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Remembering Alex Rodriguez

On the verge of his final big league performance, we remember what made Alex Rodriguez great and give thanks.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Last weekend, we learned that we will be losing a legend today. Alex Rodriguez, who has played 22 years in the majors, collecting 3114 hits and slugging 696 home runs, is going to play one last time and then be released by the New York Yankees. It’s possible another team will sign him for the rest of the year, or for 2017, but it’s exceptionally unlikely. This is probably the last we’ll see of A-Rod, and that’s a damn shame.

Statistically speaking, you probably don’t think so. Some days, it seems like the whole world doesn’t like A-Rod. You, dear reader, are most likely one of those unwashed masses who thinks that A-Rod was scum and that he poisoned the game of baseball. I disagree with you, but I can see where you’re coming from. After all, Alex Rodriguez is not easy to love.

That’s his own fault, of course. No one else is to blame for his repeated use of performance enhancing substances or for hanging around with ne’er-do-wells like Tony Bosch. His efforts on the field, slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s mitt or trying to confuse the Blue Jays on an infield pop, played into your hatred as well. And, of course, it’s impossible to feel bad for a guy whose mind-boggling contracts from 2001 and 2008 are still the second and third biggest deals ever handed out. And that’s before we even get to the rumored centaur and whatever is going on here.

So I get it. You (probably) don’t like A-Rod. And you have good reasons for that, especially if you’re angry about how PEDs infiltrated baseball during Rodriguez’s career.

But Alex Rodriguez, objectively speaking, made baseball better in every season he played and in virtually every game he appeared in. Through 2009, he was more often than not the best player on the field, capable of doing things few other players could hope to. He came up as a dynamic, baby-faced gold glove shortstop who could hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases. Then he was a dynamic slugger who captured three MVP awards. And he was the steady veteran who helped an aging Yankees team to a championship.

There’s no doubt that his numbers are Hall of Fame worthy. He finishes in the Top 20 all time in Wins above replacement and hits. He is fourth on the all-time home run list. He won a World Series, and hit .259/.365/.457 in almost half a season’s worth of games in the postseason. The only other eligible three-time MVP who has not been elected to the Hall of Fame is Barry Bonds. And he’s clearly one of the top five shortstops of all time.

Even as his skills faded, A-Rod’s descent into villainy proved compelling, and yet another reason why fans couldn’t turn away. Fans lapped up the hit pieces penned by New York writers and turned up to boo whenever the Yankees were in town. A-Rod became the circus. He moved units. He was the most interesting part of a post-Jeter Yankees.

The way that you see Alex Rodriguez has much more to do with you than it does with Alex Rodriguez. Again, statistically speaking, you probably see the game as some kind of proxy for morality or manliness, and A-Rod undoubtedly cheated other players. But he is nowhere near the first, nor will he be the last to do so. He was no more or less of a cheater than Whitey Ford or Gaylord Perry. He didn’t use substances substantially more than Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. And he isn’t worse from the next hitters to steal signs from a camera in centerfield. Rodriguez was a product of his time and culture, the same as any of us. That he used and cheated is undeniable, but what you choose to take from that knowledge is what separates us from each other.

Me? I don’t much care for PEDs and am glad that Major League Baseball is working hard to eradicate them from the game. But I also don’t see much value in demonizing ballplayers who used. Those who don’t dope aren’t inherently more virtuous or saintly; they often have their own issues. Users who get caught get punished and serve their time. They don’t tarnish the sport, but rather highlight how its justice system is working. Alex Rodriguez is not fundamentally different from other ballplayers in any way but one: he was significantly better.

He isn’t anymore. Today’s Alex Rodriguez is bad. He’s old and slow and simply can’t play anymore. He’s also not terribly interesting while he rides the pine and waits to maybe pinch hit once a week. That’s sad, but it’s also essentially how all non-David Ortiz careers are supposed to end. But, in his last hours as a major league ballplayer, we should all be grateful for the joy and the drama A-Rod injected into the game we all love, and for giving us more reasons to watch. Happy trails to the most interesting player of our lifetimes.