Alex Rodriguez, All-American
Beyond the superhuman prerequisites—talent oozing out of pores, a decade or so of dominance, preferably a full head of hair—it's not quite clear what fans actually want in their all-time great baseball players. But it is clear that whatever that is, Alex Rodriguez isn't providing it. Which is weird at first glance, but less so when we look at who we're talking about here. For all the things that are permitted of baseball's generation-defining stars—and it's a lot, from transcendently prickly and prickish vanity, to being a colorful but nihilistic and doomed drunk—the one thing they are not allowed, it turns out, is being the way A-Rod is.
Rodriguez has had the tough part of immortality locked down for years—if he hadn't moved, without complaint, from shortstop to third base after joining the New York Yankees in 2004, he'd be regarded as the best shortstop ever to play the game; he probably is anyway. He has won three Most Valuable Player awards, five home run titles, and has a decent chance—he'd only need to hit 23 per season over the next five years—to hit more homers than any player ever to play baseball. Per Baseball Reference's formula, Rodriguez has been worth 111.4 Wins Above Replacement over his career; Albert Pujols, his nearest active competitor, has been worth 22.9 fewer. Rodriguez is not only one of the best prospects ever, he's one of the greatest baseball players in the history of baseball players. Everyone knows this, and it still doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter because whatever the other, ineffable things we seek in our all-timers are, Rodriguez not only lacks, but exemplifies their opposite. All-timers are allowed to be virtuous ciphers whose robo-hearts pump whole milk, but A-Rod, a buff android coated in marzipan and inauthenticity, can't even clear that low bar of dull verisimilitude—it's easy to imagine RoboCop (he works in private security now), John Tesh, and Mitt Romney chuckling together on Skype about how deeply inauthentic and distant and weird A-Rod seems when he's asked to answer even basic baseball player questions.
All-timers are also, under certain circumstances and within different generations' parameters for colorful-ness, allowed to be total weeping whiskey-filled garbage bags—from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle, the Yankees have had a special fondness for these sloshing four-finger pours of virtuosity. But, for all his travails—which include ill-advised dabblings in performance-enhancing drugs, a frosted-tip hairdo, and actual physical sex with Madonna—A-Rod can't quite pull that off, either. In all circumstances and in every way he comes off alien and affluence-perverted and so perversely and simultaneously self-regarding and oblivious that only the word "Miami" seems capable of summing it all up. His soul is upholstered in teal leather; his whole life is an overly air-conditioned and excessively security-guarded VIP section. This, for better or worse, is the best baseball player most fans presently alive have ever had the opportunity to watch play baseball.
In some ways, this is the fault of all those old, silly baseball biases—A-Rod has been simply too good at this sport, his mastery of it too transparently and transcendently fluent, for the necessary struggle to scan. He hits home runs, and the natural response, upon watching the swing that launched the bomb, is "of course." It was once this way with all those graceful gliding plays at shortstop; it was this way as recently as his outlandishly great 2007 MVP season, during which he was 31 years old. The first sin that Alex Rodriguez committed was an original one—he was born effortless, and fans have never quite forgiven him for that. This is almost a poignant thing, until Alex Rodriguez himself comes into play.
Because, for all the innate and inherent coolness that comes with being amazingly amazing at something, A-Rod has also and always been something of a doofus. And not in some likable dorkus malorkus sense, either—Rodriguez has, by all reports, never really connected with teammates or other humans, or sought to do so; his reliably awkward and studied high-fives and fist pumps suggest that he hasn't given up, but hasn't gotten better, either. Rodriguez has jealously guarded his privacy during his time as a public figure, which is both reasonable and laudable. But the bits of that private life that have escaped—the first and last word, always and forever, are the paintings of himself as a centaur that A-Rod reportedly has hanging in his home—suggest that he should've guarded it more closely, because they are implausibly vain and world-historically weird. Even the famous women with which he has involved himself romantically have felt off—buff, mean-seeming, and over-famous blondes like Cameron Diaz and the aforementioned Madonna, whom A-Rod once identified as his "fucking soulmate." Which is maybe an even better collection of last words, actually.
But that can't, and shouldn't, be it. And neither should A-Rod's most recent travails—a terrible trip through the playoffs that saw him benched for the Yankees' Game 3 loss to the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, and rumors that A-Rod was doing some gorilla-pimping by proxy with some women seated near the dugout during the Game 1 loss at Yankee Stadium. That is all, of course, very and very hilariously A-Rod—oblivious and self-centered and pyrotechnically uncool, all delivered with a blithe and deluded smugness that's less Zoolanderian than Ben Stiller-ish. But it doesn't feel quite the same as those old A-Rod moments, if only because Rodriguez is finally fading.
This is reasonable, because that fade is something that happens to most 37-year-old baseball players. Baseball is hard, even for those who have spent their lives and made their millions making it look easy. But without the armor of that imperviousness, A-Rod suddenly seems that much more ridiculous in his A-Roddery—much more like a regular old baseball goofus. It says something about how brilliant and different and undeniably masterful his un-human self A-Rod was for all those years that this declension towards baseball's doofy mean is almost something of an achievement. After all those years of implacable superhumanity, A-Rod finally seems as ridiculous as any other vanity-addled jock.
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