By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

Though his intention alone will surely bolster the force field around his image, I believe the man was trying to keep it real. In the days before he took Curt Schilling deep to push the Yankees past the Red Sox in the ninth inning of Thursday night's game, Alex Rodriguez honored his roots by proudly declaring he would play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic next spring.

Good for him, I say.

Alex Rodriguez
Getty Images
Hasn't A-Rod taken enough heat?

Of course, there's no stopping Bud Selig from vetoing A-Rod's wishes. Apparently, Selig has told Rodriguez that the decision about which country he represents will be made by the commissioner.

Still, I applaud A-Rod for trying to keep it real.

In sports culture, that term -- keeping it real -- has taken on special significance over the past few years. Sometimes, it's a cop out. Those who quickly resort to a flippant, "I'm just keeping it real," often mean they don't want to put forth the effort to be decent or do the right thing. They'd rather be real, which more often than not is just a flimsy euphemism for being a punk.

But for image-conscious athletes, the concept can be especially poignant. Rodriguez, perhaps more than any other modern athlete, often is perceived as not keeping it real. He is baseball's richest player. He is baseball's best player. He might be baseball's best-looking player. Who could stay "real" in the face of all that?

I don't know many athletes who inspire open jealousy from other professional athletes. But this past spring, when the Red Sox should have been celebrating their status as the defending World Series champions, Trot Nixon and crew were going public with their thinking about A-Rod. I've always thought that if somebody was paying too much attention to one person, he (or they) either wanted to be him or was madly in love with him.

I can see how that could happen with A-Rod. He's a good-looking guy; and from what I can tell, he's pretty lovable. Maybe some of the Sox have a big ol' man-crush on him.

I've listened to dozens of radio-heads and read plenty of print types who say they might like A-Rod more if he would just be himself. Yeah, OK, sure. Like, say, the way Barry Bonds is just being himself? Is Bonds a jerk, or is he just "keeping it real?" Even if Bonds' enemies soften their stances after he's sufficiently healed and passes Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list -- at least briefly, baseball will have to embrace the historical significance -- Barry still won't give a crap what people think.

But A-Rod does give a crap about what people think. And he cares about what his people think. By waving the Dominican flag, he's claiming his heritage in much the same way Jennifer Lopez has claimed hers. You know "Jenny from the Block":

Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got
I'm still Jenny from the block
Used to have a little now I have a lot
No matter where I go, I know where I came from (from the Bronx!)

The chorus -- repeated … what, 500 times? -- was J-Lo's way of saying, "Though I'm crossing over like A.I. and playing in 'The Wedding Planner' and such, I know the love I get from the Bronx will always be the most genuine love I get."

This is very smart on her part. If the basic rule of social acceptance is get in where you fit in, then J-Lo stays one step ahead of the game.

For that matter, so does Chris Rock, the brilliant comic purveyor of all American culture. You may recall that as his somewhat controversial stint as host of the Oscars came to a close, Rock stood on stage and yelled "Brooklyn!" That's because he felt an obligation to remind people that although he had just walked a mile in the shoes of Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, he is still very much that skinny black kid from Bed-Stuy.

It's important to acknowledge the people at home, especially if you have the freedom and inclination to go elsewhere.

Rock has addressed this at other times. During one of his HBO specials, in which he riffed on cats in the 'hood who give more love to the guy just released from prison than they do the guy who has just graduated from college, Rock said something to the effect of, "Keeping it real usually means keeping it real dumb."

Ron Artest
Ron-Ron says things will be different next season.

Which brings us to Ron Artest. They don't come any more "real" than Ron-Ron. Earlier this week at the Pacers' rookie free-agent camp, Artest, speaking about the infamous brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, apologized for his actions. Then he added:  "I'm a ghetto-type guy. I'll be ghetto for the rest of my life. But at the same time, there's a lot of kids who look up to me. For that, I'll change."

That particular term, "ghetto," is an easy tie into a discussion about keeping it real. In the sports culture family of phrases, "ghetto" and "keeping it real" are first cousins.

A lot of folks think "ghetto" is a black thing. But I've seen far too many people who aren't black who live the ghetto life. I spent several years in Indiana, where Artest works, and I saw my share of non-black folks who were living decidedly ghetto lifestyles. "Ghetto" is a socially slick term for limited exposure and single-minded focus. For example, if you routinely drink your wine from a juice glass, it doesn't make you "ghetto" in and of itself. It's just a choice you make. After all, wine is still wine, regardless of the vessel that brings it to your palate.

But if you clown those who drink their wine from say, a wine glass, then you are, indeed, "ghetto."

A non-ghetto person knows he has choices, and employs those choices whenever possible. Artest resorted to ghetto tactics the first time around, there in the Palace. And on that point, I understand him. Regardless of our geographical roots, we all have an occasional ghetto urge which -- in the interest of civilization, sanity, or employment -- must be repressed.  I can't condone what Ron-Ron did. But, man, when he tore into those stands looking for the chap who assumed that athletes were nothing more than zoo animals, and when the offender got all saucer-eyed as he faced a potential beat-down and looked as though he was going to wet his pants, I admit to being a little amused.

Now, Artest is armed with more choices -- it's commonly known as "perspective." The next time he's confronted by a heckler, he'll surely consider the instant gratification he'd get from a repeat performance. But he'll think twice. And should he successfully refrain from violent outburst, he'll still be keeping it real.

Real smart. Just like A-Rod. The man knows exactly who he is, even if no one else does.

Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and the author of "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame."

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