A tragedy is a literary device used to emphasize the continued misfortune of a specific character in a story, often the hero. The plotline includes three elements: pride, sin, and downfall. A story stranger than fiction at times, Alex Rodriguez played the role of both the hero and villain with every ingredient we need for a literal tragedy.
The voting for this year’s class of nominees for the National Baseball Hall of Fame has come and gone, and A-Rod earned 34.3% of the votes, almost 31% short of meeting the necessary 75% threshold. While it’s been difficult to muster up sympathy for A-Rod, his career was a true tragedy.
The Seattle Years – The Pride
The Seattle Mariners drafted A-Rod at 17 years old out of Westminster Christian School in Miami, FL with the first overall pick of the 1993 MLB Amateur draft. He made his debut for the Mariners a little more than a year later at 18 years old. In just 17 games in his inaugural season, he hit .204, stole three bases, and drove in two runs. It certainly wasn’t the start the M’s or the rookie were looking for, but it was still early.
Rodriguez exceeded his rookie limits in the 1995 season as he appeared in 48 games and hit .232. A significant step up from his debut season and garnered him a fairly significant role in the M’s Game 5 win over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. He scored the tying run in the eighth inning after taking over for Tino Martinez on second base to pinch run. Skipper Lou Piniella appeared willing to stick with the youngster as Rodriguez was the on-deck batter waiting with Joey Cora as Ken Griffey Jr. scored the winning run.
Rodriguez spent his first full season as an everyday big leaguer for the Mariners during the 1996 season and made his impact felt early as he hit a walk-off single in the 11th inning on Opening Day against the Chicago White Sox. At just 20 years old, A-Rod announced his presence with authority and led the AL in runs scored, doubles, total bases, and batting average. He was named to his first All-Star team and finished second in the MVP voting. (Oddly enough, a team with Rodriguez, Griffey, Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martinez finished 85-76 and missed the playoffs.)
In 1998, Rodriguez put up a 40-40 season with 42 homers and 46 stolen bases, was named to the AL All-Star team, and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He was already well on his way to a career worthy of entry to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.
His tenure in Seattle ended after getting eliminated from the 2000 ALCS by the Yankees. That season, he led the Mariners with a WAR of 10.4, which also made him the top free-agent target on the market. Seattle fans loved their player, but the writing was on the wall: A-Rod was gone. He signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, which was the largest contract in the history of North American sports at the time.
The Texas Years – The Sin
The Rangers certainly got what they paid for right out of the gate. Their hero had arrived, and he was meant to take them to a World Series. The 2001 season was by far A-Rod’s best yet. He led the league in runs scored, home runs, and total bases, then finished sixth in MVP voting with yet another All-Star team on his resume. If that wasn’t enough, he improved on his first season with 57 homers in 2002 and 142 RBIs, good enough for a second-place finish in the MVP race. He won the MVP in 2003 and showed the beginning of what we were to see going forward with 47 dingers and led the league with a .600 slugging percentage. In 2002 and 2003, his home run totals were also enough to lead the league each year. While Rodriguez was the pride of Texas for the first three years of his decade-long contract, the Rangers never finished with a winning record and decided it was time to move on. He was traded to the Yankees on Feb. 16, 2004.
While he emerged as a star in the league, the stark increase in Rodriguez’s performance in Texas was met with some hesitation. Rumors were swirling that he had been using steroids, and that was what had contributed to his massive numbers, rather than simply budding in a new location. During a 2007 “60 Minutes” interview, a denial of such accusations temporarily put the discussion to bed. As it turned out, he was.
He admitted in an interview years later that the pressure of his massive contract made him feel like he had to perform, so steroids were the answer. While reasonable, still illegal.
The New York Years – The Downfall
The Yankees saw A-Rod continue to soar into stardom. He won two more MVP awards, led the league in homers twice, was named to seven more All-Star teams, and helped the team win a World Series. However, he became more of a caricature of his former self as he was pulling stunts like slapping a ball out of the glove of Boston Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove during the 2004 ALCS, yelling “Ha!” at a pair of Toronto Blue Jays infielders as a pop fly fell to the turf, then was suspended for 50 games for a positive performance-enhancing drugs test in February 2009.
The downfall of our hero was far and mighty. Who once was the highly touted prospect, the successor to Seattle in baseball, the face of the Rangers, and the new king of New York, was now a known cheater.
After a couple of years of work to rehabilitate his image that included playing out of his mind for the Yankees’ 2009 title run and hitting his 600th career home run, A-Rod tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs again in August of 2013. He received an unprecedented 211-game ban for his second positive test but appealed, and it was reduced to 162 games by an arbitrator.
During his lengthy appeal process and before the suspension took effect, Rodriguez continued to draw the ire of both fans and players. Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster beaned A-Rod in his first appearance since his lengthy suspension was announced. There was joy in Mudville that day and everywhere else across the nation as our former hero reached rock bottom.
The end of A-Rod’s career was but a footnote in the annals of baseball history. Nobody cared when he hit home run number 660. Nobody cared when he passed Willie Mays six days later. There was a sigh of relief in New York and across the nation when the Yankees released him on Aug. 12, 2016. He was untouchable and floated into the ether as his career was over.
Retirement – The Fall Out
It’s easy to see that Rodriguez put together a Hall-of-Fame career. By all means, the numbers alone without context would get him in the Hall. However, the pride of a Yankee who wanted to be the best of the best led to sin in steroids, which was the downfall of our hero. It’s safe to say that it’s unlikely Alex Rodriguez gets into the Hall of Fame anytime in the next nine years. A truly tragic ending to what started as a heroic career.