Yankees' Slugger Still An Enigma, But It's Not Too Late To Change Perception

By Jeff Capellini, WFAN/CBSNewYork.com

NEW YORK (WFAN) — Is Alex Rodriguez the most misunderstood player in the history of New York sports? Or is he deserving of the type of scorn he still receives? We’ll find out soon because the Yankees’ slugger is on the precipice of immortality and fans may be forced to look in the mirror and choose.

There are going to be three special moments coming very soon to a stadium near you. The problem is a good percentage of fans will either downplay the historical ramifications of each or reserve their excitement for just the lucky few in their inner circles.

God forbid anyone actually feel good for A-Rod. Even now.

I was having a discussion with a friend the other night about A-Rod. And this friend told me something I already knew but had chosen to put on the back burner because in the grand scheme of things I don’t think it’s a big deal anymore.

We talked about how Derek Jeter is treated like the next coming of the almighty because he’s accomplished all the things he’s accomplished in just one uniform and because he’s done all of them with unrivaled class and professionalism. Yankees fans aren’t as ridiculous about home-grown players as fans of other teams, mostly because they have had so many guys over the years to adopt. They have passed the “true Yankee” test, whatever that is. They have come from elsewhere, contributed to the team winning a championship and have, for the most part, conformed to the rules the fans have laid out associated with wearing the pinstripes.

Non-Yankee fans are sick and tired of hearing about the Yankee way. They are fed up with this notion that a player has not earned his place in the fabled lore of the most successful team in the history of North American team sports until he’s won a ring. Call it some kind of uppity sense of entitlement if you want, but fans of the Bronx Bombers have always thrown compliments around like manhole covers and have always tied together what’s acceptable from an individual standpoint to the greater good of the franchise.

In a way, that’s how it’s supposed to be. But what bugs outsiders is Yankees fans shove that mantra down their throats any chance they get.

Of course, they make exceptions when it’s convenient, the biggest being Don Mattingly, who, according to the rules, is not a true Yankee, yet is, of course, because, well, he’s Don Mattingly. That’s a discussion for another day, but it’s appropriate to mention here because Rodriguez is perceived to be the anti-Mattingly, despite having a resume that would render Donnie Baseball null and void in the annals of the Yankee greats.

By my estimation and barring serious injury, Rodriguez will join the 3,000-hit, 700-homer and 2,000-RBI club inside of the next two full seasons. You want to talk about exclusive company? Only one player has ever reached all three milestones. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Hank Aaron.

Rodriguez, who was scheduled to have knee surgery Monday and miss 4-6 weeks, is currently 238 hits, 74 homers and 117 RBIs away from getting it done. He turns 36 on July 27.

He’s going to do it. So the question now becomes, what will be your reaction? I just get the feeling that A-Rod will never get the praise Jeter received for reaching 3,000, even if he achieves all three. From where I’m standing this will be a shame because of the magnitude of the accomplishment.

It’s pretty much universally understood that fans — both of and against the Yankees — despise A-Rod for three reasons. One is legitimate, one is something you just have to deal with and the third shows the fickle nature of the American sports fan.

Steroids: Here we go. Has Rodriguez bloodied his entire body of work because he admittedly used them for a period of time? It’s a very difficult argument to make either way.

The purists, of which there are many, will say of course and will find no reason to ever forgive him. To them, Rodriguez embodies all that is wrong with the professional athlete. I have found these people, no matter what you do or say, cannot and will not be swayed.

But then there’s those who believe Steve Howe rightfully deserved seven chances to adhere to the “rules” so that he could play in the majors. They are cut from an entirely different cloth and live in a very forgiving society. There reasoning may be, hey, A-Rod wasn’t arrested and since a good percentage of players were supposedly doing drugs, well, who can fault him?

Then there’s those who don’t give a damn either way. They figure a player still has to swing a bat and hit a baseball, which is arguably the toughest thing to do in all of sports. They don’t pretend to be medical experts. They don’t know or care if steroid use improves hand-eye coordination or provides an additional 25-30 feet on a fly ball. They don’t easily subscribe to outrage and really don’t give a hoot what the media says.

Regardless of where you stand, the best thing A-Rod can do going forward is to never get caught doing anything questionable again. He needs to end his career completely clean. That’s going to be difficult and not because I’m suggesting he’s sneaking around right now with a syringe. It’s because reporters will always be investigating him, even after his playing days are done.

Prima Donna: Rodriguez has always been a lightning rod for controversy. Whether it has been something he’s done on the field (slapping the ball away against the Red Sox; yelling at a Blue Jays third baseman on a pop-up, etc.), something he’s said or intimated (the whole Jeter fiasco from some years back) or something he’s been caught doing off the field (the blonde in Toronto; allegedly cheating on his wife; popcorn-gate at the Super Bowl) he’s never really endeared himself to everyone. He just rubs people the wrong way, as if he thinks all the fans are idiots and will just accept him because he’s a superstar.

This is a hard stigma to rid yourself of. The once-a-jerk, always-a-jerk reputation tends to follow a person around.

Has A-Rod done great things for people off the field? Of course. Is he by and large considered a good teammate? Yes. It’s just his screw-ups have always garnered the spotlight. He’s probably a very good guy if you are close to him, but he seems like he doesn’t let a lot of people in, and hence doesn’t have a recognized cheering section that will go to the mattresses for him when times get tough or when stories get out of control.

And this is indeed odd because I’ve never seen a professional athlete so concerned with public perception.

Like with the issue of steroids, Rodriguez just needs to stay out of the tabloids the rest of the way. I’m not saying he should recruit camera crews to follow him to Little League games where he’s built fields. Just avoid the stupidity. Be gracious, be humble and no matter what, don’t command the spotlight unless you are in the batter’s box or patrolling third base.

Evil does as Evil is: Rodriguez is a Yankee. That means 90 percent of the country automatically hates him. Not one player who wears the pinstripes gets a pass in this regard. Not even Jeter. The Yankees captain is certainly respected everywhere he goes, but because A-Rod is who he is and carries himself the way he does, he often doesn’t even get a tip of the cap from opposing fans.

Rodriguez seems to embody all that is supposedly sinister about New York. To the haters he’s a guy who lives the charmed life, but doesn’t adhere to the Jeter etiquette. Has he brought this on himself? Is he just misunderstood? I’m not sure even A-Rod knows the answer to either question. To many fans it’s natural to “blame A-Rod” when the team is struggling, but it’s only acceptable to do that because he’s alienated so many people over the years.

If fans despise you because you decimate their teams on a nightly basis, then you are doing your job. Respect will come eventually. Unfortunately for A-Rod, all that he’s accomplished to this point has been overshadowed by most everything that has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. Celebrity can be a bitch and Rodriguez, as evidenced by his actions, has yet to really figure out how to handle it.

So here stands Rodriguez on the verge of doing something truly spectacular if not other worldly. When all is said and done the Yankees will have had a guy who played a dozen or so years in pinstripes, put up astronomical numbers, won two MVPs, won a championship (and perhaps a few more before he hangs ’em up), yet he’s still thought of in many circles as an outsider.

What will it take to finally get A-Rod accepted into the “true Yankee” club? To me, his 2009 postseason performance cemented it, but to many, many others he may need to mark his 3,000th hit and 2,000th RBI with his 700th home run — a solo shot in the bottom of the 9th against the Red Sox to win the division on the final day of the regular season.

Maybe, just maybe, then he’ll be appreciated for all he’s done.

Rodriguez has no one to blame but himself that it’s probably come to that.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

What’s your opinion on A-Rod’s career? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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