Love of the game?

There’s no point in trying to clean up Alex Rodriguez’s brilliant, infuriating, destructive, dazzling and altogether messy baseball career. He was, in so many ways, the player of his time. He was the most athletic and powerful shortstop to ever play baseball. He hit the simplest-looking home runs of the home run era — the ball would leap off his bat, like a ski jumper, and it would soar impossibly high and glide over fences. Baseball announcers, time and again, would begin a call and then watch A-Rod’s ball go and say: “Wow, that’s still going.”

He hired the most zealous agent in the business and together they unblushingly chased the biggest money prizes they could get. He managed to tick off teammates and reporters and fans just by being himself. And, of course, he used performance-enhancing drugs, lied about using performance-enhancing drugs, admitted using performance-enhancing drugs, tearfully apologized about using performance-enhancing drugs and then got caught using them all over again.

And if you spent any time at all around Alex Rodriguez, well, you didn’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that, like Charles Foster Kane, he longed for love — love of his teammates, love of fans, love of baseball history.

“That’s why he did everything,” Jedediah Leland said of Kane. “All he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story — it’s the story of how he lost it.”

There has never been a better baseball prospect than Alex Rodriguez. Yes, there have been some mega-hyped prospects (Darryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr., Bryce Harper for starters) but none of them, not even Harper, was as COMPLETE as the 18-year-old A-Rod. Boston Red Sox executive Allard Baird tells the story of scouting A-Rod in high school and sending in a report so dazzling — he rated A-Rod as a Hall of Fame-caliber player if he was sent to the Major Leagues THAT VERY DAY — that he was trembling with fear as he sent it in.

Baird would never again rate a player that high, but that’s because he never again would see a player that awesome, that versatile, that well-rounded, that (dare he say it) perfect. There are five tools in baseball, right?

HITTING — A-Rod had the purest hitting stroke Baird had ever seen.

POWER — Even as a skinny-ish kid in Miami, A-Rod’s swing was so flawless that power just flowed from him, like the Force.

SPEED — People forget, the young Alex Rodriguez could fly. He was 35-for-35 stealing bases as a high school senior, and in his third full year in the big leagues he would steal 46 bases.

DEFENSE — He was a magician at shortstop.

ARM — Believe it or not, Baird thought A-Rod’s arm was his BEST tool.

In addition to the tools, a scout’s job is to try and measure the attitude — the player’s heart, as the cliche goes. And heart was actually Rodriguez’s best quality. He so clearly loved baseball. He played with extreme joy. He was one of those players who made the game look impossibly fun. Baird wasn’t only predicting stardom for Rodriguez. He was predicting superstardom; he fully expected Rodriguez to become the most beloved player of his generation. And A-Rod expected that, too.

We all know the story of how that collapsed. Rodriguez was, in his first few years in Seattle, absolutely incredible and few people seemed to notice because, I don’t know… time zones or something? There had never been anyone like him. In his age-20 season, he hit .358, led the league in runs, doubles and total bases. He played incredible shortstop. He probably should have been league MVP, which would have made him the youngest MVP by a couple of years. But the writers inexplicably chose Juan Gonzalez because RBIs or something.

And then, impossibly, Rodriguez got better. At 22, he had a 40-homer, 40-stolen base season and was probably the best player in the league again (the MVP went back to Gonzalez but this time it didn’t directly affect A-Rod — he finished a distant ninth in the voting). Two years later, Rodriguez added 100 walks to his superior shortstop defense, high average, big power — he was again probably the best player in the league. He finished a distant third in the MVP voting to Jason Giambi and Frank Thomas, a couple of sluggers who didn’t even pretend to play defense.

The lack of respect — the lack of love — obviously rankled him. At free-agency time, Rodriguez and agent Scott Boras made it clear that they had every intention of shaking up the world, every desire to let America know that this Alex Rodriguez guy was not a great player, he was THE great player, the consummate player, the ideal player, better than anyone.

And they signed a deal with Texas that dropped jaws all over the country. Through the years, baseball players have set records with big deals, but this one was on a whole other level. Even now, 15 years later, A-Rod’s 10-year, $252 million deal in 2001 ranks as the third-largest in baseball history. And one of the two deals ahead of it was the one A-Rod himself signed later as an extension with the Yankees.

People always say with some feeling: “You can’t blame someone for going after the money.” But let’s be honest, baseball fans DO blame players for doing that, especially when the player seems to be ALL about the money. The Rangers were terrible when A-Rod signed there. They had no real history. The Dallas sports landscape had Cowboys first, and Cowboys second, and Cowboys third, and somewhere in the long list that followed were the Rangers. If he wasn’t signing for the cash, why else? It was a clear and unabashed money-grab. And fans booed A-Rod for taking it.

He was ridiculously good in Texas, of course. The Ballpark at Arlington was a hitters’ paradise then, the hot air served his hits the way it serves hot-air balloons. In his three years A-Rod hit 52, 57 and 47 homers. He won two Gold Gloves. He even won his first MVP Award. But the Rangers continued to stink, and Rodriguez no longer represented the joyful, unlimited player of his youth. Fans, the harshest ones, threw big balls of money at him.

And then, in a desperate move to get people to like him again, he offered to take less money and he forced a trade to the Yankees. It’s not entirely clear why he thought that would get people to like him more.

Well, in fairness he tried first to force a trade to the Red Sox. That didn’t work out. So it was the Yankees, and of course the Yankees already had their shortstop and their hero in Derek Jeter. There was no vacancy for heroes and idols. And it really didn’t matter if A-Rod was a better shortstop (he was) or a better player (he was), Jeter had already already cemented his place in Monument Park with his consistent excellence, his quiet leadership and his knack for doing memorable things at the right moment. A-Rod never had a chance.

Then, he started stinking it up in the playoffs, which only confirmed the image of choker the Yankees fans had of him in the first place. In 2007, Rodriguez had one of the legendary seasons in Yankee history with 54 homers and 143 runs and 156 RBIs. He mashed with runners in scoring position, banged three grand slams and had a year that wouldn’t look out of line in the career of Mantle or Gehrig or DiMaggio. But he was blah in the playoffs, the Yankees lost in the first round, and once the flogging continued.

It didn’t help that A-Rod was also awkward in public, a tabloid back-page punchline waiting to happen. There was the weird Madonna period. There was the popcorn-feeding incident with Cameron Diaz. There were the reports of A-Rod having not one, but TWO paintings of himself a a centaur. The harder he tried to be a New York celebrity, the more ridiculous he became.

And, then, of course: The PEDs. There isn’t much left to say about his PED use — the one thing I remember most was the time he told a reporter on “60 Minutes” that he didn’t use PEDs because he did not have to, because the game always came so easily to him. He was so desperate for everyone to believe that about him — that the game came easy. He was so desperate, I think, to believe it about himself.

The second drug fight was ugly and made everyone involved look terrible. A-Rod was suspended for a year. And then we had the surprising and oddly touching ending. Instead of returning with bombast or fury, Rodriguez mostly kept to himself. He made no excuses. He asked for no forgiveness. He simply said that he wanted to be a better person and then he went about being that better person. When controversies began to bubble, he defused them quickly. It turns out he had one more productive season left in him as he hit 33 home runs at age 39.

This year, though, he was clearly done. The numbers — .204 average, .356 slugging percentage, more than a strikeout per game — are the obituary. The only question left was how ugly the finish would be; the Yankees still owe A-Rod 20-plus million bucks for 2017.

Well — no ugliness at the end. As has become his personality, Rodriguez quietly said goodbye. Whatever money agreement he worked out with the Yankees, that is between the teams. The Yankees told Rodriguez they have to move on.  And A-Rod, in his own words, has made peace with it. He will retire. And he will join the Yankees as an adviser.

“I do want to be remembered as someone who was deeply in love with baseball,” he said. But he knows that is not how people will remember him. The career was too complicated and murky for such a simple legacy. In the end, Allard Baird was right — Alex Rodriguez was absolutely a Hall of Fame player. But at this point it’s impossible to say if he will actually be voted into the Hall of Fame. And that’s his legacy.

Or this: All he really wanted out of baseball was love. That’s Alex’s story — how he lost it.

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