Editor's note: Jason Brannon is a guest columnist who is filling in for Rob Neyer, who is on vacation.
My mom doesn't know who Alex Rodriguez is.
I just called her and asked if she could identify a bunch of pro athletes. Mom's not much of a sports fan, but she at least recognized the names of Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal, Brett Favre and Vijay Singh (Vijay Singh?).
It gets better. Derek Jeter? Drew Bledsoe? Lance Armstrong?
Jeff Gordon? Davis Love III? Yevgeny Kafelnikov?
Check, check, and check.
Wait ... Yevgeny Kafelnikov?! What?!
Kafelnikov is, as far as I can tell, a tennis player or something. I happened to come across his name in the sports pages. Anyhoo, back to Mom ...
How about Alex Rodriguez?
"Hmm ... No. Does he play football?"
Just as I suspected. Why, o Lord, does my mother, who I am using here to stand in for all of America, have no idea who the best (non-Barry Bonds) baseball player in the world is? Why is our National Pastime's second-greatest player not a household name across this blessed land of ours?
I think I know why.
He's boring. Well, for all I know, he's the life of the party, but what I mean is that Alex is "boring" in the same way that Pete Sampras is boring, or that Tiger Woods is boring (and did you ever notice how similar Tiger and Alex are?). Alex doesn't attract unnecessary attention to himself, and if he's ever said anything remotely interesting while being interviewed, I missed it. He just plays baseball and lets his performance speak for itself. Also, he never gets into any trouble. Can you imagine reading in the paper that Rodriguez had been waving a gun somewhere, or doing drugs, or that he'd gotten a woman pregnant? No, it's unthinkable. He's genuinely admirable, and being a good guy won't get your name in the paper. You gotta shoot somebody. Or at least stab them.
He doesn't play in a major media market. No offense to the fine citizens of the greater Metroplex, but Rodriguez would obviously be much more well known if he played for the Yankees or the Red Sox. He doesn't, though, and this ought to be celebrated; baseball doesn't exist solely for the amusement of America's greatest cities.
When a nominally mid-market team finds the resources to sign a player of Rodriguez's caliber, you might expect that the owner of such a team would be praised for his efforts. Instead, the opposite happened. Rangers owner Tom Hicks was excoriated by the press and his fellow owners for signing Rodriguez to such a large contract. Bad for baseball, you see.
He doesn't play for a winning team. Through no fault of his own, the Rangers have not fielded a good team since Alex arrived. He has never played in a World Series game, and thus has never had the opportunity to shine on a national stage like Brooks Robinson, Reggie Jackson, or his good buddy Derek Jeter. Rodriguez was in the playoffs a couple times with the Mariners and batted .340 with power, but the Division Series ain't the World Series. In baseball, the best, most lasting impressions are made in the Fall Classic.
MLB isn't helping. Now, this may come as something of a shock if you've spent the last few years on a deserted island, but Major League Baseball does a pretty lousy job of promoting itself (unless you think the maudlin Field of Dreams references that have become de rigueur at all MLB events are bringing a lot of fans to the game). And to some degree, MLB is complicit in Rodriguez's lack of popularity. Commissioner Selig's pronouncements of him have tended to focus on the "harm" his salary has done rather than his revolutionary performance, which is a shame.
The media aren't helping, either. It is nearly impossible to read anything about Alex without the obligatory reference to "$252 million," and how this is somehow "bad for baseball." Whether sheer envy or laziness is to blame for this, I don't know, but it's long past time for Rodriguez to be reflexively described by his contract.
Rodriguez is handsomely paid (I know, and it gets chilly in Antarctica). In fact, he is the highest-paid player in the major leagues (and appropriately so). Two hundred and fifty million dollars is a lot of money, no matter how you slice it.
However, is his annual salary that much higher than, say, Manny Ramirez's or Derek Jeter's? Manny's contract calls for him to make about $20 million per season (I'm simplifying here; there are bonuses and deferred money to consider), yet you never read about his contract being "bad for baseball." By 2005, Derek Jeter will be making $20 million a season. Should he be criticized for this? Should George Steinbrenner? If Alex's (roughly) $25 million annual salary is awful for baseball -- as most fans and sportswriters seem to agree -- then aren't Jeter's and Ramirez's contracts bad for the game, too? At what point does a player's salary become detrimental to the sport? Is the figure $20 million? Is it when the length of the deal exceeds eight years? Where's the consistency? Somebody please help me out here.
It would be ridiculous, and a little sad, if we, as baseball fans, let envy over Alex's salary get in the way of our enjoyment of his career. Why should we begrudge him his money, especially when he doesn't flaunt it and seems to appreciate his good fortune?
Alex Rodriguez is the best shortstop since Honus Wagner, and before his career is over, we may well decide that he's better than even the Flying Dutchman. He combines one of the most potent bats in the game with outstanding defense at the most important defensive position. What's more, he is just entering his prime years. He's likeable, he's fun to watch, and he's unbelievably talented.
So pay attention, already.
Jason Brannon is the author of The Base-ball Matches. His favorite band is Cheap Trick.