By Jason Keidel
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There was a delicious irony and symmetry to the letter.
It was hand-written, in cursive, straight out of a fifth grade penmanship class. Yet it was written by an adult, far from the preteen, pristine world of grade school. But Alex Rodriguez has always been rather selective when he decides to talk, write, or act like an adult.
His moniker, A-Rod, was the first of the new template of handles. Like J-Lo, Leo, or Shaq, A-Rod was an A-List celebrity, a fresh breed of crossover icons whose star shined on the the green carpet of Yankee Stadium and the red carpet of Hollywood.
And we, as adults, have mostly grown beyond the preteen idolatry that made us sports fans in the first place. But we still hang on the campy notions of decency and dignity from our dignitaries. We know our stars come with more baggage than Newark Airport. But we at least want to know they’re not cheating.
Like dissolving into a pack of zebras, designed in such a way that their striped hide confuses predators, A-Rod reasoned he could just drop into the flock and fit in, shoot-up, gallop with the gang, and never get busted.
But there’s a fundamental problem with that logic. You can’t fit in when you spend your entire life trying to stand out. Rodriguez worked very hard to get the most hits, hit the most homers, and get paid the most money.
The moment he signed that swollen, $252 million deal with Texas, his days of anonymity were forever gone. He eschewed the comfort and winning, the cool sounds and sound sleep of Seattle, in favor of the last-place humidity Arlington. The Rangers play in a summer oven, and had never even played in a World Series when he arrived.
We make silly assumptions about celebrity, since we’ve never been one. We figure that anyone with countless millions, mansions, and kidney-shaped pools has it made, that they are beyond the rigors of everyday life. Despite the fact that endless icons — from Michael Jackson to Joe Louis to Jim Morrison to Elvis Presley — have clearly shown us that fame and monetary gain don’t shield us from divorce, depression, and death.
But A-Rod’s apologists miss one thing. They throw the flag for piling on without dissecting his actions, or admitting his epic allergy to the truth. And they assume that since other players have cheated, his transgressions shouldn’t be so amplified. But A-Rod isn’t in the public bullseye because he’s rich, famous, or handsome. He’s reviled because he has been given countless chances to tell the truth and chose instead to lie. America has a tender heart when it comes to this stuff, but after the fifth lie, sixth crime, and nth mea culpa, you lose your audience and our tolerance.
No doubt the media and masses are sanctimonious when it comes to money. We don’t bemoan the billions owners stash in their mahogany drawers. But we can’t stand the millions players make. So A-Rod’s obsession with cash is only dubious in a relative sense, not a legal or moral context.
No doubt he has haters because of his status. He has the twin virtues of celebrity (looks and wealth) and the twin vices of decay (avarice and dishonesty). Rodriguez is a vain man, so it shouldn’t shock you that he cares way more about his appearance than he should, focused way too much on the superfluous notions of fame and fashion. In his book, Joe Torre detailed his chats with A-Rod about his numbers, with the disgraced third baseman always ignoring team failures while basking in his individual glory.
But this isn’t just about A-Rod or the public’s contempt for him. This is a treatise on the fall of two empires — A-Rod the man and brand, and the Yankees.
You’ll notice the Yankees are making and breaking news everywhere but on the diamond, which is where they made their name as the preeminent franchise in American sports. When he lorded over Green Bay, Vince Lombardi wanted to turn the Packers into the “New York Yankees of football.”
Now no one is trying to emulate or duplicate the Yankees. They still spend more than nearly every other team, charge more for tickets, and have higher expectations than any team in the sport. Yet all the money metrics are down. Attendance, ticket sales, and merchandising are sagging.
Now they need gimmicks, like retiring the number of a .273-hitting catcher who could barely cover home plate and heaved cinder blocks toward second base. They never retired Tony Lazzeri but see fit to retire Jorge Posada. They never retired Earle Combs or Lefty Gomes but see fit to retire Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams. Three of those six players are in the Hall of Fame, yet the Yankees are honoring the three players who aren’t.
No one fears the forever-feared Yankees anymore. Teams used to sell out home games just because they wanted to see the iconic, NY logo on the blue cap. There was something refreshing about the simplicity of their uniforms, and a selfless coda reflected by the fact that they still don’t put last names on the back of their jerseys. Like Notre Dame football, the Yankees perpetuated the notion that donning the hat or helmet not only imbued you with athletic splendor, but also biblical virtue.
Those days, of course, are gone. Like Torre and the Core Four, we must stroll down Replay Blvd, click on YouTube, or jam DVDs into our televisions to see when the Yankees were essential. And when A-Rod was the best player on America’s most regal franchise.
Alex Rodriguez has to be the loneliest man in baseball, in sports, and perhaps the world. You can’t hide behind bricks of cash when your goal is to be so beloved. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who published a profile on A-Rod for ESPN the magazine said that the greatest irony was that A-Rod’s main goal, perhaps even greater than becoming the best baseball player, was to be adored and admired. Yet everything he’s done over the last decade or so has assured the reverse.
And since he’s so perilously close to 40, with his baseball rap sheet stretched beyond his ability to repair, Rodriguez can collect a check, check his balance, and check out.
There isn’t much more for A-Rod to do other than be quiet and retire without setting another celebrity fire. His goal, at this point, should be little more than repair the damage he’s done to his family and whatever real friends he has left. Forget the numbers, the roll call in Cooperstown, or any idea that he’s got any shot at any real place in MLB history. The asterisks will land like asteroids on his stat sheet. It’s over.
Aura and Mystique have indeed left the ballpark, dancing down the street at your local gentlemen’s club, as are all the monoliths of the dynasty. When A-Rod takes the field this spring he will no longer be flanked by famous players, winners, or even peers.
Alex Rodriguez has no peers anymore. You can decide if that’s a good thing.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel