SB Nation

David Roth | July 31, 2013

Alex Rodriguez, performance artist

It's not Alex Rodriguez's job to seem or be human, which is a good thing for him, because he would not be very good at his job if it were. It has in most respects been Rodriguez's job to be as not-human as possible by making baseball look easier than it actually is. He has done it for nearly 20 years, and he has been spectacularly good at it.

This is a tough job, and one that only a few people on earth can really do very well. Rodriguez has always done it better than virtually every other person alive; in the sum total, he has done it better than almost everyone who has ever lived. This is saying a lot, but based on what Rodriguez has done over the course of his career, it is not saying more than is reasonable or provable or has been easily observable since he made his debut at the age of 18, in 1994.

baseball has never really appeared all that difficult for him.

That is the thing that has always been strangest and most jarring about A-Rod. It was so when he was the brightest and strangest star of his generation, and also now that he faces the stranger-still prospect of a lifetime ban from the game that has defined his life -- baseball has never really appeared all that difficult for him. It must have been, because it's inherently difficult, but he glided over and muscled through the whole maddening thing with weird ease. It is everything else, every other non-baseball thing, that has been more than he could manage.

As a player, Rodriguez is injured and in decline, because even micro-deities like A-Rod have human joints and ligaments and musculature. What is undoing him, and might yet unravel his strange legend all the way, has less to do with baseball and more to do with all those other things A-Rod never did all that well. He played with a grace and force that humans generally don't get to experience, and which throws off a thrill even after traveling the distance between his prime and our couch.

That's a superhuman thing in itself, but not an entirely unique one -- others have been as great in baseball's long history, and most of them were defective in various ways. But even in this class of Olympian mutants -- think of the glowering hyper-competitive interiority of Ted Williams or the self-devouring Mickey Mantle or pure bilious viciousness of Ty Cobb or Barry Bonds-ian grandiosity of Barry Bonds -- Rodriguez was and remains a special and uniquely alien case. Just being great enough at something as refined and difficult as hitting a baseball seems somehow not to be healthy for the people stuck with that greatness -- even little intimations of immortality tend to send mortals spinning off into dark, distant places.

But even beyond that, A-Rod has always seemed somehow inherently other and outer. He is just confoundingly great at what he does, and that's part of it. And he is, either because of that or not, also deeply, preeningly strange -- both crushingly self-conscious and world-historically vain; smart enough to know how he should act and yet somehow incapable of convincingly acting that way. That's most of the rest of it.

How much all that inborn greatness and cultivated ambition warped A-Rod is something we have to guess at. Rodriguez himself doesn't seem to have any special insight into it, or any special wish to share if he does. But maybe even he would agree that it's not simple. The columnists who circle him now, kicking and fuming -- the "If A-Rod really loved baseball he would quit baseball and play another sport for no money" types -- have their various reasons for doing so. One seems to be that they see in him a figure isolated and obviously different enough to be bullied easily. Doing so is, in some ghoulish way, part of their job.

they see in him a figure isolated and obviously different enough to be bullied easily.

But they are also recognizing and responding to someone who apparently believes that he isn't like everyone else, and whose almost-poignant attempts to act like a person -- those piston-like high-fives, the robotic fist pumps -- mark him as stranger still. The serial rule-breaking, the repeated personal infidelities, and his luridly dysfunctional open marriage with the authority of the commissioner's office, and now his alleged ham-fisted attempts at disrupting MLB's Biogenesis investigation -- all point to Rodriguez as someone who does not think the regular rules apply to him, and certainly doesn't feel compelled to act as if they do.

When that belief manifests through breaking some good and reasonable rules, that's clearly a bad thing. And yet it's easy to see how Rodriguez might have come to believe that he is unlimited and ungovernable and outside and above regular rules. His whole life has been triumphant proof of it. This is not an excuse, but is maybe the beginning of an explanation.

***

If you'd been willing to wait in a longish line that traced the wall of the Marron Atrium in New York City's Museum of Modern Art in spring of 2010, you would eventually have had the chance to sit face-to-face with the performance artist Marina Abramovic. Her work is confrontational and not strictly enjoyable -- there is a lot of grim nudity and wince-inducing violence and upsetting uses of meat. She tends to hurt herself a lot, in variously distressing ways.

The piece in the atrium was not really like that, although there was much confrontation and a great deal of physical hardship involved for Abramovic, who took her seat before the museum opened and then spent hours sitting in it, motionless, in a monochrome robe. She did not take bathroom breaks or water breaks or Clif Bar breaks or ever adjust herself in her seat. She just sat as, one after another, art pilgrims came and sat across from her. There they looked at her, or winked or smiled or leered or made low squeaking fart noises to see if she'd laugh. For hours every day, Abramovic looked back, but her expression never changed. She acknowledged the people on the other side of the table only as they left, with a little weary bow of her head. And then a new patron sat and it was back to being observed and un-lifelike and Olympian and opaque.

The challenge in Abramovic's piece -- it's called "The Artist Is Present" -- is not a new one, although there was something ingenious and uniquely challenging about how she presented it. An artist makes a statement and we receive it; that's how it works. When the artist's statement is simply her own impenetrable and blank presence, receiving it is that much more complicated. When we look at a human steadfastly doing a not-quite-human thing, betraying no real human attributes beyond clear and inescapable humanness, we see ... what?

Squint and stretch, and that is how Alex Rodriguez -- the man whose art collection famously (and, yes, allegedly) includes a painting of himself as a centaur -- is like a particular piece of art by Marina Abramovic, one that only reflects and refuses to engage and is unsettlingly great for all that. And he is like that: A-Rod, for all the professional message-types he keeps on payroll, is a blithe cipher, forever giving very confident answers to questions no one has asked, hewing closely to a totally batshit message. Who else, when facing a potential suspension-for-life, could maunder as grandly about being a role model and so clearly mean it?

This is maybe the central thing that's so weird about A-Rod -- he believes in himself so deeply that each of his own craven self-justifications sound just right to him, even as they clang poignantly false to everyone else in earshot. There's a story about Hank Blalock mocking A-Rod after he left Texas, while his old teammates laughed. That's Hank Blalock, whose WAR over nine big league seasons was well shy of the 17.2 WAR Rodriguez was worth in his first two seasons in Texas alone. Rodriguez is one of the greatest players of his or any era, and he is also somehow deeply, tragically false. A high-handed phony, a buff tragic Pinocchio, and finally just a dork.

There's some pathos in A-Rod's soul-deep weirdness. But, also, Rodriguez is not -- for all his vast and abstract virtuosity, a greatness so great that it seems artificial -- a passive object or some figurative thing. He's not art, he's an artist. And we hope for and allow a certain amount of excess and strangeness from our artists.

We demand it, in fact. If they weren't bigger than the rest of us, if they lived lives as safe and small as ours, what would be the point? For all the many ways that Rodriguez has repeatedly and willfully fallen short, he has at least and always been that big and bigger, and not incidentally given us many astonishing things to watch. In a certain sense, the only fair thing to expect from an artist is art. Rodriguez has bosses with different and more specific expectations, and he has defied them and defied them again. He is facing a reckoning for that, and he absolutely should.

But all that's part of his performance, too. If you prefer a different sort of performer giving a more earnest sort of performance, there's the handsome guy who played to A-Rod's left the last few years in New York, all intensity and unblinking grit and grin and starchy phonetic line readings in car commercials. Buy what you like, feel about it however you want to feel about it. But we're far out into abstraction, now, admittedly.

***

And yet this whole story is pretty far out there. Rodriguez has still never failed a drug test, and his earlier public admission to and apology for using performance-enhancing drugs was too incomplete and qualified and artificial -- there's that abstraction again -- to win him any absolution. If A-Rod felt any of the regret he has routinely expressed, he hasn't let it cramp his style. He has continued to break rules without ever quite getting caught, and this has bothered Bud Selig a great deal.

133935472_mediumGetty Images

The story is that Rodriguez did his sketchy best to make sure that the evidence against him in the Biogenesis investigation would not do him harm. Selig appears poised to go outside the collectively bargained disciplinary process -- that is, no arbitrators and no appeals, just Selig's judgment once, and then maybe again on appeal -- in order to give Rodriguez the punishment he feels he deserves.

"[Selig] is risking a reopening of the collective bargaining agreement," the New York Daily News writes, "or even a federal court case with his decision to bypass the usual grievance procedures and exercise his power to take action on an issue involving the preservation of the integrity of, or the maintenance of public confidence in, the game of baseball.'" Rodriguez can reportedly accept a suspension without pay for the rest of this year and all of the next, or be banned from the game forever. That's the deal.

he has always been too brilliant to have peers, and too aware of his brilliance to seem anything but strange.

And, whatever you think of it, that is baseball's business. This is the league's thing to work out on its own -- well, up to the point that it violates someone's rights -- and also in the sense that, at least for Selig, the integrity of and public confidence in the game is what he believes he's selling. This is baseball seen as a product, a big thing with a brand where its personality might otherwise be. And baseball is in fact that.

But the product is made of performers and performances. If you love baseball, you want the game to be fair and the rules to be clear and sensible and applied equally to all involved. The game is better that way, just as everything else works best -- really, only works at all -- when that's the case. Alex Rodriguez is most at home outside of that -- he has always been too brilliant to have peers, and too aware of his brilliance to seem anything but strange. Most damningly, he has been too vain to believe that there was a compelling enough reason for him to do what he was supposed to do, instead of what he wanted to do. To the extent MLB can prove wrongdoing, he ought to be punished for that.

The rest of it, though, is the rest of it. There is a certain type of sportswriter and a certain type of fan who will hate A-Rod not just for breaking the rules, but for being born effectively outside them. Greatness makes people strange, and Alex Rodriguez is both strange and great. If this is the end for him, it makes sense that it would go like this: him on one side of the table, poker-faced and poreless and miles-away as ever, with a long line of people snaking down the block waiting to sit across from him and yell or glower or speak bitterness or adulation, all in hope of making him feel something like what they feel, all of them finally talking to themselves. He, as ever, will reflect it all back at them and do nothing more. If he acknowledges them at all, it will be as they leave in defeat. A little nod. Maybe.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Steven Goldman | Top photo: USA TODAY Images

About the Author

David_roth_headshot__1_

David Roth is a columnist for SBNation.com and a co-founder and editor of The Classical and a person from New Jersey who lives in New York; he is not the David Roth from Van Halen or magic. He grew up as a fan of the New York Mets and New Jersey Nets, but is comparatively well-adjusted, considering.

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