We like to think that we were never, at any point in high school, sociopaths. We want to believe that we never preyed on someone else for social acceptance. We like to think that we were never part of the suck-up, kick-down continuum of schoolchild status and human cruelty. And when we think this, we are, with rare exceptions, lying.
Naturally, when I think of high school and the currency of always having a punching bag, I think of Alex Rodriguez.
You may have heard about him recently. A-Rod may have been illegally taking steroids over multiple recent seasons, which simultaneously feels kind of grandly, opulently criminal and also would make him a jerk. For this, Bud Selig has threatened to do a Judge Landis impression and ban A-Rod for life. Regardless of what you think of this display of institutional power, that power also compelled the testimony of the comically shady head of Biogenesis Anthony Bosch, who looks like the sort of south Florida car salesman who simultaneously tries to hint that he's connected with the mob and with someone on the University of Miami coaching staff. That Bosch is a jerk is probably beyond question.
Bear in mind, I'm not a fan of A-Rod. I have directed lusty, partisan verbal violence at the man, and he's been aggravating at nearly every step of his career. When he hasn't been smug, A-Rod has been infuriatingly, excessively gifted -- like a guy at karaoke night who already does a flawless Michael Jackson, then shows up one week with an amazing handmade costume, even though first prize is just a $25 gift certificate to Applebees.
And, Lord, did he ever fuel mockery. I missed much of his Seattle tenure due to college poverty, but that contract in Texas was comically awful in the way it hamstrung his team's options. Then came the 2004 bidding war between the Red Sox and the Yankees, which the average person only stood a chance of relating to if he happened to own a clean well between two towns in the aftermath of a natural disaster. You probably know the rest. He got another obscene contract. He faded in postseason after postseason, his clutchness factor measuring at least a -5.0 Ecksteins. He cheated on his wife and hooked up with Madonna well past mainstream bro interest in her. He was photographed flush against his image in a mirror, in what looked like a state of incipient ecstasy. He might not have pictures of himself as a centaur, but, really, the fact that he could says enough.
All of those details are alternately hedonistic and gloriously weird. There is almost no fact in there that I wouldn't consider perversely awesome if someone besides A-Rod were at fault for them. If I had a portrait of me as a centaur, I'd put it on a T-shirt and wear it when Madonna and I made our Christmas e-card sextape. The problem is that A-Rod did them. And A-Rod is a punching bag in the high-schoolingest sense of the term.
Indulge the notion that you were once not the elevated and conscientious Samaritan that you are now, and remember the ripest target of schoolyard malice: the loser who wants to be anything but, the loser who's so much of a loser that he listens to your mockery and obeys it. Because that's the perversely awful takeaway from A-Rod's career: not that he was weird, which we should expect, but that he was weird for trying so hard when everything else about him was effortless.
It's been nearly 10 years since that bidding war between the Sox and Yanks, and in that time A-Rod has ingratiated himself with nobody while radiating a pathetic unctuousness toward the universe. To be fair, he got screwed from the start, when Derek Jeter refused to move to third base for an obviously more gifted athlete. Somehow, A-Rod's inability to be thrilled by this piece of baseball illogic was his fault. The players were, in a way, the obverse of each other: the faultless player and bumbling human next to a declining shortstop with a Teflon personality.
Still, A-Rod tried, smiling at the right points, high-fiving people, attempting to be a swell New York superstar. We hated him, of course, like we hate anyone in high school who wants to be liked without already being liked. A-Rod did all the right things for a while, and every single one was proof that he was a phony. The harder he tried, the sadder he was. Until he seemed to not care for a while, and then, man, that was even worse. The worst thing the unpopular can do after caring is to pretend that they don't. You punish that kind of insubordination. A-Rod tried to revel in being just a weird millionaire, and his failure to resume toady duty combined bumbling with insolence. It was like we were being told off by Jerry Lewis.
It doesn't make sense, of course. Nobody reviles Peyton Manning, despite "postseason choking" and ubiquitous TV ads. Nobody questions his integrity or commitment, despite an abundance of weirdness. Peyton Manning, after all, does that thing where he licks his hand before a snap... only he does it all the time, even at dinner. No, really. He's watching tape and STICKING HIS HAND INSIDE HIS MOUTH.
No one reviles Tom Brady, a man who's knocked up one woman out of wedlock and sired a son nine months after wedding another one and who has the charisma of a toadstool. The man walks this earth as if he were compiled by the voiceover from the PA at an outlet mall. "CHECK OUT TOM BRADY'S MOVADO WATCH AND ALSO BE SURE TO GET TOM BRADY'S BRIEFS AT THE CALVIN KLEIN OUTLET. TOM BRADY HAS WONDERFUL FLATWARE FROM DANSK, AND IF ANY FLAT-FRONT CHINO SAYS TOM BRADY IT'S POLO. TOM BRADY WISHES HIS COACH REMEMBERED DEFENSE."
Obviously, championships play a huge part in the latitude a star athlete gets. (Take away his titles, and Tom Brady might be Pardon the Interruption's version of Tony Romo, Northeast Division.) This makes sense, if we're talking about tennis or boxing or even basketball. But it's a nonsensical attitude in baseball. A-Rod never put the team on his back and willed them to a title, and neither, for that matter, did Don Mattingly. Meanwhile, Tino Martinez has four rings.
Tino, on the other hand, isn't stained with the prospect of possibly taking steroids in high school, taking them for years in the majors, getting busted outside the MLB testing regime, apologizing, then allegedly taking them again for years. (Although he might have; likely nobody cared enough to check. The wages of excellence are doubt.) A-Rod did, or probably did or maybe did all of those things -- which is relevant insofar as your issue is whether to yell at A-Rod and call him "Bad Man!"
There's the thing: It didn't take any MLB wellness regime for anyone to start hurling that kind of epithet at A-Rod. The steroid controversies present post-facto justifications for already hating the guy. He was a clown from start to finish, doofily sliding up and down some Uncanny Valley of what a ballplayer should be, what a man should be, what a celebrity should look like, what we'd like to see ourselves doing if we were that good and rich and effortless.
For whatever narcissism A-Rod exhibits, it's easy to believe that scrutiny this intense was never his aim and that he never thought standing out would invite comedy so relentless. All the same, at the apex of his greatness, absent any legal or baseball-legal accusations to throw at him, it felt satisfying to celebrate his clownishness and quasi-humanity. It brought him down, leveled him out, made whatever he is manageable. Describing his eyes as querulous and immobile and glassine like a doll's only made sense when it demythologized his talent and made it easier to reckon with, on a mortal level. Now, that unfocused thousand-yard stare evokes pity. That weird little toy never fully worked in the first place: you didn't need to break it.
A-Rod stares uncomprehendingly into a hateful or hater vortex in search of that quiet place where he isn't screwed. And there is none. Alex Rodriguez, arguably the greatest sub-Bonds-and-Ruth player in the annals of baseball, might be the most screwed person in sports celebrity history. What's funny about Biogenesis and all the rumored infractions is that it took his finally deserving it for anyone to start to wonder if, for years before, he didn't.