By Jason Keidel
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How are we allowed to feel about Alex Rodriguez? How are we supposed to feel?
A-Rod’s journey from messiah to pariah is amply archived, his crimes and misdemeanors laid across every sports desk and chopped into microscopic bits. Few humans in the public eye have fallen harder, at least in sports.
Mike Tyson plunged from the high orbit of stardom. But his personality and profession always formed a conduit from his dark past into his darker future. It shocked no one when the heavyweight champ dissolved into a caricature.
O.J. Simpson fell from hero to zero in rather grotesque fashion, but the former football savant was decades removed from the gridiron when he became, well, whatever you’d like to call it.
But only A-Rod was supposed to save a sport, or at least its soul. Only A-Rod was branded the best player and person, hatched in the middle of a steroid storm with the charge of leading our pastime past the rigors and rancor of the PED era. Then we find out that A-Rod was as guilty as anyone, if not more so, because he, like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds before him, didn’t need performance enhancers to enhance his performance.
Now everyone is stuck in the logistical web of milestones. With nearly every swing, A-Rod passes some baseball luminary, like Willie Mays, who is not only a great player but also represents a time before the scourge of steroids. Mays also represents an epoch when you not only had to face a fastball but also the heat of a retrograde attitude toward minorities.
Mays, Henry Aaron, and Roberto Clemente — whom A-Rod is about to join in the exclusive 3,000 hits club — carried the twin burdens of the high expectations from the people they represented and the low expectations of the white establishment.
How do you justify Clemente and A-Rod sharing the same baseball aristocracy? Clemente literally died trying to save others, while Rodriguez fights to the death to save his own skin and salary.
So there’s an odd symmetry here, with A-Rod at the end of a cultural progression, passing the very pioneers who made it possible for people like him to prosper, while disgracing them and the sport that made him very rich and famous.
A-Rod’s run through the record books is particularly painful because he had all the bona fides of a baseball icon without the juice. He was wildly gifted, handsome, intelligent, and articulate long before he made the solemn decision to play with his biology. And every time he told us his version of the truth, an outside entity would reveal another. One mea culpa always spawned several more. So we were tired of being burned. When was enough really enough?
Then you still have a healthy portion of A-Rod supporters and apologists who say he’s paid his debt to baseball and society, and still has an asterisk the size of an asteroid hanging over his head. It’s unlikely he will ever enter the Hall of Fame, and no one of importance will ever give his records any credence.
Maybe they have a point. Maybe it’s time to forgive, even if we can’t forget. History has a way of sorting things out, the truth trumping the machinations of public relations. Perhaps we should just let A-Rod be A-Rod, that mixed bag of conflicting impulses and contradicting actions. His conscience, assuming he has one, will haunt him the rest of his days.
But what do we say to the new generation of baseball fans? What do we say to the 10-year-old Yankees fan who just cares that his team is contending, whose life doesn’t cover the career arc of a particular third basemen?
Tell him people aren’t perfect, I guess. Tell him that Rodriguez had some choices to make, and chose wrong. You’d like to think such lessons aren’t necessary until a little later in life.
When many of us were growing up we didn’t have to worry about this stuff. We gathered our intel from baseball cards and TWIB, with Mel Allen’s campy monologues, and Phil Rizzuto’s homespun mantras on the old WPIX.
Circumstances have a way of forcing our hands, of accelerating a child’s youth, altering his innocence and blissful ignorance. Alex Rodriguez isn’t the problem, per se, but he’s the face of a rather troubled time in sports.
But it was his choices that put him there, made him the emblem of an era we can’t quite shake. And since he’s never been entirely willing to tell us why, it’s in our hands to explain it to those who shouldn’t be forced to face the mess he made.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel