A sentence I'm not qualified to finish: Alex Rodriguez is the most hated player since ____. I can tick off the contenders in my lifetime -- Barry Bonds, Albert Belle, even Pete Rose -- but I can't tell you what the public perceptions of Ty Cobb or Dick Allen were. Not enough to rank them against each other. The only way I'm comfortable finishing that sentence is by hedging. Alex Rodriguez might be the most hated player since Barry Bonds, but he also might be the most loathed player of all time.
As something of an expert on Barry Bonds-related loathing, I'll give the nod to A-Rod in a head-to-head hate-off for a simple reason. Bonds could walk onto the field at AT&T Park in the middle of a close game, stop the action mid-pitch, and the crowd would still chant "BAR-RY BAR-RY BAR-RY" until security escorted him off. You will not find the same hometown love affair with Rodriguez. It's not as if Yankees fans are uniformly disgusted with him, and when he gets a hit to win a game this year, he might even get a curtain call. When the Yankees win another World Series, though, it's hard to imagine Rodriguez roaming the streets of New York, sharing the love and getting just as much back.
This comes up now because the Yankees are fighting to withhold a series of possible home run bonuses from Rodriguez. They're claiming that because Rodriguez was busted for performance-enhancing drugs, the records are illegitimate. This is not something you will see again. This is not a precedent-setting case, to be used by future teams in the event their mega-stars cheat their way to bonuses. This is something the Yankees are trying because exactly zero shits are given about Rodriguez right now. The risk is nothing. The reward is that they save millions of dollars.
It's not as if there aren't folks who see this for what it is. Tim Brown wrote a scathing, well-stated article on the mess, but this isn't going to stick around the baseball news cycle. It's the dead of January, and it's almost a forgotten topic already. It's like the Niemöller quote:
First they came for the aloof, narcissistic, oblivious baseball player with ungodly talent who needed to be loved but eventually turned into a comical villain with self-portraits of himself as a centaur hanging in his house, and I said nothing.
Then they didn't come for anyone else because that dude was one of a kind. What a weirdo.
Then they came for me, and I was like, hey, cut it out, and other people agreed they should cut it out.
Rodriguez is an easy target. No one will stand up for him. The Major League Baseball Players Association will, but only because they have to, like the ACLU taking on a particularly odious case, public relations be damned.
I'm rooting for Alex Rodriguez, though. I will make the case that you should root for him, too.
The first thing to consider is how incapable we all are of empathizing with Rodriguez, how he's the product of a life we will never understand. Without pretending that we've spent 300 hours with A-Rod lying on a couch, telling us his darkest fears, we can still get an idea of the basics. Once-in-a-generation talent that everyone recognizes when he's a kid. Everyone wanting a piece of that talent. Success. Money. Fear of failure. Being hated. Scrutiny. More money than you can imagine, and then more money after that. Being the embodiment of hope for people who use sports as a proxy for the dreams that have already deserted them. Failing those people. Actively spurning those people to make more money. More scrutiny. Being hated even more. Slowly losing that precious talent because age is undefeated.
A-Rod can't look into anything that isn't a funhouse mirror, and while it's only natural to form opinions on what we know, it's inappropriate to think we can understand him. He's not someone who is actively trying to hurt you and the ones you love. He's a flawed person sucked into a public maelstrom of impossible, unrepeatable circumstances.
That's the first step: Realizing that it's probably not worth your time to hate the guy. It's only worth your time to study him, to be fascinated. He was Mike Trout, remember. He was as exciting, as brilliant, as awe-inspiring as Mike Trout is today. Now he's a punchline that the Yankees will mess with to save a buck because no one will care.
The second step to rooting for Alex Rodriguez: Remembering that baseball is supposed to be theater, not life. The results mean something, dammit, and you wouldn't watch if they didn't. But it's still a level or two removed from real life.
The third step: Knowing there has to be a villain, a foil, a complicated anti-hero who makes the game worth watching on his own. Usually, you have to use another team, but only because you have to find something to root against. This is where A-Rod becomes someone to watch, even if it's to hate-watch. This is where he becomes almost endearing.
We'll take a step back to August, 2013, when Ryan Dempster was a latter-day Michael Barrett, inviting us to live vicariously through him.
Dempster was clearly winging the ball at Rodriguez, much to the delight of a national audience. The ESPN crew suggested it might be a message that Dempster doesn't like A-Rod and "what he stands for." Okay. Seems odd to keep going with the political statement after the first pitch made it pretty clear, but whatever. It was a little spice added to another seven-hour Yankees/Red Sox game on ESPN. Joe Girardi had a stellar meltdown, as these things go. It was fun.
Watching and re-watching the video, though, I'm fascinated with Rodriguez's body language and facial expressions. The stoic face betrayed by the sad eyes. The way he digs into the box, sharp with the affectations of a man who really doesn't give a crap, even though he can't quite pull it off. The way he spits out his sunflower seeds.
None of us will know what it's like to be reviled quite like this. Rodriguez is still processing it himself. He's not blameless, not even close. Still, there's no analogy, no anecdote that will get you within six parsecs of how he's really feeling.
Later in the game, Rodriguez hit a long, long home run. It's worth watching:
If you get a second, go back to 0:26 of the video and listen to the audible reaction from the crowd when Rodriguez points skyward. You rarely get that sort of thing captured on video. The gesture to the sky took a half-beat longer than it normally might have, and it was a great moment in passive-aggressive middle fingers to the universe.
The whole display made me think over and over again: Thank goodness for Alex Rodriguez.
He was always disliked, but now he's the guy you pay to dislike in person. The idea of sitting in a box seat and loathing Alex Rodriguez with all of your might is something strong enough to sell tickets. The idea of Rodriguez being a money-grubbing, cream-slathering, aloof mercenary was a thing long before he started crumbling, before he was suspended, before he had the temerity to use due process to challenge that suspension. Now he's an interstellar star-child of an anti-hero. He's taken his next form.
lf he were a wrestler, he'd be Oblivious Ted DiBiase, and he'd take an extra moment to preen and soak up the boos, but he can't quite pull that off. He isn't cartoonish enough; there's just enough humanity and need to be loved to make him something a little too real, even as he's made up of intentionally artificial everything-else. Baseball functions just fine without this sort of player, but isn't there just a little extra excitement when the Yankees come to town? Isn't there a morbid curiosity to flip on the TV and see just how loud the booing can get? Before the Biogenesis scandal and suspension, A-Rod was already probably the #1 villain, but that was Anakin Skywalker before the lava bath. Now he's on another level.
This makes A-Rod a fantastic, important anti-hero. When Dempster chucked a bunch of baseballs at him, I felt -- bad for Rodriguez? And when he hit that booming home run, I -- really enjoyed it? Inconceivable. Unimaginable. But it did happen. The head-whip of Dempster on the homer was one of the best parts, if you're interested in dissecting the video for cheap thrills.
Baseball doesn't always need a supervillain, but now that one's here, isn't it kind of awesome? If you can't root for Alex Rodriguez, the person -- and I'm not sure I can ask you to go that far -- root for how amazing and rare it is for him to exist in the first place. Think about the next time Rodriguez strikes out with the bases loaded. The roar will be twice as good as any other player, I'm thinking. The stakes are raised. Here is a villain so perfect, his own team can mess with him and no one cares. That's a villain, alright. Considering that we're talking about a game, though, he's a harmless one. He's Hans Gruber, not a genocidal warlord, and I've never stopped being glad that Hans Gruber existed.
There's another word to describe Rodriguez: underdog. You know how America loves those. You don't have to root for Alex Rodriguez, but it's almost impossible to root against the idea of him existing in the first place. Here's a player who can shine the spotlight back on fans and reveal something about how their brains and hearts work, too. Here's a Rorschach test of a player, and we don't know how much longer we'll have him. What a complicated person. What a complicated story. What a spice this adds to baseball in 2015.
It's a new season, but the sentiment stays the same. Thank goodness for Alex Rodriguez.