Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Last Son of Babylon: Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez and the Life of aManufactured Villain

     For the better part of his life, Alex Rodriguez has been the bad guy. From his high school days in Palmetto Bay to the signing of his ten-year, nearly three-hundred-million dollar contract with the Yankees, he has worn the expectation to become the greatest baseball player of all-time. 13,889 days had passed in Rodriguez's life before Monday. Almost divinely over that time, he had become baseball's quintessential villain. On August 5, 2013, Alex Rodriguez stepped onto a Major League field for the first time this season just hours after being handed the heaviest non-gambling-related penalty in nearly a century. Where did it all go wrong for Alex? Perhaps it was by his own design or by the weight of unprecedented hype. No matter the cause, the role of the game's greatest heel became his destiny.

     The Chicago White Sox were living a nightmare. Buried in the mire of a ten-game losing streak, the Sox had not only lost any chance of salvaging their season, they were losing tickets. Crowds had taken to a steep decline in the early sniffings of football season. Yet when the announcement came that Alex Rodriguez would not only be in the building, but be the Yankees' starting third baseman, the game became an event worthy of the tabloid journalists who swarmed the visiting dugout. I had decided in that moment I would buy one ticket to the game and drive up to U.S. Cellular Field immediately after leaving my office. The relevance of the game was lost on no-one. Rodriguez had just completed a rehab stint through the New York farm system following hip surgery in January, and was to make his first appearance in the Majors in 2013. In what can be described simply as inglorious irony, Major League Baseball handed down suspensions to thirteen players involved in the dragged-out BioGenesis performance enhancing drugs scandal, including Alex. Most of the fines were the standard, union approved, fifty games without pay. Rodriguez was suspended through the 2014 season. He was the only player to appeal the suspension.
     As fate would have it, the starting pitcher for the New York Yankees on August fifth was Andy Pettitte. He, a legendary postseason pitcher, had been caught up in the game's great steroid scandal as well. On December 16, 2007, just a few days removed from the release of the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball, Andy Pettitte fessed up to his use of human growth hormone back in 2002. His admittance of guilt was well received not only by the local media, but by the baseball world as a whole. Somewhere between those dates, Pettitte started game two of the 2005 World Series for Houston. That night he allowed two runs over six innings in his team's loss to the Chicago White Sox under the lights of U.S. Cellular Field. Monday night would prove to be cruel to the lefty, but given the circus the man on his right side brought to town, he would largely go unnoticed.

July 8, 1995. Day 6,922.
     Called up from the triple-A affiliate Calgary Cannons, Alex Rodriguez was to make his Major League debut for the Seattle Mariners that night in Boston. As only the third eighteen-year-old shortstop ever, Rodriguez was reaching the culmination of a hype machine that had already followed him for years. After turning down a scholarship to the University of Miami to play baseball and football, he was able to justify his natural ability on the highest stage. The Mariners were five games back of the division leading Texas Rangers. Foresight would tell of the irrelevance of the game, as the season would be cut short a few weeks later due to a players' strike. In his three at-bats, Rodriguez saw seven pitches, five of them for strikes. Groundout. Flyout. Flyout. He would have to wait a day to get his first career hit. Bereft of a poor first outing, Alex was still a prospector's dream. The five-tool, fresh-faced infielder was to be another building piece in a strong core with an already growing legend in the outfield- Ken Griffey jr.
     On Monday night, upon the announcement to the near twenty-eight thousand people in attendance, a rain of anger fell upon the name of Alex Rodriguez. I sat in the upper-deck behind home plate, about four hundred feet from the seven-dollar seat I purchased. The fury of a stadium populated with a crowd already frustrated with their team's recent play was unrelenting. The echoes of contempt for the newly-crowned king of the liars caused my seat to rattle, mocking the roar of a subway car barreling through a tunnel. The first inning went as planned for White Sox starter Jose Quintana, giving up only a bloop single to second baseman Robinson Cano. Cano tested the arm of left fielder Dayan Viciedo, and was subsequently thrown out attempting to stretch the single to a double. It was the third out of the inning. Alex Rodriguez stood on-deck. His first at-bat of the season had to wait just a little while longer.

December 11, 2000. Day 9,270.
     In a move that would send a chill down the spine of any economic refomer, the Texas Rangers signed Alex Rodriguez to a ten-year, two-hundred fifty-two million dollar deal. For perspective, the Rangers franchise was purchased three years prior to that day from a group lead by eventual President George Walker Bush for 250 million. Rodriguez, the Rangers, and professional sports as a whole were under fire for what many people determined was a ludicrous amount of money to play a children's game. Rodriguez vowed to play up to the immense contract. Years later, Alex would be outed for steroid use between the 2001 and 2003 seasons, claiming he stopped using the substances before the regular season started that year. He would go on to win the American League most valuable player award that year, despite Texas finishing dead last in the West division. He garnered criticism for the award considering his team's awful finish. Sports pundits across the nation believed he should have been ineligible, not for any perceived steroid use, but for the lack of on-field value they believed he accrued for a last-place team.
     Alex stepped into the batter's box as he had thousands of times before as a Seattle Mariner, Texas Ranger, and New York Yankee. The mild balm of early August was rushed out of the city nicknamed in equal hand  for its thick-skinned, blue-collar culture and its unstable air pressure. Each made their presence known as the third baseman stared down Quintana. There was a lull in the audible chaos as the young Chicago pitcher dealt a two-ball-count slider toward the plate. Rodriguez cranked in his front leg, leaned forward and ripped his upper body counter-clockwise, his hands and bat lagging behind. As he had thousands of times before, Alex made clean contact with the pitch and knocked it into center field. On base in his first at-bat of the season, a spatter of applause could be heard beneath a chastened growl of boos. A soft clap and a point to the dugout- signs of relief after a long wait to finally play Major League ball again. He would be knocked over to third, but Quintana and the supporting home defense would not allow Rodriguez to move past the last checkpoint. His team already down three runs, the White Sox held the Yankees scoreless for the second straight inning.

October 28, 2007. Day 11,782
     The day belonged to the Boston Red Sox. That night, the team long in the shadow of the Yankee Dynasty won its second World Series in four years. They had swept the streaking Colorado Rockies, outscoring the surprise National League champions 29-10 over the four games. The New York Yankees had been eliminated nearly three weeks prior by the Cleveland Indians. Alex Rodriguez, who would be named the American League's MVP that year, had performed poorly in the series, which had been a growing trend in his career. For the months of games played in the regular season, he was always nothing short of a prototypical hall-of-famer. Then, as if given a dose of Kryptonite, October annually weakened Rodriguez to a mortal, replacement-level infielder. The night of October 28, as his team's chief rival was an inning away from another title, Alex announced that he would opt-out of the mammoth contract that had followed him in a trade to the Yankees prior to the 2004 season. Media backlash had determined the timing of the move to be inappropriate and uncouth, also citing his lack of communication with the Yankees organization before coming to the decision. Yankees fans, already angered over his sleepy performance in the playoffs, had placed a black mark upon his name. Despite his lack of consideration toward the team, the Yankees re-signed the most valuable player to a ten-year, 275 million dollar contract. It included incentives for passing Mays, Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds on the all-time home run ledger. If he had not become the least-favored player in baseball for his often cocky demeanor or tabloid drama, it was the inevitability that he could never live up to his contract that sealed his fate.
     As darkness surrounded the glowing canyon of U.S. Cellular Field, Jose Quintana stood his ground. The Yankees were scoreless going into the sixth inning. Rodriguez was due up second in the inning, as he had in the fourth frame. Then, he drove a nintey-two miles per hour, four-seam fastball from Quintana to the center field wall, but not far enough. As the ball cut high into the air, I had a brief breath of hope that it would leave the yard, and Alex would trot around victorious to the thunderous clamor of a rival team's crowd. Unfortunately, against all the romanticized will in my mind, the ball was easily caught. In the sixth, he returned a slider fast to left. As it hummed low over the infield, it was a textbook play for left fielder Casper Wells. Again, the ball was caught. Again, Rodriguez returned to the visiting dugout with his head gently tipped to the left. The frustration was worn heavy at the top of his spine, but he would be given another chance.

August 5, 2013. Day 13,890.
     As the offseason BioGenesis revelation began to roll downhill, the central figure quickly shifted from Ryan Braun to Alex Rodriguez. Braun was to be suspended for the remainder of the 2013 season for his link to performance enhancers. Rodriguez was to be crucified in the name of baseball reform. In the weeks leading up to the Monday announcement, rumors had grown that Alex would be banned for life from baseball for acts deemed detrimental to the dignity of the game. As the gavel swung down, his ban would be set at enough games to leave him out of baseball through the 2014 season. For a player accelerating toward forty years of age, the suspension would surely separate him from any chance of breaking the records tied to his contract incentives. It was not a death sentence, but his legacy was surely damned. The unprecedented irony of August 5th, will sadly be a footnote in the tale of Alex Rodriguez. On the very day he received his suspension for two hundred eleven games, he made his season debut. Baseball is cruel, but damn can it pen a script.
     The Yankees scored in the top of the seventh inning, but one run matched against eight for Chicago was practically insurmountable as the game entered the eighth. For the third consecutive at-bat, Rodriguez was due up second. Each time, he had endured a battering of boos as he took preliminary warm-up swings in the on-deck circle. As the White Sox' stadium announcer Gene Honda announced his name for the last time of the night, Alex Rodriguez stepped into the batters box, as he had thousands of times before. Jose Quintana had been replaced by Matt Lindstrom, the journeyman right-hander and setup man. The thirty-three year old Lindstrom battled with Alex. Ball. Ball. Swinging strike. As the count set at two and one, the remaining twenty thousand plus in attendance began to swell with excitement. Ball. Three and one. On the next pitch, Alex took a called strike as Robinson Cano stole second base. The next pitch was returned foul. The crowd now at full-tilt for one more pitch. A full count, three balls and two strikes. The penultimate offering left Matt Lindstrom's hand at eighty-six miles per hour. It was a slider, just as Quintana had delivered. The ball dipped nearly a foot from the apex of its arc to the catcher's glove. Rodriguez simply watched the pitch retire there. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt rung up Alex on strikes. It was as if the game was over. Not only did those in attendance cheer louder than at any point in the night, but in the moments that followed, the ballpark cleared out. The night was over and the circus was closed for the night. The White Sox' losing streak was over. Alex Rodriguez had come to town and lost.

     When do we understand our place? Is there a time in our lives when we grasp our roles in society and bleed them to finality, or is it more chaotic than that? Alex Rodriguez is no doubt one of the most polarizing athletes in modern professional sports. My intention was not to justify his actions or give any credence to his guilt. Many times we are only given part of the story. I suppose there is only one person who knows the entire Alex Rodriguez narrative. I hope someday he makes the decision to truthfully share his story. For now, we are left in the wake of yet another steroid scandal in baseball. While the politics and validity of the suspensions are for another day, I believe there is a linear path that got us to the fallout Monday afternoon. Did Alex Rodriguez know when he was a standout high-school prospect that he would become the sacrificial goat of what we believe is the end of the steroid era? Perhaps he was just trying to live up to the hype. Perhaps he really is as cold as he has been portrayed in the last week. Whatever the case, and no matter the outcome, Alex Rodriguez has made an undeniable impression in the annals of Major League Baseball.

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