Monday, January 13, 2014
A-Rod Agonistes, the Final Chapter?
We could see a 2014 baseball season and maybe more without Alex Rodriguez, after all. The original 211-game suspension didn't hold up, but on Saturday independent arbitrator Fredric Horowitz imposed a ban of 162 games plus any postseason competition into which the Yankees enter. As no few observers have noted already, that'll be an easier jump to justify than a 211-game jump, the thinking being that losing a season is more defensible on appeal than losing an unprecedented season and a third.
Rodriguez does have the right to reach for a federal court injunction putting Horowitz's ruling on hold while the case is considered yet again, and he's very likely to do just that. The suspension allows him to attend spring training, even as the Yankees have been itching to rid themselves of his albatross, and they may yet find a way to keep him out without triggering any further of his contemporary taste for litigation.
A-Rod has claimed baseball government's been witch-hunting him. Baseball government counters a) that it had and presented evidence enough that his use or association with actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances long since banned from the game went further than what he's admitted to using in his Texas seasons; and, b) that he acted in such patterns as to equal obstructing the game's probe into the Biogenesis mess.
Rodriguez refused to testify in the hearings before Horowitz. Horowitz sent him ballistic when the arbitrator ruled commissioner Bud Selig wasn't required to testify. Both sides seemed bent on turning the hearings into a comedy of errors; enough people watching noted assorted witnesses called the hearings contentious at minimum. But they also noted none of the other 12 among the Biogenesis 13, the players bagged and gagged right after Rodriguez's bomb was dropped, were men inclined toward the scorched-earth defense. Not even Ryan Braun, once the biggest catch in the Biogenesis school.
Most likely it's career over if A-Rod takes the suspension to court and loses, left to serve it out all the way. The blood between A-Rod and the Yankees is too poisonous to even think the Empire Emeritus would avoid any way or means of saying goodbye when the suspension finishes. Though there could be a baseball pigeon somewhere who'd be willing to gamble on what will be a 39-year-old infielder returning from a year's inactivity on top of his history of two hip surgeries the second of which has A-Rod also suing the Yankee team doctors.
For reasons on which I can't quite place a fingertip, from almost the moment it looked as though Rodriguez would be bagged, I couldn't stop thinking back to what I think was perhaps the single most pivotal hour in his baseball life. The hour in which his childhood aspiration went from possibility to disappearance in one foolish moment that may not have been of his own making. The hour in which he had no more hope of becoming what he'd wanted to be since boyhood.
When he entered his first free agency after 2000, considered baseball's best all-around shortstop, possibly ever, Rodriguez would have seemed to have suitors aplenty. In his heart of hearts, though, the Mets were the suitors whose romancing he craved most. He grew up in New York, in the Dominican, and then in Florida a die-hard Met fan (his favorite player was Keith Hernandez), even though he played Little League baseball for a team known as the Miami Yankees. Putting him in a Met uniform for 2001 and beyond wouldn't have left you room enough to contain his happiness.
The Mets could have had him for 10 years and two-thirds the money he got in due course, even though actual dollars weren't disclosed prior to any signing. They were coming off a 2000 World Series loss to the Yankees in five games that were tighter than the set's shortness suggests now. And the Mets would have loved nothing better than suiting up the one shortstop in baseball who could out-play Series MVP/Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter with one hand missing and one foot in a lead shoe.
At that December's winter meetings, the Mets' then general manager Steve Phillips went to agent Scott Boras's suite believing he had nothing less than Alex Rodriguez on his hook for extremely delicious bait. He came out of the suite with his stomach having gone absent without leave.
For Boras greeted Phillips with a rundown of perks for his client that, as ESPN'S Ian O'Connor would remember, "would have made the world's biggest divas blush": reportedly, a private office at Shea Stadium, his own marketing staff, his own merchandise tent at spring training, a luxury box, the use of a private jet, and A-Rod's peanut butter-toned phiz on more New York area billboards than those displaying Derek Jeter's mug.
Whether Boras sketched the list based on things Rodriguez suggested, or whether the uber-agent forged it on his own entirely, may never be known for certain. But it killed the Mets deal in the crib. As former Met executive Jim Duquette told O'Connor, "I remember Steve coming back to our suite and telling everyone, 'You're not going to believe it, but this is what Boras wants for Alex Rodriguez.' All of our jaws just dropped. We kept hearing how this was the place Alex wanted to play, but we knew then it wasn't going to happen."
Busting their budget a bit merely to sign the best shortstop in baseball was one thing, but the Mets weren't about to bust it that wide open for a laundry list like that, even if Boras is said to have insisted they didn't have to grant the entire list, just enough to guarantee his man becoming a Met. With the best intentions, Phillips turned Boras down. Accepting that he'd never be able to make Rodriguez's childhood dream come true, the GM then phrased it to the press in words he'd live to regret. He told reporters the Mets wanted to avoid a 24-man plus one roster.
"That label stuck to Alex, and I didn't mean for that to happen," Phillips would tell O'Connor. "But I just thought the rules had to be the same for everybody. Mike Piazza was the most low-maintenance superstar there was, with no entourage, only his brother and dad coming around once in a while. Mike always had the prettiest girl waiting for him after the game, and that was it. It was just Mike." He went on to say, "I've looked at what some teams have done for players and yet still managed to win, and it's made me question my inflexibility on structure."
At the same time, Jeter was haggling over a new Yankee deal. And there was nobody in baseball then to whom A-Rod felt closer. The two had been BFF since arriving in the Show. They were so tight, in fact, that during one game in which the Yankees and the Mariners had a little on-field skirmish, Jeter and Rodriguez just grabbed each other's jerseys and kidded each other, which led to a Yankee outfielder named Chad Curtis challenging Jeter on it after the game. "Blood brothers," was how A-Rod himself described their friendship.
Except that as soon as A-Rod signed his precedent-busting deal with the Rangers, he commented on his bro's contract haggle in a then-infamous Esquire article: "Jeter's been blessed with great talent around him; he's never had to lead. He can just go and play and have fun. He hits second—that's totally different than third or fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O'Neill. You never say, 'Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern."
The moment he saw it in print, Rodriguez knew he was in big trouble with his BFF. There's a right and a wrong way to tell someone you think Jeter's just one of a pack of leadership-quality Yankees and doesn't have to take the whole thing upon himself, pressuring himself, which is probably what Rodriguez was trying to say. He's said to have high-tailed it to Jeter's Tampa spread post haste to straighten it out. If you don't know it yet, know this much now about Derek Jeter. The man has one thing in common with Joe DiMaggio at least: if he thinks you did him dirty even once, you're out, that's it, say goodnight, Gracie.
You wonder now about the real impact all that had on A-Rod. You wonder how his own agent botching a deal with the team of his dreams ate away at him. You wonder how deeply costing himself his best friend in baseball haunted him. You wonder what that cost him in a time when Jeter could have given Rodriguez critical moral support and steerage, when — slapped hard across the face with the reality of his off-the-chart deal, and the expectations attached to it, actual or suggestive — Rodriguez instead drove himself toward the netherworld of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, out of a quiet desperation to live up to his deal that equaled not trusting the talent that put him in position for the deal in the first place.
It wasn't even close to his fault the Rangers finished dead last in the American League West while A-Rod manned shortstop. He wasn't the one who thought the Rangers could solve their chronic pitching troubles of the time by spending the equivalent of a well-developed/well-built pitching staff on ... a shortstop. It wasn't his responsibility to address those troubles. But you wonder if anyone bothered telling him it wasn't even close to his fault. Even if you acknowledge the Rangers bid against themselves to give one shortstop the money that would have built a long-term competitive pitching staff, you can't lay that kind of responsibility upon his head.
By the end of the 2003 postseason, of course, Rodriguez would be on his way to Yankee pinstripes after an aborted trade to the Red Sox. On his way to a locker room over which his erstwhile best friend presided. On his way to an up and down relationship with Jeter to come but nothing remotely resembling their former tightness, even after A-Rod agreed to take third base to leave his old friend where he was. On his way to firing Boras, three years after the embarrassment of the 2007 contract opt-out (during the World Series, which featured Red Sox fans chanting "Don't sign A-Rod," as if the triumphant Olde Towne Team was that crazy), after which he reportedly negotiated his own new Yankee deal.
Three years after that embarrassment, and ten years too late to make Rodriguez what he probably should have been in the first place. A Met. Without blowing his most valued friendship and, perhaps, his most valuable moral compass. Without standing as he does now and too often has since becoming a Yankee. Almost alone, in the place where insecurity married to hubris equals abject disaster, for himself, his legacy (what's left of it), and for the game he professes to love.
It's a place into which the Yankees at least and baseball at most no longer wish to be drawn. They've already spent enough time under the A-Rod big top. Don't be shocked too terribly if the Yankees find a way to cut him, even if it means principal owner Hal Steinbrenner eating $67 million before letting him back anywhere near the Yankees. But it'll be easier for the Empire Emeritus to keep their own circus from being overtaken by the clown quarters than for baseball itself to clean up after A-Rod's mess.