Alex Rodriguez’ return to the playing field is not working out the way he’d envisioned. Then, Rodriguez’ regular efforts to garner our affection never do. It’s a given: The more he really, really wants to be liked, the more he mucks it up. And the more his judges pile on.
His handwritten apology to Yankee fans, issued on the eve of his return to baseball after a year-long suspension? Universal reaction: Obviously Insincere! The 12,000-word profile written by a Pulitzer-Prize winner in ESPN The Magazine, after the writer spent 100 hours in the man’s company? Featured not a single quote from Rodriguez, because, as the author said, “He’s a proven liar, a repeated liar…there’s just no point in quoting him.” Then, the New York Times columnist — sick of the “lies” — who Â suggested that the Yankees should sever ties with him; to do so, said the writer, the team “will have to show two qualities not usually mentioned in the same context as Rodriguez: bravery and honesty.”
All kids lie. Demanding bravery? What is he, William Wallace? Or just a wildly insecure kid playing a kid’s game, never actually coached in mind as well as body, and as brave and honest, in general, as any knuckleheaded, swaggering teenager? I’ve bought into that pop-psych theory for 15 years now, and I’m sticking to it, ever since the two of us sat for a few hours in the wardrobe/makeup trailer for a GQ cover shoot on Miami Beach. He’d be sharing the cover with Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra. We were talking about how the three of them — the Mexican Garciaparra, the Dominican Rodriguez and the biracial Jeter — symbolized a new kind of era, and one that had been too long in coming.
“It’s like the baton has been passed…Let’s see if we can take it,” Rodriguez said, just as there was knock on the door and the famous photographer’s assistant was summoning the Mariners’ star to the set. Rodriguez was about to step out of the door of the trailer when he stopped and glanced back at me with a look, as I described it in my story, of “little-kid panic.”
“I don’t mean to say there aren’t a lot of other great players out there,” he clarified. “That’s not what I meant, you know?” He was genuinely, almost frantically, worried that he’d come off as pompous, even though it was a pretty benign quote.
I wasn’t surprised he’d been anxious to clarify. We’d spent a good two hours together, enough time for me to sense that Alex Rodriguez really, really wanted us to like him. Wanted everyone to like him. A lot. At one point that day, he’d asked me, genuinely, whether I, as a New Yorker, thought he should come to the Mets as a free agent. (I thought: he’s asking me? Doesn’t he have legitimate friends and advisors?) “Of course!” I said.
“What about Derek?” he answered. At first, I didn’t understand. “It’d be the coolest cross-town rivalry,” I said. Rodriguez dropped the subject. But I knew what he’d been worried about: going to a city where someone else would always be more beloved…or, more specifically, where being constantly compared to Jeter would ensure that, popularity-wise, as well as character-wise, he’d come up short. Way short.
He went to Arlington, Texas, to a team with no prospects for winning, in a town otherwise devoid of a-list athletes (unless you count Cowboy quarterback Quincy Carter).
When he finally did come to New York, it’d be tempting to say he’d outgrown that adolescent-stud mindset, wherein it’s second nature to grab for whatever you want, be it the babe, the beer/drug, the bucks…
…Unless you recall the night in 2007 when, on a Yankee road trip to Toronto, he ushered a woman who wasn’t his wife to a strip club, and then his hotel. Trailed by paparazzi. Hello, New York Post front page: “STRAY-ROD.” Or the time he flipped out during a midtown Manhattan appeals hearing, slamming his briefcase shut (according to someone who knows what happened in that room), and stomping crosstown to immediately blast the league on the most listened-to radio show in New Yorkâ€¦when he’s trying to get back into said league.
Stupid behavior? No stupider than any 16-year-old kid star athlete getting into a car driven by a friend who’s already drunk half of the six-pack on the front seat. It’s an actual neuroscientific fact: the adolescent brain’s “rewards center” develops ahead of the pre-frontal cortex, which accounts for how many teenagers do things without seeing the possible effects of their actions.
Why’d he stop growing emotionally? Maybe as soon as the coaches at the University of Miami started treating him like very valuable meat, and coaches kept handing him up to the next level of the carnival, no one bothered to pay attention to the little kid crying out for attention. And yes, okay, so his reasoning circuits should be wired by now. But old psychological habits die hard when no one tries to genuinely, sincerely remedy them, wherein the more things change, the more they stay the same, if something he said in his eight-minute press conference on Monday is indicative of his mindset: “No mistake that I made has any good answer, no justification. It’s unexplainable.” As in: if there’s no explanation, how can I really be blamed?
Time was, the pastime promised an annual psychic rebirth when they unlocked the gates in Florida and the writers gave us the early news. Who’s going to be the fifth starter? Who’s the unknown minor-leaguer who’s going to emerge and win a roster spot, to everyone’s delight?
So maybe it’s fitting that we open this year with columnists piling on the guy. The headline on the Times column? “Lying, Lying, Gone. Fans Should Hope So.” After all: the current national pastime seems to be shouting and fist-shaking between any two sides at any give time: Right/Left, O’Reilly/Maddow, Creationist/Evolutionarian.
Why shouldn’t dialogue about the sporting pastime be any different? Why shouldn’t the first stories from Florida pile on a fallen man? Because he doesn’t deserve such shallow, one-sided, knee-jerk condemnation. Because he isn’t a man. He’s a lost little kid.
He didn’t kill anyone, or rip off subprime mortgage holders. Just his own legacy. Consider this: If a high-school kid serially cheats on tests, as well as his girlfriend, and then says he doesn’t know why he does it, we don’t condemn him for betrayal, for not being brave, for letting us all down. We try and help him see the error of his ways. And then, when he gets it wrong again, we shake our heads and try again to help him grow up. We don’t act as if he’s a cowardly, dangerous, treasonous betrayer of all that’s right and good.
Hey: If you’re a true fan, look at it this way. If we back off a little, give him the benefit of the doubt (again), who knows? Maybe he gives us a good season of baseball. Talented teenagers are capable of doing it, and so is Alex Rodriguez. So let’s back off and let him try and hit some doubles, okay? And stop pretending that the men in uniforms are statesmen? They’re the joy givers. Sometimes they suffer because of it, too. And if we praise them when they delight us, we ought to try and understand when they fail to.