How to root for Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez is the most hated player in baseball, and it's not even close. The Yankees slugger cheated, got caught, apologized, cheated some more, got caught again, and apologized once more, this time with a handwritten note. Amid all that, he blamed everyone but himself for his troubles, sued his own team, and, despite his odiousness, still made mountains of money.
He also plays for the Yankees.
So you can understand why pretty much no one likes A-Rod at this point. And with the 39-year-old coming off a yearlong PED suspension, most fans would rather Rodriguez take his ball and go home than come back and ride out his contract. But though A-Rod is, to use a baseball term, kind of a turd, there's a compelling case for everyone to root for him to succeed.
"Forgiveness" is a foreign concept in New York. This is a team that ditched its last manager because he failed to win the World Series more than, on average, once every three years. And when A-Rod last played, the Yankee Stadium crowd booed him as if he'd just desecrated a Jeter jersey. But with the Yankees mired in a two-year postseason drought, their insatiable fans should hope A-Rod provides more than just entertainment value.
As a team, the Yankees are old and broken and not very good anymore. A-Rod is old and broken, too, but he was still an above-average player the last time he stepped on the field. In 2013, Rodriguez's collective offensive performance was 13 percent better than league average, per OPS+. No regular starter on the 2014 Yankees topped that mark.
"I will do everything I can to be the best player and teammate possible," Rodriguez wrote in his apology letter. Given how hard offense is to come by nowadays, Yankees fans should hope A-Rod really means it — and then pray for some dingers.
Red Sox fans
Dingers are the same reason Red Sox fans can root for Rodriguez. A-Rod is due a series of $6 million bonuses should he crack some home run milestones, the first of which kicks in after six more long balls. The Yankees are trying to void those contractual benefits. It's a ridiculously petty fight, a microcosm of Rodriguez's rocky tenure in the Bronx. But chaos in New York means schadenfreude in Boston, and every A-Rod homer only adds to the madness.
The Yankees might be terrible this year, too, which would only sweeten the sadistic satisfaction. A-Rod blasting 50 homers and collecting grudging bonuses from a moribund franchise whose ownership hates him? Boston would throw that hot mess a duck boat parade.
Admit it: You feel kind of bad for A-Rod. It's ok. He's human after all. And given how absurd his entire adult life has been, it's amazing he didn't turn out any weirder, centaur paintings notwithstanding.
As a 20-year-old, Rodriguez came a few votes shy of being named the best player in baseball. At 25, he earned an MLB record $22 million. There's no way to comprehend those intense crosswinds of talent, fame, and money unless you've been through it. And absent that comprehension, it's impossible to truly empathize with Rodriguez after his initial burst of stardom begat not greater stardom, but unending scrutiny, failure, disappointment.
No one likes Rodriguez anymore. Not the fans, not the media, not his family. When Barry Bonds chased the home run record under a cloud of PED suspicion, he could at least count on San Francisco getting his back. As for A-Rod? His team fought him in court, knifed him in the press, and might still eat millions of dollars to force his early retirement.
All of which makes A-Rod the perfect underdog story for the 2015 season. Despised by the world and expected to fail, he could flip the bird at all the haters with a glorious, unexpected comeback.
With A-Rod, baseball has an undisputed No. 1 villain. Without him, it has…A.J. Pierzynski? A second-tier oaf just doesn't engender the same visceral hatred as does Rodriguez. And that hatred is fun! Or, at least, it adds an entertaining dimension to the sport.
A productive Rodriguez heightens the drama of a game often maligned (unfairly) as boring. Remember when a soon-to-be-suspended Rodriguez faced the Red Sox late in 2013, and Ryan Dempster winged a bunch of pitches at him? Ethics aside, the plunking delighted the crowd and the national audience, as did Yankees manager Joe Girardi's spectacular meltdown. That scene only works if you have a heel as believable, and as universally loathed, as Rodriguez.
That was only the first act, too. Rodriguez came up later in the game and launched a towering home run, going from goat to GOAT in a matter of innings. What other player can swing so wildly from juicing jerk to astounding superhuman? For all his flaws — and there are many — Rodriguez is still a breathtaking talent to watch.
You can root for A-Rod the player without rooting for A-Rod the person. You can even root for the player while hating the person. And that's perfect, because Rodriguez is only an entertaining villain so long as he's a competent one. What's the point in hating a hobbled shell of a man? Rodriguez may not be the anti-hero baseball deserves, but he could very well be the anti-hero it needs right now.