It had to be like this. It’s easy to say that now, in retrospect, after Alex Rodriguez already had the emotional press conference in which he announced that he would retire next week. There won’t be a victory lap for one of the greatest, oddest careers in baseball history. We don’t even get a two-week notice. A-Rod announced that he won’t play baseball after next Friday, and after next Friday there won’t be any more A-Rod. And like that [puff] he was gone.
It had to be like that because can you seriously imagine the A-Rod retirement tour? If he announced his retirement before the 2017 season, what would teams have done? It would have seemed rude not to give him parting gifts a season after the Great David Ortiz Farewell Lollapalooza, but teams would have managed.
PA Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to take a moment to acknowledge Alex Rodriguez’s final game in this ballpark after a long, brilliant career.
Alex Rodriguez: [takes step out of dugout]
PA Announcer: We have emailed him a $50 Amazon Gift Card, and we wish him well. Please give him a round of applause.
Alex Rodriguez: [takes five slow steps back into the dugout]
The applause would be polite and measured, and there would have been a smattering of boos. If there were, say, a pregame ceremony from the Baltimore Orioles, with a bucket of crabs and a plaque, it would have been quick and awkward.
Instead, when Alex Rodriguez wasn’t good at baseball anymore, he quit. If you’re a jerk, you can read that sentence critically, as if it belies a lack of heart or effort, but no one is going to do that. We like it when our athletes crawl into the woods like an injured animal and never come back. The best-case scenario for any superstar is always to have an MVP-caliber season and go out on top, just like Ortiz, but it almost never works like that. Time will always suck everything good out of a player and spit the husk out for us to study. It’s rare for a player, especially a player who’s as used to being as good as A-Rod, to realize that so soon.
It had to be like this, and it was almost perfect. It was almost three games in Boston and a single game back at home. There would have been boos in Boston. There would have been applause. There would have been booplause. It would have been a complicated cacophony of different reactions, most of which will err on the side of revulsion, and it would have been just perfect. It would have been a tacit acknowledgement of the pure brilliance of Rodriguez’s career, something that goes without saying. It would have been be an overt acknowledgement that his career was hilarious and bizarre and loathsome and remarkable and just the A-Rodiest career possible. Fenway Park would have been the perfect venue, the perfect vessel for this glorious confusion. You can use Alex Rodriguez: Glorious Confusion as the working title for the biography, if you want.
Instead, we'll just have to imagine it. It's worth imagining.
Instead, he'll go home for his final game, and there will be cheers. Mostly unambiguous cheers. Mostly. Rodriguez’s career with the New York Yankees was complicated, but he spent 12 mostly excellent years there. Seven of those were All-Star seasons. Two of them were MVP seasons. One of the seasons ended with him as a World Series champion for the first time, and any Yankees fan who grumbles about him winning just one is someone who’s too young to remember the 1980s. There have been franchises who haven’t enjoyed a player like that in their entire existence.
It was just last year that Alex Rodriguez was a story. Not a heartwarming story, mind you. A 39-year-old superstar coming back from a year-long hiatus and having his best season in years, getting back on a record-setting path, should have been a heartwarming story. With A-Rod, though, it was a Rorschach test of a story, where everyone had their own interpretation, and none of them were wrong. But his 33 home runs in 2015 made you think maybe, just maybe, he was good for 30 again this year, 30 next year and a slow grind to 763 in his 43-year-old season. It was unlikely, but so was Rodriguez.
Instead, we got 62 games of an ex-superstar. Decay wins every battle, and it was so fierce this time that we were robbed of/spared from an uncomfortable retirement tour. There was probably a sheepish, de facto ultimatum from the Yankees, who had to do something to get Rodriguez out of the lineup and off the roster, and there was an acknowledgment from A-Rod that it didn’t make sense for him to do anything else. I can’t imagine how those uncomfortable conversations must have started, the tact they must have required. It’s ending just about the only way it can, though.
In the movie Flirting With Disaster, there’s a scene where Ben Stiller’s character thinks he’s meeting his birth mother for the first time, and after a quick, awkward exchange, they’re in front of a huge framed portrait of Ronald Reagan. His new/old mom says, "Now, that was a great man." Stiller’s character stops, considers his words and says, "You know, I always felt like I should have appreciated him more."
Forget the politics behind the gag. Sub in whatever President you need to for it to work. But that’s Rodriguez, a player who’s been loved and hated and loved and hated like few others in this sport’s history, and when it’s all gone, even the people who weren’t fans will look back and admit, perhaps under pressure, that they should have appreciated him more. The true believers will think it’s impossible that there are baseball fans who couldn’t see the brilliance. The anti-fans will think it’s impossible that there are unfettered A-Rod fans out there.
It had to be like this because retirement tours and ceremonies are for the non-weirdos, the players who thrilled us in a conventional way, where there was enough familiarity behind the excitement to make it just a little boring if you looked at it in the right lighting. Here’s a surfboard with our logo on it, say the San Diego Padres. Use it to remember that you played baseball really well for a long time, or something. There’s none of that for Rodriguez. He was here, he was a player who made you form a strong opinion for two decades, and he’s making room for the next player who will make you form strong opinions.
But there will never be a player who will make you form opinions quite like this. Alex Rodriguez’s brilliant, awe-inspiring, controversial, impossibly hot take of a career is coming to an end a lot sooner than we might have expected before the season started. The ride into the sunset will come so quickly, no one will have time to shop for roses or eggs.
That’s probably for the best. There are five more games of A-Rod, baseball legend. It had to be like this, even if we didn’t realize it just a few hours ago.