Sunday, August 14, 2016

We Want A-Rod

A-Rod felt the love in the Bronx on Friday night (Yahoo Sports)
In the twilight of Alex Rodriguez's storied career, everyone just wanted him to go away. The Yankees wanted out from under his massive contract, their fans were sick of paying exorbitant ticket prices to watch him play, and the rest of us simply wanted a known cheater out of the game. He was too old, too expensive, and too dirty -- a corrupt politician in need of impeachment.

So when Rodriguez got caught up in the Biogenesis scandal of 2013, Major League Baseball appeased the masses by expelling him for an entire season, slapping him with the largest PED penalty ever handed down by the sport. Rodriguez did not go quietly, kicking and screaming as security dragged him out the door, but in the end he did go away..

Given his age, injury history and declining performance, the ban appeared to be a death sentence. Few saw his controversial career continuing in 2015, the year he turned 40. Nobody minded. A whole season passed without Rodriguez taking a single Major League swing. Nobody missed him. Baseball had washed its hands of Rodriguez and so, it seemed, had everyone else. When the garbage man comes to take the trash away, you don't find yourself wondering what happens to it. You're just happy there isn't a soggy bag of rotting food in your kitchen anymore.

So when Rodriguez returned for the 2015 season, the general response was similar to the one you give the smelly neighborhood dog that keeps showing up at your doorstep. He arrived early to Spring Training, eager to shed the rust that had accumulated over the past year, only to find that the Yankees were pissed. He heard boos everywhere he went. The only way he was going to make anyone happy was by retiring immediately and unceremoniously.

Eighteen months later, that's essentially what's happening except weirdly, no one seems happy about it, except maybe New York's front office. The Yankees are finally done with him (as a player) and are paying him the rest of his contract to go away -- something they said they would not do. They literally couldn't wait to get rid of him, not even letting him finish out a season that has a five percent chance of continuing into October.  But they've always wished he would go away (or at least shut up) more than everyone, if only because they were the ones on the hook for his $275 million contract. His presence was a daily reminder of the most expensive mistake in baseball history.

But while the Yankees' attitude towards Rodriguez never really changed -- they put up with him as long as he produced and were quick to cut him when he stopped -- the fans' stance on him has softened. He's not beloved, but he's no longer reviled. Not embraced, but no longer shunned. For a long time he was merely tolerated, in the way Red Sox fans tolerated Manny Ramirez. But nobody -- not Ramirez, not Barry Bonds, not Roger Clemens -- invited the hatred from his own fans that Rodriguez did. Many, it seemed, came to Yankee Stadium for the sole purpose of booing Rodriguez every time he stepped to the plate (and, if they were lucky, when he booted a ball in the field). Every strikeout in a key situation resulted in a cacophony of derision. You wonder why he didn't play with earplugs.
The Fenway Faithful got one last chance to see--and boo--A-Rod (Miami Herald)
It's ironic, then, that the same fans who never appreciated Rodriguez when he was at his best showered him with love and affection when he was at his absolute worst. Even as he calcified before their eyes, the Yankee faithful never turned on him. You don't get mad at an old pet for pissing on the living room carpet.

Rodriguez was fortunate to have the season that he did in 2015, because if he'd been this bad last year he would have been booed out of the game. But everyone loves a good comeback story, even when the central character is perhaps the most hated man in sports. And last year, Rodriguez authored one of the greatest comebacks of all time. He hit better than he had in years and led New York to the postseason. The same people booing him with gusto in April were championing his All-Star candidacy in July.

It helped that Rodriguez was suddenly likeable for the first time since his Seattle days. After being branded as a liar and a cheat, a phony and a fraud, he used his time away from the game to clean up his image and return a changed man; older, wiser, and infinitely more mature. He didn't just come back a better player -- he came back a better person.

He was also, for the first time in his career, the underdog. No one had ever done what he was trying to do. He should have been too old and washed-up to contribute anything to the Yankees besides adding player days to their disabled list. He came back to find that he'd lost his starting job -- something that hadn't happened to Derek Jeter after missing a year with injuries at the same age -- and that he'd need to earn every at-bat as the team's designated hitter -- a spot for which there'd be no shortage of options on New York's aging roster.

And yet, against all odds, Rodriguez returned to form. He slugged 33 home runs, played 151 games, and tallied 3.1 bWAR. He won games with his bat and fans with his batting gloves. He repaired his relationships with teammates, fans, media, and the Yankees organization, building up a surprising level of goodwill in a short amount of time. That hard work paid off in spades this year, as he had supporters to fall back on when things went south. It's hard to imagine the Yankees offering him a mentor role had he quit last summer.

But what's even harder to imagine is the groundswell of support he received this week. Teammates and peers were sad to see him go. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman thanked him for everything he'd done. We want A-Rod, beckoned the Fenway Faithful, his most hostile enemies since the day he donned pinstripes.

A sold-out Yankee Stadium echoed the cries of their Boston brethren Friday night, bellowing their singular desire throughout the park that Rodriguez christened with a championship in 2009. We want A-Rod, screamed the 46,459 that turned out for his final game as a Yankee, hoping to experience one last high at the end of their 13-year rollercoaster ride together. We want A-Rod, declared fans who'd finally forgiven a man who'd repeatedly asked for their forgiveness. We. Want. A-Rod. 

Two years ago A-Rod was a cancer to his team, a stain on the game and a monster of a man. Nobody could imagine the career he'd set fire to ending so positively. But as the curtain closed and Rodriguez took his final bow, many of us found ourselves wishing he'd stay just a little bit longer.

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