A-Rod, Superscar

Who’s the most despised player in baseball history? Ty Cobb was a virulent racist who sharpened his spikes to slash the shins of infielders who got in his way. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox took money to throw the World Series. There’s Barry Bonds, of course, but at least Bonds wasn’t booed—much—in his own home ballpark. My nominee for the most despised player in baseball history can be found by glancing at the back page of just about any New York Daily News or New York Post or just about any column by Mike Lupica.

The Daily News’ Bill Madden has been calling at the top of his voice for weeks for the Yankees to lose Rodriguez: “Cut him loose, no matter the cost,” he wrote in a Feb. 9 story. Apparently, Madden doesn’t care that a part of the cost would be the Yankees’ only real chance to win the AL East (to say nothing of A-Rod’s absence forcing Madden and Mike Lupica to go back to real sportswriting).

The fans hate A-Rod—at least some of them do, though it’s not clear that anything like a majority hates him—because the New York press hates him. And the New York press hated him long before the revelation that he took PEDs. As Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post nearly three years ago (June 16, 2006), “His standing is lower in New York today than in any of his three Yankee seasons. None of his good deeds on the field have any sustainability.” Mike Mussina was widely quoted as saying that Rodriguez was being subjected to “lethal booing.” Alex Belth of the Bronx Banter Web site called A-Rod’s local press coverage “the most poisonous of any player I’ve ever seen in New York.”

If it was just a question of attitude and work ethic, Rodriguez would be at the top of everyone’s popularity list. As Joe Torre (and/or Tom Verducci) put it in a passage of The Yankee Years that seemed to escape everyone’s notice: “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. … 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.”

And this, credited to Torre: “Nobody has ever worked harder in my memory than this guy. … Nobody works harder than Alex.”

What, exactly, has Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, a supremely talented but otherwise vapid and shallow young man, done to turn the sports press of our largest city into such a state of near hysteria? Rodriguez has never been known to party with bootleggers or hang his manager by his ankles from the caboose of a train or eat hotdogs in the dugout, as Babe Ruth did. He didn’t hold out for more money during a world war, as Joe DiMaggio did. He doesn’t pout and sulk and smash water coolers with baseball bats when he strikes out, like Mickey Mantle. He does not brag that “I’m the straw that stirs the drink” and nearly punch out his manager on national TV, as Reggie Jackson did.

So what sins has Alex Rodriguez committed? Well, he slapped a baseball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove while running to first base during Game Six of the 2004 American League Championship Series. He made a snotty remark about Derek Jeter to a writer from Esquire. He took off his shirt in Central Park. And for three years at Texas he used substances for which there was then no penalty in Major League Baseball before voluntarily submitting to drug tests. That’s pretty much it.

Yet, despite being the best all-around player in the game over the last five seasons, he—not terrible pitching, bad decisions by the front office, or Joe Torre’s uninspired managing—is the primary reason the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in the five years Rodriguez has been there. Why is Alex Rodriguez disliked so intensely by so many?

First, and always, there’s the contract. Ah, yes, the contract—or we should say contracts? A-Rod has never been forgiven for getting a 10-year, $252 million deal from Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks in 2000. For some reason, it has always been overlooked that just prior to acquiring A-Rod, the Rangers negotiated a 10-year, $250 million cable agreement hooked to the team’s signing a major Latin star (Hispanics being the expanding market for cable). Essentially, Hicks passed on the money from the cable package to Rodriguez while acquiring baseball’s biggest star and reaping the revenues from increased tickets sales, etc. Hicks now says he feels personally “betrayed” by Rodriguez’s admission of steroid use while with Texas, though apparently not enough to offer Rangers fans a rebate.

What also went unmentioned is that the Yankees picked up Rodriguez from the Rangers at a bargain price. George Steinbrenner only had to pay half of his salary, with Hicks picking up the balance. Derek Jeter, who never approached Rodriguez’s production at the plate or in the field, cost the Yankees substantially more.

So in 2007, Rodriguez put a gun to the Steinbrenners’ collective heads and forced them to give him a 10-year, $275 million contract. The local sports press, always quick to tell baseball management how they should spend their money, neglected to tell us how the Yankees could field a team good enough to fill the new Yankee Stadium (at exorbitant ticket prices) without A-Rod.

A-Rod, Superscar