But his best chance at earning goodwill among Yankees fans — and the increasingly hostile baseball public — might have ended before it began.
A-Rod was supposed to return to the Yankees’ lineup Monday in Texas. He would make his critic-defying — if not triumphant — season debut against the Rangers, the franchise for which he won his first MVP award a decade ago. He would be booed, but even that would be a small victory — that he was back, that he was important enough to be jeered again.
But A-Rod will not enjoy that vindication Monday night. He has a Grade 1 strain of his left quadriceps. He is returning to Tampa, Fla., for rest and treatment. When he celebrates his 38th birthday this week, he will do so on the disabled list. He will have too much time to contemplate the uncertainty before him, because this is not merely a sore quadriceps muscle. This is — months removed from hip surgery — one more indication that Rodriguez’s body might not be able to withstand the everyday rigors of professional baseball.
Rodriguez has hit 647 home runs in the major leagues, more than every player in baseball history except Bonds, Aaron, Ruth and Mays. He won three MVP awards in five years. He even earned his elusive World Series ring in 2009, hitting .365 with six homers in that postseason.
This is a man who used to dominate the sport. Now he has almost completely lost control of his legacy. For the image-obsessed Rodriguez, that must be frightening.
A-Rod never was especially popular among fans, reporters, or other players. Jealousy — of his fame, his riches, his numbers, his matinee idol looks — was part of the reason. But his ability always demanded respect. Many of his greatest ovations at Yankee Stadium came after revelations of his steroid use before the 2009 season, simply because it was in that year that his clutch hitting helped the Yankees win a title. However Yankees fans felt about him personally, they applauded his home runs that autumn as if he had become a true legend in pinstripes.
It’s different now. The Biogenesis investigation could mar A-Rod’s reputation with a performance-enhancing drug suspension in the coming weeks or months. But that’s only part of the reason. Remember: Yankees fans cheered him in 2009 even though they knew he had cheated. The more significant change is that Rodriguez isn’t a very good baseball player anymore.
We have plenty of evidence that American baseball fans are willing to celebrate superstars who are accused of steroid use, as long as they (a) play for the home team and (b) perform. We saw it with the Giants and Bonds. We saw it with the Dodgers and Manny Ramirez. We’re seeing it with the Brewers and Ryan Braun. Even this year, we had a chance to see it with the Yankees and Rodriguez.
As badly as A-Rod looked in the postseason last year — 3 for 25, 12 strikeouts — this week offered the opportunity for redemption. The Yankees, fourth in the unrelenting American League East, need a spark. They’ve had the worst production at third base of any team in the majors this year. Even if Rodriguez could replicate last year’s disappointing performance — a .783 OPS — the effort would be viewed as mildly heroic.
Instead, his 37-year-old quadriceps declined to cooperate. So we’re back to talking about his body breaking down, his link to Biogenesis, and the worst contract in baseball history (four years and $86 million after this season). When he’s not in the batter’s box, it’s easy to call A-Rod one of the most loathed star athletes in the history of American professional sports. And unless he contributes meaningfully to a postseason effort this year — or, less likely, next year — that is how he will be remembered.
At this point, the Hall of Fame should be a non-issue for Rodriguez. His chances of election appear slim, based on results of other candidates linked to PEDs. And in the event that the electorate becomes more tolerant of PED use over time, his raw numbers are Cooperstown-worthy. Thus the discussion is effectively closed, one way or the other.
But to the extent that A-Rod cares about his place in the game’s history — and he does — he should have one objective in his remaining years (months?) as an active player: He must establish one major league ballpark at which he can be cheered when he throws out a ceremonial first pitch at 50 years old. He has played for three franchises, and there’s little indication that the first two — Seattle and Texas — are eager to renew ties with him.
That leaves the Yankees. And the outlook is not good.
In time, New York fans will delete their smartphone recordings of A-Rod’s home run off Joe Nathan in the ’09 playoffs. But they won’t forget how his contract — grounded in juiced numbers — has hamstrung the team’s payroll. And they will feel deceived for having forgiven him four years ago, if the Biogenesis allegations are proven true.
A-Rod has one avenue through which he can earn their adulation again, and that is if he returns — very soon — and helps to save the Yankees’ season. But now he’s idled by a sore left leg, and there is nowhere for him to go.