“You seriously want me to believe that Josh Exley, maybe one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, was an alien?”
“They’re all aliens, Agent Mulder. All the great ones.”
– The X-Files, “The Unnatural”
Alex Rodriguez was an alien, and he either didn’t realize it or deeply wished he weren’t. He tried to convince us he was someone else – like us, maybe – and we hated the clumsy deceit of it. Now he’s on his way out the door, tomorrow’s garbage, and what finally made him seem normal were two things no one escapes: death and employers.
A-Rod is over, due to retire tonight, awaiting a future coaching position with the team that stomped on and humiliated him, all the way to his career’s last breath.
An athlete’s career death at least makes sense; it happens to all of us. It happens earlier for athletes, three or more decades before their hearts stop, a cruel prelude of senescence when every non-athlete is technically still in something like their prime. They offer us a preview of something we prefer to ignore, then shuffle off, suddenly too much like us to avoid the comparison.
We usually sense it coming. There is a down year or two or three, the superhuman in free-fall toward our lowly plane, and we realize that they have become something less than the impossible. You don’t even have to be particularly empathetic to understand this. Selfishness will do.
One year, A-Rod was the opposing player you least wanted to see come to bat. The next year, you didn’t mind as much. He was no longer that dangerous. There is a sliding scale for everyone, even the bitterest rival: the further away they get from being a threat, the closer they come to something like a person. The realization dawns that they too are afflicted with aches, pains, disappointment and bullshit.
Alex Rodriguez was an all-time great – in the top 20 career WAR leaders – and for his troubles was subjected to an all-time degree of ceaseless bullshit after reaching the top of the game.
After being traded to the Yankees in 2004, he was forced to move from shortstop to third base to placate a comprehensively poorer athlete. The naked branding exercise that was Captain Derek Jeter subsumed A-Rod, and thus commenced 12 years of pointless grief about Rodriguez’s True Yankeedom. Watching A-Rod on the Yankees was like watching an endless, passive apology for being the best player on his own team and one of the best of his generation.
His game was already in decline by 2011, when he hit fewer than 30 home runs for the first time since 1997. He slouched into the 2013 Biogenesis Scandal already slowed by age and injury, and if that weren’t indignity enough, got to watch his team roll over on him like a low-level snitch in the first act of a Law & Order episode.
(A-Rod almost certainly took performance-enhancing drugs, putting him in good company with probably a third of all people who’ve ever been paid to play baseball, and if this something that still exercises you – well, godspeed with the life you’ve chosen to lead.)
The bigger issue, however, was that Major League Baseball threatened to sue into oblivion Biogenesis’ Anthony Bosch – a sleaze right out of the strip-club-dwelling minor characters of Carl Hiaasen novels – unless he forked over testimony they wanted to hear about players. Mirabile dictu! they got everything they needed, circumstantial evidence by the ream, enough to send Lennie Briscoe eyerolling out the back staircase, certain this one was about to blow up on the stand.
But baseball is in the pastoral nostalgia business, so all the troublesome exigencies of a real functioning justice system didn’t need to apply. Commissioner Bud Selig – a man charged with colluding with other owners to fix player salaries and given the top job in baseball as reward for his troubles – threatened to ban Rodriguez for life.
Meanwhile, a rehabbing A-Rod was told that he “should shut the fuck up” by his GM, and his team’s president allegedly said that he’d be fine if A-Rod never played again. A-Rod ultimately dropped his lawsuits and agreed to a suspension for the entire 2014 season. His return season, in which he hit 33 dingers, was overshadowed by his team trying to screw him out of seemingly every milestone bonus payment they’d agreed to in the contract they signed.
In the end, all of it almost doesn’t seem like something real that happened — not just the last years of nickel-and-diming recrimination from the richest team in baseball, but all of it. A guy nearing historic baseball milestones, kicked to the curb by a crummy team with nothing to lose by letting him swing away. A superstar ringer anyone would leap to fantasy draft for over ten years, yet nobody liked. A guy who once ran like a gazelle, fielded like an octopus and hit like King Kong, who could never do enough for anybody.
Maybe it was that last part that did him in. Uniquely among God-like athletes, A-Rod seemed consumed by a need to be wanted. He never quite grasped that superhuman ability creates its own excuses: that all you have to do to fit in is nail the boilerplate interview replies, open some quasi-legitimate charity, be good at your sport and commit the kind of crimes that fans forgive, like aggravated or sexual assault.
If anything, he was the polar opposite of someone like Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, a post-human anthropomorphized brand that has abandoned all pretense of seeming like someone who understands what a supermarket is or why people eat food that comes in packages. Russell Wilson is one of the overlords in They Live, only he’s handing out sunglasses to everyone. It works for him, because he’s decided it does.
Instead, A-Rod was not of this earth, and seemed to hope every day that you wouldn’t notice. He was an alien, and instead of reveling in his otherworldly talent, he evinced a cloying neediness to fit in—a frustrating, insulting refusal to embrace the transcendence most of the rest of us would love nothing more to embrace, if only for the chance to escape all this. It was enough to make you want to shake him by the shoulders, look into his wounded eyes and plead with him to just buy a hovercraft and crash it into a Coast Guard cutter.
So, tonight, he will not take the field in his final game, apparently too much of a liability for a team trying to convince itself that it’s not going nowhere—a team that spent 2014 driving a .256/.304/.313-hitting Derek Jeter around the country in a ceremonial glass float like the Baseball Pope while local burghers at every MLB outpost heaved offertories at him.
A-Rod won’t get anything so lavish. After 696 career home runs, he’ll get a pregame ceremony, take his at bats, give a curtain call at the dugout and retire – that pre-funeral decades in advance of the real one.
He’s as real a person now as he could have hoped to be. Hobbled by time, screwed-over and jobbed-out by employers that play favorites when they aren’t pointing to an arbitrary bottom line. A guy who seemingly effortlessly became one of the best parts of Fox’s postseason broadcast, he even has a trade sports fans aspire to and practice alone with the TV: analyzing players and breaking down matchups, trying to be one of the smartest guys in the room.
And instead, he won’t get that quite right either. He will return to coach for the team that spent the last three years rejecting him in every direct and oblique way possible, perhaps because he thinks that’s what he should do. Maybe, at this point, it’s all he knows.