A-Rod must live with grand statistics that forever will be doubted thanks to his use of performance-enhancing drugs, and an off-putting way about him that was his worst enemy.
One is beloved. One is respected. And one is scorned.
Last Sunday provided a confluence of ex-Mariners legends in the news that couldn’t have been scripted, and couldn’t be ignored.
In Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. completed an emotional three-day weekend that included having his number retired and ended with Junior catching Gary Payton’s ceremonial first pitch at Safeco Field while soaking up the last of too many heartfelt ovations to count.
In Denver, Ichiro lashed his 3,000th major-league hit, earning baseball immortality and a renewed appreciation of his unique but undeniable talent.
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And in New York, an emotional Alex Rodriguez announced he would play his final game Friday and then become a special adviser with the Yankees. He ends his career (if it’s really over) remembered not for his transcendent talent but for his foibles, never attaining either the acclaim or affection he so clearly craved. For all three teams with which he played, A-Rod put up superb numbers, historical even, yet managed in each case to burn bridges and alienate fans.
Those three players are inextricably linked in Seattle’s baseball history, to the point that it is hard to untangle all the various threads. Yet this seems as good a time as any to try once again.
Griffey was Seattle’s first true sports icon, yet he had to survive two disillusioning Mariner moments — first when he asked to be traded and then when he walked away without a word.
That he did so and came out the other side as a revered favorite son is a tribute to his singular skills, his endearing personality and the perception that in an era of steroids cheats, he played clean (hold that last thought).
Ichiro idolized Griffey but didn’t play with him until the latter’s final two seasons, when his presence was largely ceremonial. Ichiro was underappreciated in his Seattle days, but I sense a revisionist appreciation for what he accomplished in his 10-year prime with the Mariners. The fact that he spoke only through a translator and rarely revealed his thoughts (though was spectacularly insightful when he did) lent Ichiro an air of mystery but also prevented many fans from handing their hearts over to him as they did with Griffey.
And then there was A-Rod, whose Seattle career had two distinct acts. Early on, he was a breath — make that a hurricane — of fresh air. A 1997 Seattle Times profile began:
He has everything a man should have: A job. A house. A dog. A swimming pool and pool table. Four remote controls’ worth of electronics. A pager so you can get in touch with him. A cellphone so he can get in touch with you.
A strong work ethic. Humility. A sense that you never forget where you come from. Generosity. Curiosity. An appreciation for fine garments, good food and music with a mighty beat …
Then there’s a body, as lovely as the glow of Mount Rainier during a summer sunset.
I tell you this about the body because in Seattle, we love Seattle Mariner Alex Rodriguez — A-Rod, The Rod, Hot Rod, The Youngster, Junior’s Junior, Young Buck — for what his body does.
There’s about 3,000 miles of retrospective irony in all of that, but for five magnificent seasons with the Mariners, A-Rod performed so spectacularly well — check baseballreference.com for the numbers; they will stagger you — that he was well on his way to becoming a folk hero.
Sure, there were some warning signs, the aw-shucks sincerity gradually morphing into unctuous phoniness that eventually would make him the Sultan of Smarm. Mind you, I always felt it came from a place of insecurity, an uncontrollable need to be loved that perversely led to decisions that ensured he wouldn’t be. I never believed A-Rod was the scoundrel he was made out to be, but he just had an off-putting way about him that was his worst enemy.
There were whispers that he clashed with Griffey in a battle of egos that was mostly waged in one direction. Pat Gillick would say years later that he wished he had traded Rodriguez and not Griffey, telling me in 2006 that he believed Griffey would have been content to stay in Seattle if he didn’t have to share the spotlight with A-Rod.
“I wasn’t there, but what I kind of understood is that maybe there was a little tension between A-Rod and Griff,” Gillick said. “I don’t know if you want to call it jealousy, tension — there was a little bit there.”
Everything changed, of course, when Rodriguez became a free agent after the 2000 season and signed that 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers. I could never quite understand the wrath that inspired, considering he had earned his free agency honestly and hardly was the first player to flee to greener (much greener) pastures.
There seems to be this urban myth that A-Rod claimed “it wasn’t about the money,” which cemented his insincerity in many minds. I could never find that quote. At his introductory news conference in Texas, in fact, A-Rod called it “a financial decision,” and even before that, in 2000 with his free agency looming, A-Rod went on a Fox Sports show called “Goin’ Deep” and was asked, “What’s more important, winning or the money?”
He answered: “I think the money at this point is very important to me because I want to take care of my family and the people that I love. Winning is a close second … but I have to take care of my family first.”
When I asked him about it in Minneapolis while covering a Mariners road trip, he replied, “That question was a no-win situation. You want to be as candid as possible. If you say winning is more important, they call you fake. If you say money, they call you greedy.”
Of course, it became all about the money, whether he liked it or not — $410 million of which he’s been paid for playing baseball, with $27 million still to come.
Little did he know, A-Rod was about to spiral into a morass of no-win situations, which he undoubtedly exacerbated — and ensured he’d ultimately lose — through his use of performance-enhancing drugs, which he admitted to in 2009 only after being busted in a Sports Illustrated article.
Rodriguez said he had dabbled in steroids after signing with Texas because of pressure to live up to the contract.
Rangers owner Tom Hicks, once A-Rod’s golfing buddy and business partner, said he felt “betrayed” and told reporters, “I certainly don’t believe that if he’s now admitting that he started using when he came to the Texas Rangers, why should I believe that it didn’t start before he came to the Texas Rangers?”
At a mea culpa news conference I attended in Tampa, with his teammates gathered around him in support, Rodriguez ostensibly came clean and promised it was a mistake that wouldn’t be repeated. He asked to be judged from that point forward. Yet in 2014, Rodriguez was suspended for a full season — the commissioner contemplated a lifetime ban and wanted 211 games — for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.
That led to Rodriguez’s darkest days, in which he sued both MLB and the players union, on top of a previous suit against the Yankees’ team doctor over the treatment of his hip. He eventually dropped the suits and miraculously rehabbed his reputation somewhat in 2015, a tribute to the salutary effect of a good season, the genuine contrition that comes with being beaten down so low, and the human instinct toward building back up heroes after they’ve been suitably torn asunder.
But A-Rod still departs the game ultimately unfulfilled, having to live with grand statistics that forever will be doubted, and with a legacy that won’t come close to approaching the heights to which it was once ascending during those halcyon early days in Seattle.