Monday, August 9, 2010
Alex Rodriguez, he of perhaps the lamest nickname in the world, just hit his 600th career home run. This was reported as being important because baseball people have an obsession with large round numbers. Because of this “milestone,” we are forced to face the fact that statistically, A-Rod/A-Roid/the smooth-foreheaded one is one of the best baseball players of all time. As this blogger said, “He’s up on Olympus with the rest of the gods.” Which brings up the question, what is he the god of?
The old-time baseball players have acquired a folk-hero status in American lore. Babe Ruth was a Paul Bunyan-esque figure whose appetites for home runs, liquor, and whores exceeded those of mere mortals. Ty Cobb was born in hell and likely returned there after his death. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the disgraced hero who shattered a little boy’s illusions (“Say it ain’t so,” etc.). Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse who, alas, had to be put down. Wille Mays was the genius of center field. Mickey Mantle was an amiable bacchanalian giant who was an alcoholic back when that was okay. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were ciphers with perfect swings. Yogi Berra came from another planet. Mickey Rivers was insane. Carl Yastrzemski made success look like failure. Carlton Fisk pushed a foul ball fair by sheer force of will. Pete Rose had an all-consuming passion for winning, and a fatal flaw. Sandy Koufax had an arm made of rubber and took Yom Kippur off (Don Drysdale was his goyish partner). Dock Ellis pitched a perfect game on acid. Hank Aaron cranked out home run after home run like a true workman. Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. Rickey Henderson was a tower of pure ego. Who else? Ken Griffey Junior was a permanent teenager, beauty and mood swings and all. Barry Bonds hit the hell out of the ball because he seemed to hate the game. Derek Jeter is living proof that ballplayers can have an old-fashioned cool.
What can be said about A-Rod?
He started out as a kind of prodigy in Seattle, where he suffered under Griffey’s shadow. Then he left for Texas, in a decision that seemed to be based purely on economics. (Mercenaries make for lousy heroes.) The team he left set a (steroid-assisted) regular-season win record and made the playoffs a few more times, while he spent three years of his prime on a last-place team. He went to the Yankees, where he was no longer the big fish in the little pond, and got raked over the coals for underperforming in the playoffs until last year. He’s not the center of the team, and he even moved to third base out of deference to Jeter. (Would DiMaggio, Mays, or Rose show deference to anyone?) He was romantically linked to Madonna, which would have been fashionable a couple decades ago. Oh yeah, and he said he didn’t use steroids until he said he did—even if you don’t mind the steroids, you have to admit that came off as cowardly. How do you sum up that scattered career in one short sentence?
It’s not that A-Rod has no “aura,” or “mystique.” As the philosopher Curt Schilling once said, those are dancers at a strip club. A-Rod’s problem is that his narrative isn’t compelling. He’s really, really good at hitting a baseball, but what else? What stories can you tell about him? If he passes Bonds as American Home Run Champ, he still won’t be as interesting a figure as Bonds, who has the reputation of being a ‘roided-up monster who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, which is in some ways better than being a nonentity like A-Rod.
The stats and the three MVP trophies say A-Rod is an all-time great. But stats don’t make me care about him the way I care about, say, Jeter. Now, I don’t like the Yankees, and Jeter represents everything I don’t like about the Yankees—the apparent sense of entitlement, the clean-cut, country-club aristocrat look, the pride that, okay, maybe is deserved but still goddamned annoying. But I care about Jeter, I can muster up some dislike for Jeter, but A-Rod inspires no feeling in me. If A-Rod has ascended to Mount Olympus because he hit an arbitrary number of home runs, then he’s the God of Bland.