It's funny how superhero movies and sports intersect so conveniently and so appropriately sometimes. Batman references aside, it happens in virtually every sport, players fall in and out of favor with fans like the waxing and waning of the tide. When you're young and productive, people love you but unless you retire at the peak of your career, inevitably you hang around long enough to "see yourself become the villain" in the eyes of your fan-base, a fading star with a bloated price tag...remind you of anyone? Of course it does...
Major League Baseball is set to hand down its long-sought after Biogenesis suspensions to a number of big-name players, including one polarizing Yankee with a nine-figure balance remaining on his current contract. Given all the vitriol and condemnation pieces that have come out over the last few weeks about Alex Rodriguez, I felt the need to provide a little perspective to Yankee fans who want to see him run out of town on a rail spike.
About a decade has passed since the Winter of 2004, when the Yankees jumped on the opportunity to acquire the, then-best and also highest-paid player in baseball. Although I was much younger and more naive than I am now, I can still remember the excitement when Alex Rodriguez first held up those Yankee pinstripes in his introductory press conference, just knowing that the Yankees had just assembled arguably the greatest left side of the infield in baseball history. For those of you who don't remember, Rodriguez' natural position was shortstop but considering he was coming into Derek Jeter's house there was no way the Yankees were going to ask their "in his prime" Captain to switch positions although Rodriguez was the better shortstop. And so it goes that A-Rod yielded to Jeter and learned an entirely new position, entrenching himself as the Yankees third baseman.
You would think that there would be some sort of adjustment period but no, like a proverbial duck to water, Rodriguez went from a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop to a Gold Glove-Caliber third baseman overnight; and boy could he hit like one. In 2004, his first season with team, A-Rod slugged 36 Homers and drove in 106 runs and although many people will fail to remember this given the debacle that was the 2004 postseason, he also hit a cool .320 with three Homers and eight RBI's.
The following season, 2005, Rodriguez had a relatively ho-hum season winning the AL MVP Award with 48 homers and 130 RBI's and an eye-popping slash line of .321/.421/.610. However, 2005 was the same year that his postseason woes began and regardless of his stellar regular season performance, A-Rod became vilified for his inability to come through in the clutch when it mattered to most Yankee fans: In October.
From 2005-07, the Yankees' $250 million man hit .133, .071, and .267, respectively in consecutive first-round playoff exits. Never mind the fact that he took home two MVP Awards over that same span and single-handedly carried the team in Joe Torre's final season as manager in 2007. If you don't produce in October in Yankeeland, you're a bum and that is the reputation Rodriguez garnered over his tenure with Bombers with fans and pundits alike throwing around words like "unclutch" and "compiler."
Remember a couple paragraphs ago, when I was jibber-jabbering on about sticking around long enough to see yourself become the villain, well unfortunately for A-Rod the fan-base turned on him as he was turning in MVP-caliber seasons. I don't know that we as fans could ever truly appreciate how great Rodriguez was for us because we were too busy fussing over the size of his paycheck, expecting him to live up to a contract that literally no mere mortal could. His exorbitant contract put A-Rod behind the proverbial "eight ball" and set the bar so high that it was inevitable he could never truly live up to the price tag.
However, what's the truth? Is it that we as fans resented him for how much money he was making because there were plenty of guys that have strolled up and down 161st and River Ave. that have made tons of money without even a fraction of A-Rod's production. Or is it that indefinable characteristic, that thing as fans we can't quite put our fingers on but we know we hate? Maybe it's the dating actresses, underground high-stakes poker games, or the shirtless sunbathing but something has driven us to hate this guy who has been an uber-productive player for the majority of his tenure with this team.
Realistically, we should hate Jason Giambi a lot more than A-Rod. Giambi was paid a veritable king's ransom by the Yankees only to miss significant amounts of time with injuries associated with rampant steroid abuse. I mean, the guy did so many drugs that he developed a tumor on his Pituitary Gland and the kicker is that he never even outright admitted to doing anything and yet gets a free pass but why? Is it because he was quirky, growing mustaches and wearing golden thongs? But he gets the free pass, while A-Rod is subject to constant persecution.
Something tell me that when this whole appeals process is finished and A-Rod is ultimately forced into an early retirement that those of you who complained about him being an overpaid prima donna will miss him, we all will if we don't already. If there's anything that this season's struggles have taught me, it's that we have taken the consistent production that we've gotten from A-Rod at that Third Base position almost completely for granted. When he's gone, even the biggest Alex Rodriguez haters will be at least a little bit sad because we need someone to hate, someone to blame, someone on which to cast dispersion, a villain.