, now tattered and almost unrecognizably bitter, has come apart. The Rodriguez home runs, first tainted in the eyes of many by subsequent revelations of performance enhancing drug use, have stopped altogether as injuries have taken their toll.
And the once bottomless pit of money that served as the New York Yankees "budget" has been replaced by the austerity measures of noted weatherman and ownership scion Hal Steinbrenner. The Yankees have limitations on spending now, and the Alex Rodriguez contract, a holdover from a very different era in the Bronx, is cramping their style like a pre-housing crash balloon mortgage.
Now, with the Yankees rooting, publicly and a little ghoulishly, for someone or something to deliver them from the oppressive Rodriguez contract, be it Major League Baseball's Biogenesis investigation or Rodriguez's own health failures, and Rodriguez insisting, despite his age and failing health, that he has plenty left to give, it is worth remembering exactly how we got here.
As noted baseball hot stove analyst Jerry Orbach, playing El Gallo, once said, "Try to remember the kind of September, when grass was green and grain was yellow... Deep in December, it's nice to remember, the fire of September that made us mellow. Deep in December, our hearts should remember, And follow."
* * *
They had the cutest of meet-cutes. He'd been set to marry their nemesis, the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees had recently lost their third baseman to a pickup basketball game, and were looking to rebound from the kind of season that only seemed like a failure by George Steinbrenner standards. (They always worked too hard, especially in the winter.)
The Red Sox engagement fell through, and the Yankees traded an about-to-fade Alfonso Soriano to the Texas Rangers for Rodriguez, who said he'd change to make it work, and move to third base. Playoff appearances, but no World Series championship, quickly followed, with observers pressuring the young couple, as they so often do, about exactly when they'd produce some trophies.
By the fall of 2007, Alex Rodriguez, who'd just the year before been demoted to eighth in the Yankees lineup during the playoffs, then spoke openly of retiring, reminded the world that he was the finest baseball player on the planet.
In the seventh year of the 10-year, $252 million contract Rodriguez had originally signed with the Texas Rangers back in the winter of 2000, he hit 54 home runs, put up an absurd 176 OPS+, even stole 24 bases in 28 attempts while playing third base. Rodriguez's original contract wasn't actually an overpay. Per FanGraphs, his 2007 season was worth approximately twice what he earned in salary.
But that original deal had an opt-out clause. And in late October 2007, Rodriguez used it, the information going public as the Boston Red Sox were about to eliminate the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series.
The Yankees were in transition at the time, too. Though no one was acknowledging it publicly, George Steinbrenner, the longtime owner and public face of Yankees ownership, was in ill health. His son Hank had assumed much of the public bluster that made his father famous. And both Hank, and general manager Brian Cashman, assured everyone that if Rodriguez opted out of his contract, the Yankees wouldn't pursue him via free agency.
"It's a shame," Steinbrenner told the New York Times for a story entitled "For Rodriguez and Yankees, It's All But Over." "But we are all in agreement: myself, my dad, my brother, all the baseball people. If you don't want to be a Yankee and paid what you're being paid, we don't want you, that's the bottom line. You'd be hard-pressed to argue that point. If you don't understand the magnitude of being a Yankee and understand what that means, and being the highest-paid player in baseball, I think it's pretty obvious."
But there were forces larger than the Yankees' sense of entitlement to bring player and team back together.
From Rodriguez's point of view, the moment he declared himself free, he may well have taken a look around baseball and realized that not so many teams out there could afford to pay him the way the Yankees had. Certainly the Rangers weren't in any position to do so. The Boston Red Sox, who'd once pursued him and very nearly acquired him before the deal was nixed by Major League Baseball, were on top of the baseball world, with no need to add Rodriguez, let alone the budget room. (As the Red Sox celebrated their World Series win, fans chanted, "Don't sign A-Rod!") The Dodgers were still Frank McCourt's Dodgers, not Guggenheim's Dodgers. The Mets had David Wright at third base.
And what had he walked away from? The Yankees, bidding against themselves, were reportedly willing to offer him an annual raise, and tie him up until age 40.
"Does he want to go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee," Steinbrenner asked incredulously, "or a Toledo Mud Hen?"
Accordingly, in the weeks that followed, Rodriguez immediately expressed public contrition, and the Yankees, happily letting the best player in baseball genuflect before the Steinbrenner assertions of Yankee dominance, made a public show of Rodriguez and his wife, Cynthia, flying to Florida to meet with Hank and Hal Steinbrenner in mid-November.
Like any marriage that includes a forced humiliation, the good feelings weren't likely to linger long. Rodriguez took the high road in a public statement: "We know there are other opportunities for us, but Cynthia and I have a foundation with the club that has brought us comfort, stability and happiness." And Hank, in response, said this: "The bottom line is, I'm going to go as far as I want to go, regardless of who's in the room. It's no different than bidding on a racehorse at an auction."
Can you feel the love?
For whatever reason, Hank and the rest of Yankees ownership, despite the lack of any credible alternative for Rodriguez financially, went well beyond the rich contract they'd claimed back in October Rodriguez had forfeited forever by opting out of his last deal. The ten years, $275 million represented not only a raise, not only a contract through age 40, but a couple of years tacked on beyond it.
The Yankees somehow believed that Rodriguez's pursuit of Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs would fill the new Yankee Stadium, set to open in 2009, and that hitching their wagon to the decline years of a star wouldn't have a material effect on either the on-field product, nor on their ability to sign new and younger stars to play around him.
So Scott Boras, Rodriguez's agent, was made the fall guy for the unpleasantness, with Rodriguez claiming he opted out against his will, and the Yankees happy to pretend it was Boras who'd created the rift.
By December, while much of Major League Baseball faced the fallout from the Mitchell Report, the Yankees had a shiny new deal with Rodriguez, the clean face of the sport, who went on 60 Minutes and assured Katie Couric that he'd never taken performance enhancing drugs.
* * *
The very first season of the new deal, 2008, offered hints that the plan wasn't going to work. Rodriguez missed time with an injured quad, playing in 138 games, his fewest since 1999. He hit 35 home runs, down from his 2007 high of 54, and fewest since 1997. He was 32, but suddenly, the end of his peak looked to be the new reality. And a summer of dating Madonna, showing up in the tabloids with women who weren't his wife, and a subsequent divorce filing painted a very different portrait of Rodriguez's life than the "comfort, stability and happiness" he's cited the winter before.
Then came the Selena Roberts book, which included allegations that Rodriguez had, in fact, taken steroids, back between 2001-2003. After an attempt to slime Roberts predictably backfired, Rodriguez had a tearful press conference in the spring of 2009, admitted taking PEDs, and attempted to assign it to a different part of his life, vowing to do better for the sake of the Yankees.
Or as teammate Johnny Damon put it, ""I'm glad he came clean," the Yankees' Johnny Damon said in a telephone interview. "Now he can go out and concentrate on baseball."
Well, he sort of played baseball in 2009. Rodriguez saw action in just 124 games, hit 30 home runs, but he was dominant in the playoffs and helped lead the Yankees to the only World Series championship they've won with Alex Rodriguez.
The disclosures didn't stop, though. There was the Anthony Galea investigation, another performance enhancing drug case that forced the Yankees to publicly separate from the player they'd chosen as their public face.
The injuries didn't stop, either: thumb sprain, knee surgery, one hip, then the other. The games played totals plummeted, 137 in 2010, 99 in 2011, 122 in 2012, none so far in 2013. Manager Joe Girardi benched him in the 2012 playoffs. The contract was an albatross, and the Yankees were all-too-willing to talk about the huge mistake they'd made.
But divorce isn't so easy. No matter how many times the Yankees float hopeful scenarios that Rodriguez will be declared physically unable to play, triggering the insurance company to pay the lion's share of his salary, it simply may not be the case. And while Major League Baseball, who met with Rodriguez on Friday, reportedly intends to suspend him, that suspension will be subject to appeal, and will only reduce the enormous remaining obligation the Yankees have toward Rodriguez, another four years and $86 million after this season's $28 million salary, by a small percentage.
So as you listen to Brian Cashman telling Alex Rodriguez to "Shut the f*** up", and Rodriguez moves like a man older than his 37 years around a minor league infield, trying desperately to get back on the field as another PED investigation and a vengeful league office threatens to end his comeback attempt, follow the advice of El Gallo:
Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow...
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember