Sports

Alex Rodriguez is Baseball's Last Link to the Golden Age

The contrite Yankee is the last remaining player to have gone on strike and was once a teammate of Goose Gossage.

by Eric Nusbaum
Feb 18 2015, 4:40pm

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Alex Rodriguez made headlines again for sending out a cheesy, hand-written statement of apology to baseball fans. In loopy, oddly perfect cursive, A-Rod wrote the kind of note that a teacher or parent might force a disobedient child to scrawl after some especially inconsiderate act. "I take full responsibility for the mistakes that led to a rock flying through your window my suspension for the 2014 season."

The gesture—even if it was probably concocted by some glossy PR firm—evoked a simpler, possibly imaginary time, when A-Rod had a kind, loving, perhaps even non-synthetic relationship with his fans. The idea seems to be that by actually writing words on a page, Rodriguez can transcend his trademark insincerity and connect with the baseball public on a human level. All old school-like.

Read More: Alex Rodriguez Apologizes to Fans in Handwritten Note

Old school might seem like an odd choice for a guy whose skin is literally shiny all the time, but it also kind of makes sense in this case. After all, Alex Rodriguez is the longest-tenured player in the major leagues. He first came up in 1994, a season before LaTroy Hawkins (and a season before now-retired dignitaries Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi). He is the last remaining player to have gone on strike. In A-Rod's first big league game, on July 8, 1994, a 43-year-old Goose Gossage came out of the bullpen for the Mariners.

"He was a great kid, typical rookie, unaffected," Gossage says now, perfectly aware of the sideways turns A-Rod's career has taken. "You knew he was going to be a great player," he added.

Gossage, meanwhile, took the mound for the first time on April 16, 1972 for the White Sox in a game that also featured Dick Allen and Cookie Rojas (who themselves played with golden age types like Joe Nuxhall and Cal McLish). The first big league hitter Gossage ever faced was Lou Piniella, who later was his teammate with the Yankees and then his manager on that 1994 Mariners squad. But it could just as easily have been somebody else. Gossage's debut, and the entire 1972 season, was delayed by baseball's first labor stoppage: a strike that lasted from April 1 to 13.

There's a reason I'm talking about Goose Gossage in an article about Alex Rodriguez, and it goes beyond the unlikely cosmic moment that saw them as teammates. Both players could, and should, be remembered as emblematic of their respective eras.

Gossage, a Hall of Famer, was one of baseball's first great relief specialists, and one of its first true free agent journeymen. He was the second pitcher ever to record 300 saves. He signed eight free agent contracts, played for 10 teams, and was in baseball for all eight of its work stoppages, including the two that bookended his career in 1972 and 1994.

Richard "Goose" Gossage at Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

"There's a lot of blood sweat and tears," Gossage said about the work stoppages. "They were ugly. We, baseball, the players, owe everything to Marvin Miller and what he did in terms of free agency and turning that whole situation around. When I broke in, the minimum salary was $12,500 in 1972. Then I saw the whole escalation—and what we went though as players and owners even, battling for what these guys have today. "

Nobody epitomizes what these guys have today better than Gossage's last remaining active teammate. A-Rod signed baseball's first $200-million contract when he left Seattle for Texas before the 2001 season. Then he signed its second $200-million contract to remain with the Yankees after the 2007 season. But perhaps more importantly, Rodriguez's career has been a singular encapsulation of baseball after the 1994 strike.

He was the smooth power hitting shortstop, the fresh new face who would, by swatting copious dingers, join his baseball brethren in lifting the sport back to its rightful place in the American consciousness.

Then he was the prototypical greedy modern athlete, lying through his teeth before leaving his home fans in the lurch. Marvin Miller and Curt Flood fought for free agency because they believed in basic human agency and here was A-Rod, the other side of the coin, making it all about ego and avarice, swimming in Texas money.

Then before the 2009 season, he was revealed as a PED user. The man who simply, repeatedly wanted too much. But he was a Yankee, and that October, would become a World Series champion.

And finally, somehow, he became a quasi-martyr, the target of Bud Selig's obsession, hounded by MLB investigators into dark places that no other PED user, not Bonds nor Braun, was forced to go. A-Rod served the longest drug-related suspension in baseball history for offenses that did not seem any more offensive than those committed by his peers. And he became, in his own, corrupt kind of way an anti-hero.

A-Rod even managed to alienate his allies at the player's association, who forgot how good they had it—forgot the simple fact that in the end it always comes down not to infighting but to labor against management. He was alone standing up against a league that was stretching the limits of its own bylaws in order to punish him.

A-Rod and Jose Canseco take in Super Bowl XXIX in Miami. Photo via RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

So here is Alex Rodriguez, the last major leaguer to have gone on strike, the Marvin Miller Prototype on steroids (literal and figurative), penning contrite hand-written notes. He is not as far from the old school as it might have seemed.

"I accept the fact that many of you will not believe my apology or anything that I say at this point," A-Rod tells us. "I understand why and that's on me."

He is, of course, right about that. Last year, baseball fans celebrated Rodriguez's teammate and foil Derek Jeter over the course of a 162-game victory lap. Jeter is the baseball icon Bud Selig wanted his reign to be remembered for. But Rodriguez, who outlasted the old commissioner, is the baseball icon these past two decades deserve.

In a couple weeks, he'll report to spring training in Tampa, where his old teammate Gossage will serve as a guest instructor for the Yankees. He'll wear the uniform of a team that has repeatedly let it be known they want nothing to do with him, see him as a burden, wish he would just go away. A-Rod and the Yankees will have to coexist, to find the same uneasy peace that allowed Giambi to remain in baseball for all those years.

Maybe a rookie, say Rob Refsnyder, will make the team this year and one day look back on the strange season he played with Alex Rodriguez. And maybe A-Rod will put it all back together again. But then again, maybe he won't.

"People don't realize how grueling a 162 game schedule is," says Gossage. "It's amazing. Baseball is a young man's game."