Remember when A-Rod was a choker, a traitor and a girlie man? Remember when he was vilified for accepting a contract that effectively crippled an organization and became a symbol of all that was wrong with baseball?
All of that seems like a distant memory now. Hard to call a guy who is contending for a third AL MVP trophy a choker. Hard to think he’s a traitor now that even Jeter — the guy he threw under the bus in a 2001 Esquire magazine article — seems to have forgiven him. Really tough to think he’s a girlie man after the revelation that both A-Rod and his girlfriend could beat us up.
These days there’s only one way to view A-Rod: as a potential savior. And how weird is that?
A-Rod got booed by New York fans last year. His manager called him “sensitive” and moved him down in the batting order late in the playoffs. Twice in the last three years he’s been called “bush league” (once by Curt Schilling, after Rodriguez tried to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove, and once by Howie Clark after A-Rod yelled and caused him to drop an easy infield pop-up).
But forget all of that. The past is that past. The present is Barry Bonds. And if we want our home run records to mean anything, the future needs to be A-Rod.
We used to resent Rodriguez’s $250 million contract. But the argument that overpaid players is what’s wrong with baseball seems quaint in the steroids era. We used to begrudge the fact that he’s yet to win a championship. But he’s still got time and besides, if the Yankees don’t win this year, it won’t be A-Rod’s fault. He’s been the real deal.
So rooting for A-Rod has gotten easier. But it still feels funny. After all, it was only one year ago that ESPN The Magazine scribe Eric Neel wrote a story about why fans take so much pleasure in despising the best player in baseball. He concluded that it’s because we think he’s soft:
We call him a choker and a poseur. We call for the Yankees to trade him. We beat him about the head with Jeter Sticks and Papi Clubs. We tease his look. We hyperparse his words. We downplay his every success, boo his every pop-up, and hiss his every miscue. “I’ve never seen a player this good this vilified,” says Kay, who also broadcasts Yankee games for the YES network. “It’s amazing to me.”
Of course, that was then, before A-Rod launched his campaign to become Mr. Yankee by swatting game-winning homer after game-winning homer, and before Bonds left us desperately searching for an unenhanced hero.
And that hero is A-Rod, or else it is nobody. Rodriguez is the only guy with a legit chance of passing Bonds. He is the second fastest player to hit 500 home runs. And the guy who got there the fastest, Babe Ruth, broke down late in his career because he was fat and an alcoholic. Rodriguez, as far as we know, has no serious health problems or destructive habits, plus he’s got access to a top notch training staff.
Unfortunately, as Jayson Stark points out, it is no gimmie that A-Rod will pass Bonds as baseball’s all-time home run leader.
And if you think it’s so easy to hit 275 home runs at this stage of a career, consider this: Only six players in history have ever done it — Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, McGwire and Palmeiro. And there are, shall we say, serious performance-enhancement questions about half of that group.
So it comes down to this: we desperately want A-Rod to break Bonds’ record. We need him to restore some credibility to baseball’s most revered milestone. But history tells us that it is extremely unlikely that Rodriguez will continue to hit homers at his current rate — unless he starts taking performance enhancers. And that would defeat the point.
Then again, it’s possible that A-Rod is already using steroids (or HGH, or the cream). Jose Canseco has a new book coming out and he’s hinted that Rodriguez will be mentioned.
For now, there’s no way to know if Rodriguez is clean, or if he’ll hit the remaining 250-odd home runs needed to pass Bonds. All we know is this: A-Rod is our best chance at reclaiming baseball’s most revered record. So we better get used to rooting for him.