A-Rod, Accepting the End is Near

A one-time legend among New York columnists, Frank Graham, observed about a suddenly-accessible player at the end of his career, "He learned to say hello when it was time to say goodbye." Paraphrasing, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News wrote Sunday that Alex Rodriguez learned to say hello while he was essentially saying goodbye over the past two years.

Mostly, though, this year. Following his surprising bounce-back of 2015, during which he was practically the most valuable Yankee for a fair part of the season, Rodriguez hit spring training 2016 optimistic about one more good year, maybe two, maybe enough to let him meet Babe Ruth at least on the all-time home run lists.

But Father Time caught up at last to the once-invincible talent whose insecurities made him his own worst enemy. Sunday afternoon, Rodriguez let his real self sit exposed as he announced he would play his final Yankee game on August 12, at Yankee Stadium. He admitted the rebuilding Yankees' administration informed him a few days earlier that they would release him as a player.

And he professed to be at peace with himself over the coming end, however little he really liked the end being so near. Much as he was at peace playing without the weight of nuclear expectations starting last year.

Like Mark Teixiera two days earlier, Rodriguez found it impossible to hold the tears back. Unlike Teixeira, who's been nothing if not a man comfortable in his own skin, A-Rod needed an entire career, highs, lows, warts, controversies, and all, to give even a small impression that he had found that kind of comfort to even a small degree.

This is the guy who never quite believed he was as good as his game performances and his statistics said he was. Who seemed at once enthralled, intimidated, and confused by his own external and internal gifts.

This is the guy whose former uber-agent bagged him the then-richest contract in baseball history, but who was so intimidated by having earned it, even from a team who bid against themselves to pay him what they might better have used developing a viable pitching staff, that he fell prey to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances.

This is the guy who ached for acceptance and did everything he could think of to ward it off, possibly because — without ever descending so low as to phrase it that way — the magnitude of being him scared him shitless, and into doing more foolish things than he'd like to remember.

This is the equivalent of the straight-A student who got caught buying an advance on the test answers, went scorched earth to keep his teachers and his principal from finding out, then took the consequences begrudgingly, but came back from them with the kind of maturity he used to deny himself out of sheer dread.

A maturity that transformed him from one of the more forbidding Yankees to one of the more accessible and amiable Yankees, whether chatting calmly with a reporter or taking younger, greener players under his wing to teach them things in and even astride baseball itself.

Rodriguez put himself through his own brand of hell before restoring himself in his baseball dotage to the fellow he's been when he was young, a Mariner, and threatening to make the record books his own.

And, making himself enough of a man of the team that, when Hal Steinbrenner began steering him toward accepting the end as a player was nearer than he preferred, A-Rod gradually accepted it, in hand with an offer to serve as an organization advisor and field instructor for the rest of his earth-shattering contract, and possibly beyond.

"Honestly, my horizon is pinstripes and Friday," he said, apparently when asked whether he'd think about suiting up with another club to finish at least his route to 700 home runs. "It's been such an emotional couple of days that I can't really think beyond that right now."

In late July the whisperings began that Rodriguez and Teixeira were on the threshold of becoming ex-Yankees. Possibly, some of the speculation went, the Yankees would swallow the rest of their contracts to release them. Other speculation imagined both men catching on with teams who could have used them in one or another way.

The Yankees let nothing seep out of the bargain they'd struck with their most controversial player; players, coaches, and manager Joe Girardi had no idea until they received a press release just as Rodriguez's press conference was about to begin. "This," Girardi told reporters, "is the best job the New York Yankees have ever done in keeping something in-house."

Teixeira made it moot when he announced last Friday he'd retire after the regular season. A-Rod made it moot Sunday when, essentially, he accepted what amounted to his firing as a player with a grace enough people thought beyond him.

From the moment he returned from his Biogenesis-related suspension, Rodriguez bent himself into a pretzel in his determination to rebuild bridges most thought he hadn't just burned, but nuked. It's difficult to know which is more shocking, that he actually up and did it or that the longer the time passed the less skeptical people became of that, however skeptical they remained about other things involving him.

"Two years ago, I never thought I'd be here," Rodriguez said at his Sunday press conference, referring to his restored status and acceptance. "I said in spring training that it's a process, and that it's something I've taken very seriously — how my actions impact other people. But I also said that I was at first base. I hope that today I'm rounding second base, making progress. I certainly am very proud of the way things have gone off the field. A lot of people are going to focus on the numbers. What I'm really happy about are the relationships I've been able to mend."

Though he admitted to disappointment that the end came sooner than he wanted, he also acknowledged jocularly that you could do worse than end up eighteen bombs shy of Ruth. Or working with the Yankee organization, especially in any capacity that lets him continue working with younger players, something he's enjoyed and Steinbrenner was smart enough to include.

"The sad part is, it ended too quick, as it usually ends for most athletes who feel they can play forever," he said. "The great news is, I'm going to be in a role I think I'm going to enjoy. I'm also going to learn a lot. The fact that Hal asked me to do this is something that I'll treasure."

Sometimes when nothing else succeeds in bringing a glandularly talented but self-immolating morass of insecurities and doubts out of that morass and into the warmth of unfettered humanness, mortality looking him in the face does. Men with half Rodriguez's talent and liabilities alike have departed with even less grace.

Dearly though he loves the game, and not even his worst enemy would accuse him otherwise, Rodriguez the player may have been saying goodbye for most of the last two seasons. But Rodriguez the man has been saying hello and meaning it. It may not erode the darker side of what his former morass produced, but it just might sweeten the side he's finally allowed to live.

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