If Aaron Boone had just stuck to running on a treadmill, Alex Rodriguez might not be a Yankee.
On January 16th, 2004, Boone, the Yankees’ starting third baseman in 2003, was looking for an alternative to his typical aerobic exercise. Boone had re-signed with the Yankees after his late-inning heroics in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, when he launched the first pitch he saw for a home run off of Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield in the eleventh inning. The Yankees were on their way to the World Series, and there was bedlam in the Bronx. After an underwhelming loss in six games to the Florida Marlins in the World Series, the Yankees re-signed Boone to a one-year contract. On January 16th, Boone decided to play a game of pickup basketball and tore his ACL in the middle of the game. Without a starting third baseman, the Yankees voided Boone’s contract and began to look for replacements. It was the most important basketball injury in the history of baseball.
Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was at a loss. Boone’s injury occurred after the heat of the free agency period, so there were not any dependable replacements on free agent market. Internal options included Enrique Wilson and newly-signed Miguel Cairo (who would go on to be a serviceable second baseman), but neither inspired much confidence at third base. Cashman began looking into trades to find a replacement. At the same time, the Texas Rangers were determined to unload shortstop Alex Rodriguez, whose massive contract (ten years, $252 million) was not bringing the team success. A-Rod was nearly dealt to the Red Sox, but the deal was held up over financial concerns. Cashman swooped in, and sent second baseman Alfonso Soriano and infielder Joaquín Árias to the Rangers in exchange for Rodriguez.
The Rangers were so determined to get rid of A-Rod that they paid $67 million of the $179 million remaining on his contract when he was sent to the Yankees. Upon Rodriguez’s arrival with the Yankees, he voluntarily changed his position to third base since shortstop was already occupied by Yankee captain Derek Jeter.
The trade was supposed to be a fail-safe coup for the Yankees. They were acquiring the 2003 MVP to play next to one of the best shortstops in the league. But the problems were apparent from the start. In his memoir The Yankee Years, Joe Torre devoted an entire chapter to “The Issues of Alex,” in which he discussed multiple sources of tension for A-Rod in New York. In an interview from 2001, A-Rod criticized Jeter, saying that Jeter was never the hitter that teams would worry about getting out, and also that Jeter benefitted from being surrounded by so many talented players and never really had to be elite. The two had been friends prior to the interview, but in that moment, A-Rod alienated Jeter, and from the beginning of his time on the Yankees it was clear that the two had an awkward relationship. A-Rod had the statistics and a genuine claim to being the best player in the game, but Jeter had the undying adoration of millions of fans in New York and the World Series rings.
A-Rod’s volatile relationship with Jeter was a microcosm of the issues Rodriguez faced on the Yankees. Torre said that teammates would call Rodriguez “A-Fraud” behind his back, and that his constant need for attention was a strain on the locker room. Indeed, the motley crew of former All-Stars and attention-seeking players that constituted the 2004 Yankees would eventually lead to the club’s epic collapse in the 2004 ALCS against Boston. A-Rod was never the only source of club’s problems, and there is a good chance that the Yankees may not have reached the playoffs without his production in 2004, or in the three years afterwards, but his knack for finding the spotlight in a bad way made him the face for the Yankees’ struggles.
After A-Rod helped lead the Yankees past the Twins in the 2004 ALDS (he hit for a .421 average and a whopping 1.213 OPS in the series), the team faced off against its archrival, the Boston Red Sox. The collapse of the Yankees against Boston is certainly worthy of its own article. To summarize it quickly: The Yankees won Game 1 thanks to great hitting (10-7), Game 2 thanks to great pitching (3-1), and Game 3 thanks to a record-breaking offensive outburst (19-8). Early in Game 4, Rodriguez launched a two-run home run off of Boston pitcher Derek Lowe. That would be the last time he would drive in a run in his next three postseason series (all of them ALDS losses for the Yankees: the Angels in 2005, the Tigers in 2006, and the Indians in 2007). The Yankees blew leads in Games 4 and 5 before being out-pitched in Game 6 and out-hit in Game 7 to lose the series to the Red Sox.
However, even with Boston’s epic comeback, one of Alex’s trademark moments with the Yankees came in Game 6. The Yankees were down 4-2 in the bottom of the 8th inning, and A-Rod came up with Derek Jeter on first base and only one out. He was facing Bronson Arroyo, whom he had homered off of in Game 3 and who was involved in the infamous brawl at Fenway earlier in the season. With the count 2-2, A-Rod gave a weak swing out an outside curveball and squibbed the ball down the first baseline. Arroyo fielded the ball and charged to tag A-Rod out, but Rodriguez swatted the ball out of Arroyo’s glove in desperation. The ball rolled down the first baseline, Jeter scored from first, and A-Rod was safe at second. Red Sox manager Terry Francona came out to argue the call, and it was eventually reversed. Rodriguez was called out for interference and Jeter was brought all the way back to first. A-Rod exacerbated the embarrassment by trying to plead his case when the replay was damning. The incident became known as The Slap, and it summed up everything that was wrong with Rodriguez for his first five years as a Yankee: great in the regular season, but prone to choking when the team really needed him in the clutch.
This is not to take away from what Rodriguez accomplished during the 2005-2007 regular seasons. There were times he carried the Yankees’ offense, hitting an incredible 54 home runs during his 2007 MVP campaign. But in October, when it really counted, Rodriguez would seemingly forget how to hit. He was moved around in the order by Torre, but nothing worked. He became symbolic of the Yankees’ struggles in the playoffs from 2005-2007.
With Torre gone after 2007 and a new stadium opening in 2009, it appeared that the tide was turning for Rodriguez. Indeed, it was during the Yankees’ 2009 World Series run that Rodriguez authored some of his signature moments as a Yankee. Down 3-1 against the Twins in the bottom of the 9th, Rodriguez came to the plate with two outs and promptly launched a game- tying two-run shot into the Yankees’ bullpen. He also hit a game-tying home-run in Game 3, and continued his hot streak into the ALCS, where the Yankees beat the Angels in six games, and into the World Series, where the Bombers triumphed in six games over the Phillies. Rodriguez’s energy was palpable, and carried over to the rest of the team.
Unfortunately, 2009 seemed to be a fluke. Starting in 2010 and continuing to the present, A-Rod hit just .161 in the postseason, and was benched and pinch-hit for multiple times during the 2012 postseason. With the Yankees failing to make the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, losing the Wild Card game in 2015, and most likely looking at a .500 season in 2016, it is obvious that A-Rod’s only real postseason success came in 2009.
A-Rod’s ignominious early retirement is once again representative of his Yankee career. In 2015, he experienced a great resurgence after sitting out all of 2014 (an issue that will be addressed later in this article), as he hit 33 home runs and, along with Mark Teixeira (another retiree), helped carry an otherwise moribund Yankee offense. But once again, it turned out to be a flash in the pan, as Rodriguez struggled mightily in 2016, leading to his early retirement. But it was not easy. The New York media was all over manager Joe Girardi for not knowing what to do with A-Rod (something that Girardi repeatedly insisted was above his pay grade). Rodriguez initially announced that he would retire when his contract expired at the end of 2017, but his lack of production made it clear that he was deadweight on a team that was trying to get much younger.
The off-the-field controversy over how the Yankees should handle A-Rod culminated in a press conference Sunday where Rodriguez announced that he was unceremoniously playing his last game on Friday August 12th. Thus ends one of the most storied and controversial careers in baseball history. Rodriguez was called “bush league” by other managers, he was a constant presence in the New York tabloids thanks to an affair with the pop star Madonna, and he always seemed to find a way to draw negative attention to himself. The most egregious example of this was during Game 3 of the 2007 World Series. Rodriguez announced that he would opt-out of his contract and seek to test free agency. The Yankees were livid that Rodriguez would do this to the team, and Rodriguez, and his agent Scott Boras eventually had to apologize and return, hat in hand, to the Yankees. Eventually, he signed a 10 year, $275 million contract, the largest in baseball history.
Of course, one cannot write about Rodriguez’s career without mentioning his steroid use and subsequent lying. I have avoided the subject thus far because so much has been written about it, and I am not sure that there is much that I can add to the subject that would be new. It was revealed in 2009 that A-Rod took steroids in 2003, which he had previously denied, and then his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal led to his suspension for the entirety of the 2014 season. It was his reaction that is telling about Rodriguez’s character.
When the punishment was first handed down, it was a 211 game suspension that would begin in the middle of the 2013 season and go through the end of 2014. Rodriguez appealed, and continued playing. When he lost the appeal and was suspended, he did not go quietly. He tried to sue both the Yankees and Major League Baseball in an attempt to challenge the ruling and collect his money. Where other players accepted their suspensions quietly, A-Rod insisted on making as much noise as possible. That was his plan until one day in early 2014, when he suddenly made an about-face and announced that he would serve his suspension.
This change of heart is indicative of Rodriguez’s development not just a player, but as a human being. Since that acceptance, A-Rod has become a model citizen: he has accepted benchings, he has stayed quiet to the media, and he has worked tirelessly to mentor other players. What is unusual is that while the media has been incredibly critical of him, his teammates have never had anything bad to say about him (with the exception of Jeter, although Jeter never openly criticized A-Rod). CC Sabathia even once mentioned how Rodriguez was the first person to welcome him into the locker room after Sabathia signed with the Yankees. Rodriguez has never been arrested, nor has he committed any crimes. He has worked tirelessly his whole career to try to be the best. So why the intense vitriol for him?
The amount of hate that Rodriguez receives is largely due to the fact that he is everything that fans want in a star: he is an incredible player on the field, one of the game’s best, but it is the off-the-field storylines that are more compelling. A-Rod’s actions throughout his career reveal a man desperate to the best, and perpetually insecure that he was never good enough. Despite his regular season heroics, Rodriguez could never escape the shadow of Derek Jeter, the beloved Yankee hero. Where Jeter received an entire final season, and remained a starter even when his play declined, A-Rod was forced out the door with a (barely) three game goodbye tour and benching. He turned to steroids in 2003 at the end of a time when taking steroids was widely accepted (albeit quietly accepted) to try to live up to the huge contract he was given by the Rangers. He slapped the ball out of Arroyo’s glove to try to come through in the clutch for Yankee fans. He worked tirelessly to improve his game, obsessed over statistics, and indulged in self-loathing when he failed to perform in the playoffs. Rodriguez is not a bad person, but instead an incredibly flawed individual.
What will Rodriguez’s legacy be? A player who, despite all of the talent in the world, never quite reached the top because of his own insecurities. HIs steroid scandals will always taint his achievements (although 696 home runs is still an incredible achievement), his perceived greed and selfishness off-the-field will damage his reputation, and his lack of clutch hitting (2009 aside) will keep him from being a truly great player. As a Yankee fan, I will not try to whitewash his failures. I will shudder when I think of the Slap, or his “ha” moment, or his on-the-field feuding with Jeter. But I will also celebrate his 2009 postseason heroics, or his unbelievable performances, or his revenge on the classless Ryan Dempster.
A-Rod is the type of player you either love, or you love to hate. But it is undeniable that he is the end of an era. With his retirement, the Yankees will begin to turn the page on the 2009 championship team, and baseball will turn the page on one of its last real controversial stars. Rodriguez was never boring to watch. In many ways, he was perfect for New York. But after Rodriguez takes his last at-bat on Friday, he will, above all else, be remembered for being all too human in a game that demanded perfection.