By Jason Keidel
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If the product framed and narrated by John Facenda, or massaged with music from a philharmonic or an organ behind Harry Caray, or planted inside our box of Cracker Jacks, then we’re picking sides.
Just look at the dustbowl, where the NBA Finals have been framedas Kevin Durant’s humility versus LeBron’s hubris, homegrown talent versus voracious spending. It’s not news that every pro sport provokes this kind of rancor or righteousness, for with every strong emotion or devotion comes a few bucks in the coffers.
And so it is with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, he’s called, because he too needed a handle. Being Alex wasn’t enough. Just as his talent wasn’t enough. He needed a needle. And every time he breaks a record we break out the broken record, condoning or condemning his game and his brain. And with every milestone he crosses he also trips over his past.
The steroids era has forced a duality, if not schizophrenia, upon us. We need heroes and villains on our television, no matter if we’re watching fiction or reality. The problem with A-Rod and his beefed-up brethren is that we don’t know who is which. And until a new crop of kids – perhaps led by Bryce Harper – bring clean veins to the game, we will struggle with right and might.
We understand why the career minor-leaguer sipped the juice. Those potions increased his portions of the American Dream. But the bewildering players like A-Rod, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds – all certified savants who would have reached Cooperstown sans steroids – are the toughest to digest. Sure, it’s better to hit 50 than 30 homers. But why risk it? Between toeing the line between fair and foul, legal and illegal, short-term gain and long-term organ failure, steroids are a most expensive proposition. And it seems when stuck at the axis of right and wrong, most players chose the latter.
For over a decade, the wisdom wrapped around A-Rod was that he needed to carry a team to a title before that most hairy mammal would finally leap off his back and his detractors would let him be. He did exactly that, in 2009, and it didn’t ease the white heat of media glare or the public’s stare.
So it seems this tug-of-war with the world is A-Rod’s destiny. He gets all the goodies, the fame, fortune, and numbers, but it all comes with a cosmic, if not karmic, asterisk.
And even the most ardent A-Rod apologist must admit that most of his migraines have been self-induced. It was he who got shot shirtless in Central Park; it was he who played underground poker with the stars; it was he who opted out of his contract during a World Series; it was he who flew a stripper around the nation while his wife was either pregnant with or caring for his progeny; it was he who shot the equine cocktails into his tan tush. So any notion that A-Rod randomly strolled into the stress that has defined his career is gibberish.
But when is enough enough? Never, for some. If the contempt is cloaked envy over his cars, cash, or cachet, then I don’t understand, because it presupposes that money makes you happy, despite the endless evidence that it doesn’t. And why is fine when a billionaire buys a team with his petty cash but it’s downright grotesque when his star player demands a cut.
The stats stop on the field for me, so the commas in A-Rod’s 401K mean nothing. Sports have never been a business in my world. The boy in me, in all of us, would rather revel in the physical splendor we see from the sidelines. We assumed the field was level, and that the American ethos of fair play and our collective, blue-collar ethic applied to them, too. Turns out we were duped, that few of our heroes were too human, and that the record books would be forever synthesized. Turns out Roger Maris and Hank Aaron are the kings, after all.
A-Rod’s homer in Atlanta has exhumed all the old arguments. Tying Lou Gehrig for the most grand slams is fitting, for it italicizes the contrast in the characters and in his character. Rodriguez was never considered clutch, and his fading power has been universally noted, yet he hit a game-tying homer off Atlanta’s regal bullpen.
Gehrig is the poster boy for baseball, a sick man who delivered baseball’s Gettysburg Address on the very grass A-Rod roamed, and still summoned gratitude from his deathbed. A-Rod is painted in an entirely different hue, as the emblem of greed, Gordon Gekko gone wild, the ultimate mercenary whose love for the game is commensurate to his sense of capitalism.
It’s fitting that his homer just cleared the wall, just as his spiritual nostrils have barely cleared the scalding spiritual waters since he entered the league nearly 20 years ago. You have every right to love or loathe Alex Rodriguez for any reason. Just ask yourself if you’re being reasonable.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org