The following column appears in the April 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
A friend asked me this question last week: How many consecutive columns could I extract from Alex Rodriguez?
My final answer: 10. No modern athlete brings more to the idea table. He plays in New York for a team that stopped making the World Series as soon as he arrived. He has made statistical history but cheated to do it. He's our highest-paid athlete in a tanking economy. He's the star client of this generation's most despised agent. He's handsome and articulate, only his polished personality is so contrived nobody can connect to him. If gossip rags and blogs had a Thank God for This Athlete fantasy draft, he'd unquestionably be the first pick.
We love to question clutch; he's notorious for coming through in small moments and choking in big ones. We love shortening sports names into catchy monikers; "A-Rod" works perfectly. We love taking those monikers and turning them into catty jokes; "A-Roid" works perfectly. We love "what ifs?" and he's provided two classics: What if that trade to Boston had happened, and what if the 2004 Yanks had finished that sweep at Fenway and A-Rod had become a playoff hero?
It's an embarrassment of column-related riches. A-Rod has even shattered the Tyson Zone: when an athlete's life turns so bizarre you become numb to any twist in his story. A-Rod allegedly broke up Madonna's marriage? I'm not blinking. A-Rod kissed himself for a magazine photo shoot? I'm unfazed. A-Rod is having a torrid romance with conjoined twins? If you say so. He's A-Rod, dammit. I'm prepared for anything.
My favorite current A-Rod story line is his allegedly toxic affect on his teammates. The Yankees left spring training with, by all accounts, their best team chemistry in years. Credit was given to congenial arrivals CC Sabathia and Nick Swisher. But there was an underlying theme pushed by the media: A-Rod's absence while he recovered from hip surgery resulted in a more relaxed atmosphere. This wasn't the first time he seemed to unite a team simply by disappearing: It happened when he left Seattle (the Mariners jumped from 91 W's to 116) and Texas (71 to 89). As the theory goes, the never-ending circus that surrounds A-Rod -- his constant craving for attention multiplied by the nonstop media focus -- eventually overwhelms teammates and affects their play.
There's only one problem with the theory: It's not true.
Of all the ways A-Rod has been described over the years, nobody has ever used "bad person." We hear he's awkward, needy, annoying, easily rattled, humorless, obsessed with his image, unsure of himself and unable to fit into a group dynamic. Jason Gay, who profiled him recently for Details magazine, claimed that, out to dinner, A-Rod made his order based on how he wanted Gay to perceive it, not by what he wanted. He's simply a strange guy, not someone you'd want to drive cross-country with, for sure. But he's not a bad guy.
Comparing him with Barry Bonds, it's no contest. Bonds hogged three lockers, disparaged teammates, antagonized media members and allegedly cheated to get an edge. He sounded like an unequivocal nightmare, a perfect storm of rudeness. Other notorious cancers (Carl Everett, Albert Belle, Jeff Kent, Ugueth Urbina) earned their reputations by being hotheaded or fighting teammates or barking at team employees. In the end, even Manny went to the dark side, becoming such a distraction that Boston paid the Dodgers to take him.
Now explain this to me: How did teams "miraculously" succeed with every player in the previous paragraph? Everett won a ring with the White Sox. Kent and Bonds came within bullpen collapses of winning one of their own. A famous goofball like Manny won two rings, played on 10 playoff teams and (very, very secretly) compiled one of the most successful résumés in baseball history. Heck, Urbina closed for Florida's 2003 title team and went to prison four years later for hacking two Venezuelan ranch hands with a machete and pouring gasoline over them. He hacked them with a machete and poured gasoline over them! Think this was a good guy?
Look, we love to romanticize clubhouse chemistry, mainly because we don't understand it, but also because it's a story line with legs. These guys didn't win because they were good, they won because they got along! They lifted one another, looked out for one another! They were a team! You know, the "Hoosiers" model. Does this apply to basketball, football and hockey? Absolutely. You can't succeed individually without help from teammates, and you can fail individually because of teammates. That fragile dynamic cannot be compromised.
But baseball … baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. You are a worker bee. You have a job, and it's up to you to execute it. Yeah, it's always better to get along, but couldn't you say that about any work situation? Ultimately, it's just you. You're the one pitching, you're the one hitting, you're the one fielding. If everyone is pulling for one another, fantastic. You can even win a division that way -- good karma invariably leads to goofy bounces and luck. On the other hand, the deliriously happy post-Manny Red Sox mustered just three hits in their biggest game of the season (Game 7, 2008 ALCS). At some point in baseball, talent trumps all.
Don't believe me? Read Sparky Lyle's "The Bronx Zoo" for the hilarious Reggie Jackson stories. Reggie made Bonds seem more saintly than the blind guy on "American Idol." There was no bigger jerk or attention hog. During an era in which ballplayers behaved a certain way (reserved, respectful, hard-nosed, unselfish), Reggie made his own rules. For that, his teammates reviled him. Actually, they probably wanted to strangle him.
They also won the 1977 and '78 World Series with him.
Throw in three titles in Oakland and Reggie Jackson -- the biggest clubhouse cancer of his generation -- won five rings in seven years. Which makes me think baseball chemistry is more overrated than Tim Burton. If that's even possible.
I will even go this far: There are undeniable positives to having one antisocial wild card in any close-knit environment. You know that one grating guy in your dorm hall or in your office? Don't you like bitching about him? You lob grenades at him as soon as he leaves the room. He's your running joke, an easy target. But he's also a galvanizing force, one of the few things that bring everyone else together: a mutual contempt for one human being that won't go away. You're stuck with him, so you make the best of it -- by belittling him.
It's a common bond of sorts. Even as you believe he's tearing your group apart, he's bringing it closer and distracting anyone from turning on someone else. He's your mean decoy, your Paula Abdul, your Newman. He's your necessary evil.
So yes, the Yankees might not miss A-Rod right now. But give them a few weeks. Every group needs an outcast just like every columnist needs a go-to guy for his column. The 2009 Yankees may not appreciate Alex Rodriguez yet, but I sure do. I won't write 10 A-Rod columns, but I could, and maybe that's all that matters.
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