In light of the news out of New York this morning, it's time for me to enter the Way Back Machine and recycle something I wrote here back in June 2006, having first eliminated all references to whatever the Jays happened to be doing that day...
Let me tell you what I was doing. I was loading page after page from the invaluable baseball-reference.com, sorting numbers in spreadsheets, and growing deeply alarmed by the greatness of Alex Rodriguez.
A-Rod was 29 last season, and as I documented yesterday, only one man in major league history had scored more runs than Alex Rodriguez by the age of 29. That would be the great Mel Ott, who made his debut with the Giants when he was 17 years old. By the time he was 29, Ott has scored 1247 runs. Rodriguez and Mickey Mantle had 1245 at the same age.
That's not all. Rodriguez had 1901 hits at the end of last season. The only players with more at this stage of their careers were Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, and Rogers Hornsby. Rodriguez had driven in 1226 runs. That's not as many RBIs as Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott had by the time they were 29, but it's more than anybody else has.
By the end of last season, Rodriguez had hit 429 homers, and racked up 3576 total bases. Which is more than anybody.
What he has accomplished in the game, what he promises to accomplish still, is simply breathtaking.
And nobody likes him.
Not even Yankees fans, although they're certainly glad to have him on their side, and they did argue with a single voice that Rodriguez deserved last year's MVP over the Boston DH. But they certainly don't love Rodriguez the way they love Derek Jeter. Jeter is a truly great player, a no-doubt-whatsoever Hall-of-Famer - but Jeter is to Rodriguez roughly what Dave Winfield is to Babe Ruth. It's not just the championships, either. I think Yankees fans like Jason Giambi more than they like Rodriguez.
Why is this, anyway? How did this weird relationship between one of the game's greatest stars and the baseball public take shape?
It's not at all like the Barry Bonds saga. Bonds was always an arrogant, abrasive prick - but probably the main factor is that Bonds has always had an enormous chip on his shoulder. He had it before he had played in a single major league game. A lot of it has to do with how the game treated his father, and a lot of it has to do with race. An awful lot of what Barry Bonds has done in the game has been a kind of payback. He's been settling scores, real and imaginary, from day one.
There have always been great players before who did not catch the public's fancy - generally because they were clearly and unapolegetically unpleasant people. Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Albert Belle. But Rodriguez hardly seems to be one of those guys.
Some of it might be the money, the enormous contract he signed with the Rangers. Ever since players started getting paid, we've heard that the next big contract would simply be too much for the baseball public to deal with. There was a bit of this kind of reaction when Catfish Hunter signed his deal with the Yankees in 1975, for a mind-boggling $3.5 million dollars over five years. But the Hunter situation was unique. He had been ruled a free agent because of a breach of contract, and people ended up reacting as if Catfish, who was always an extremely popular and likeable figure, had won the lottery. No one really minded - people felt happy for him.
The Reggie Jackson situation was a little different. Jim Hunter was a good old boy from Carolina, the kind of player that America had been producing as long as the game had been around. Reginald Martinez Jackson was a brash, articulate, outspoken black man, very much a product of modern America. He thought very well of himself, and said so. He quarrelled with his new manager. Soon you could not see his name in print without some such qualifying phrase as "the millionaire slugger." But Jackson himself overcame it, and justified it all - the salary, the controversy, everything - with his magnificent performances in the 1977 and 1978 post-season. He literally transcended the entire money issue. He was so good when the games were so big... that it simply didn't matter. Whatever he was being paid.
A few years later, however, Dave Winfield signed with the Yankees for the unimaginable sum of $15 million over ten years. Well, our heads just about exploded. Early on, we would go to games and talk about how much money Winfield had made while he was trotting from the dugout to the outfield. But what happened was.. well, I think we just got used to it. Winfield played with hustle and dash, and played very well (with the exception of the 1981 World Series, of course.) His money seemed insane, but we got used to it and within a few years lots of other players were making similar money. Winfield's contract was a novelty that wore off.
But no one else has signed a contract like Alex Rodriguez. This isn't baseball money. This is starting to approach the kind of money Formula One drivers and elite prizefighters command - you know, guys who could conceivably die while competing. (In fact, it's practically David Beckham money! Soccer player money!) So maybe that's part of the problem. And while Rodriguez played brilliantly for the Rangers, the team went nowhere. Eventually, he forced them to trade him and the team got better as soon as he was gone. And, like Hunter and Jackson and Winfield before him, he ended up with the Yankees.
But that's not enough. There's something else going on and I don't know what it is. The baseball public has never - never - warmed to Rodriguez. Ultimately, I think it's because he has somehow done his best to evade the burden of being the best player on earth. Ted Williams never did that. He spit at people, he didn't always hustle, he nursed personal grudges and vendettas for decades - but he always embraced the duty of being Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Rodriguez doesn't seem to want to wear that crown. Which is not going to work. There's simply no getting away from it. He is the best baseball player in the world. Whether he's comfortable with it or not..
Well, maybe we'll all take a shine to him when he's on the verge of kicking Barry Bonds out of the top spot for career homers. That might do the trick...
POSTSCRIPT: As it turned out... no. That didn't do the trick. Turns out there were some things Rodriguez was doing that we didn't know about.