However it shakes out, A-Rod still a great player

February, 7, 2009
Today -- Feb. 7, 2009 -- a date which will live in infamy

At least for Alex Rodriguez.

His image, so obviously, so often clumsily constructed, has been shattered into a million tiny pieces. You could say whatever you wanted about his astronomical salaries and his postseason struggles and his "Single White Female" relationship with Derek Jeter, but you couldn't argue that he wasn't perhaps the most talented baseball player on the planet.

Until now, perhaps. Now, some of the pundits will argue that A-Rod wasn't so great after all; and further, that even if he was a great player, his (alleged) cheating should taint his entire legacy and perhaps even keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

But then there's this …

I'm reading Tom Verducci's new book, and flagging passages worth returning to later. As you've no doubt heard, most of the material about Alex Rodriguez isn't particularly flattering. I've flagged most of those parts. But I also flagged this one:

    Rodriguez did impress his teammates with a relentless work ethic. They found him to be the baseball equivalent of a gym rat. He knew everything going on around baseball and he never stopped working. One night in 2007 he showed up in the dugout 10 minutes before the first pitch with blood dripping from his hands and knees. "What the hell happened to you?" somebody asked.

    Rodriguez explained that he just had been running full tilt on the treadmill in the weight room when the belt broke and he went flying off the back end of the machine, skinning his hands and knees as he was thrown into a wall. Who the hell ran at sprinting speed on a treadmill right before a game was about to start? The most talented player in baseball did. That was A-Rod, too.

    "Nobody has ever worked harder in my memory than this guy," [Joe] Torre said. "Jeter, I'm sure he does his weight work in the wintertime. In the summertime he gets dressed and gets the hell out of there. He doesn't hang out. Nobody's in better shape than Alex. Nobody works harder than Alex. For a star player, who gets there as early as he gets there, and still he might hear Coach Larry Bowa say, 'You need to take groundballs.' And he'll do whatever it takes. He'll do it all the time. He's just a workaholic."

    Said Bowa, "If he missed on a slow roller, the next day he's out there early and we're working on slow rollers. If he missed a backhand, the next day we're working on backhands. This guy would be the first one to admit, 'I need to work on that,' or, 'I didn't approach that ball the right way, so let's go work on it.' And that's why he was such a great player."

I hope Alex Rodriguez didn't cheat. If we do find out that he cheated, I will wish that he hadn't. But whatever happens, I'm not going to change my opinion that he's a great baseball player. Like many of the greatest players, he'll do whatever it takes to be the best player he can be. For a stretch of five or 10 years -- and yes, perhaps even today still -- being the best player could have meant cheating. Maybe the cheaters were wrong; that's the direction in which I lean, probably because I've got a streak of the moralist in me. But I will not sit idly while great athletes looking for an edge -- not all that different from the many generations before them -- are demonized by the high priests of baseball opinion. I will not.


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