There are all the many walking quandaries to have cast a shadow on a baseball diamond, and then there is Alex Rodriguez. His superhuman capabilities were apparent from the start, but also bound up with something unreachable and unembraceable, even by the standards of strangeness which attends stardom. He has become every bit the phenomenon that the Seattle Mariners imagined he'd be when they drafted him first overall in 1993. He has not gotten any less strange, and he has never quite been loved. But in his latest incarnation as both Rorschach Test for baseball moralists and slugging soon-to-be 40-something, Rodriguez has achieved a sort of zenith, or at least an impish majesty.
A-Rod's original sin was probably the contract he signed with Texas, after he'd established himself as a genuine star in Seattle. Fans understand when athletes make business decisions, but we generally prefer them to do so with some measure of panache and deftness—at least tell a story: you're going home, you're going to win a championship, something. Everything about Alex Rodriguez, (then-)Richest Athlete on the Planet, was flat and flavorless. It seemed therefore like a kind of karmic redistribution when, in the wake of his departure, the 2001 M's set an American League record for wins in a season. So too did Rodriguez's productive and largely irrelevant years in Texas.
It is strange to remember that A-Rod's Texas reckoning was a decade and a half ago. It's stranger still given that A-Rod is still rolling on, tied now with Willie Mays on the all-time home run list, likely to find himself in arbitration with the Yankees over the $6 million bonus they promised him for reaching that milestone, and which they now seem disinclined to pay because they cannot market it as they had hoped. As has increasingly been the case with A-Rod, who spent years in arbitrator-moderated staring contests with Bud Selig, that's a matter for the courts. What are the rest of us to do with Alex Rodriguez, now that he is a baseball player again?
He's certainly no Willie Mays, despite his effortful image curatorship. Alex Rodriguez walks the earth in the form of a man chronically incapable of seeming sincere. He's smug, but then so are so many of the giants who flash across our fields and screens—greatness is a peculiar thing, and often makes great people peculiar. Rodriguez just doesn't cover or carry it well. But what is perhaps most disquieting about Rodriguez at this moment is our tacit knowledge that we are in some large part responsible for what he's become. We made A-Rod.
Rodriguez exists as a living, breathing reaction to market pressures. He saw what the public most desired during his formative early twenties, and then adjusted to satisfy that demand, aided by the silent complicity which greeted the augmented offensive explosion that brought baseball back from the empty-stadium abyss of the 1994 strike. When bat speed and plate coverage meet bulk, balls fly, seats fill, and cash flows. He became a machine that filled that need, and he became rich. He has, robotically and not a little poignantly, been chasing the moving target of public approval ever since.
His Hall of Fame bonafides are undeniable; it seems safe to assume they would have been that way even if he'd never applied Anthony Bosch's weird science to his body. He was always a hell of a ballplayer, and denying that would be foolish. He also cheated, and lied, and covered it up, confessed in a manner not quite pleasing to us, and then did it all again. Fans will say that this is why we dislike him. I think the reason is Alex Rodriguez arouses such discomfiture in us is that, when we gaze upon him, we know that he is in so many ways just what we asked for, and that the fault is ours for not being specific enough with our wishes. He is our imprecise desire made grotesque; the baseball hero David Cronenberg would give us.
The half-dozen home runs he's hit so far this season attest to the fact that A-Rod is not a problem we can simply will away, or that will evaporate when we wish it to. He's at 660 for his career now, and there will be still others; we'll be looking at him more than we'd care to for the foreseeable future. But we won't see him. He's a walking cipher, finally, handy mostly as a screen onto which we can project compunction, and against which we might compare our lily-white fever dreams of How It Was and, so, How It Ought Always to Be. The truth is that we came up with Alex Rodriguez, and now we have to figure out what to do with him. The further, more troublesome truth is that looking at him means looking at ourselves.