Alex Rodriguez has played in every game this season. Sometime this summer, maybe on an extra-humid afternoon or during the 20-games-in-20-days stretch the New York Yankees face in August, manager Joe Girardi will sit him. Rodriguez hopes not. At 36, and even with a degenerative hip and knee, he feels better than he has in half a decade.
"I feel young again," he says.
And in declaring this, Rodriguez understands the derision that accompanies his words. Of course he feels young, the guy who used steroids, the guy who in the offseason flew to Germany for the same Orthokine treatments that turned Kobe Bryant from would-be gimp into NBA scoring champ. He understands, too, that while Kobe's decision to seek the line-blurring treatment is roundly praised as extracting what he can from what's left of his body, the perception of Rodriguez is that he's merely trying to skirt the rules one more time, that it's so very A-Rod to go to Germany for some procedure non grata with the FDA.
Even as his career enters its twilight and he ceded the game's-best-player title first to Albert Pujols and now to Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton, A-Rod can't just blend into the periphery. Nothing about his life – not now, not long ago – is normal. Because of his actions, his deeds, his words, his history, A-Rod is forever magnetized. Much as he wants to push away the questions and just play ball, it is not happening, not now, not until he's done.
A clock ticked above pre-treatment A-Rod, counting down the days until something gave, which surely would be before his contract runs out following the 2017 season. Now, he says, "I pray and hope my body holds up – and I think it will. It's amazing. My knee feels great. The treatment works. I was in a lot of pain. I had a lot of inflammation. How I felt toward the end of last year and today is night and day."
Once again, then, it's fair to start wondering whether Rodriguez can strike at what not long ago seemed an inevitability: breaking Barry Bonds' career home run record. A-Rod is at 634, 129 shy of passing Bonds, with almost six years left on his Yankees deal and perhaps another season or two if he's close to the number. Whereas Bonds passing Henry Aaron was a referendum on the Steroid Era 1.0, Rodriguez owning the record would provide a greater insight into the shifting perceptions of performance-enhancing drugs, of why, exactly, sports demonize one kind (steroids, HGH, i.e. the government-regulated ones) while allowing treatments (Orthokine, stem-cell therapy) that also purport to enhance performance.
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Rodriguez, who admitted to using steroids in his 20s, may forever be perceived a juicehead, a fair, if dramatic, assessment. Or maybe his reputation will change, his legacy will evolve and his career won't end up boiled down to a needle and cartoonish muscles like so many of his peers, including the one who holds the record he covets.
"One of my dreams was to go to college," Alex Rodriguez says, and just as the Orthokine was such an A-Rod thing to do, this is such an A-Rod thing to say. He craves knowledge, asking for help with words and phrases because he knows how prone he is to malaprops, reading books to expand his worldview past the bubble that is New York and the even bigger one that's the professional-sporting universe. There's always a question of sincerity with Rodriguez, though his interest in education seems genuine when he tells a story about his 18-year-old self.
When the Seattle Mariners sent him out to Class-A Appleton, Wis., after selecting him first overall in the 1993 draft and handing him $2.3 million in guaranteed money, Roriguez didn't spend his days off with teammates. He frequented college campuses and spent days around like-minded and -aged people, even if he wasn't one of them. He went to Madison, South Bend – anywhere to approximate what he was missing, what he knew he'd always miss.
Rodriguez debuted with the Mariners that year, which means he has spent more than half his life as a major-league baseball player. He didn't grow up with what he perceived as a normal life, and he hasn't had one since. College would forever wait. He had to take the money and help his mom after his father abandoned them when he was a kid in Miami, had to start what he's beginning to wind up.
"I've had three different careers," Rodriguez says. "Kids today don't remember I was a shortstop or that I played in Seattle. I was this kid with all these great veterans. I couldn't do any wrong. I was the little guy with Griffey and Buhner and Edgar."
Rodriguez grew into a man when he signed the largest contract in sports history, for 10 years and $250 million with the Texas Rangers before the 2001 season. Why his time there is so maligned is unfair. Steroids or not, Rodriguez's production over his three seasons as a Ranger – a .305 batting average with 52 home runs and 132 RBIs per year, plus an OPS of 1.011 – constituted three of his best. Two more MVP awards would come with the Yankees before Sports Illustrated broke the story of Rodriguez's positive steroid screening during the 2003 testing that was supposed to be anonymous.
Everything unfolded in A-Rod fashion: the introduction of his cousin the steroid mule; Rodriguez's tripping over words; an awkward news conference in which he tried to explain his actions. More than anything, ammunition for those who never will let go of Rodriguez's decision to take his once-in-a-generation talent and bring any shame to it.
"I've made mistakes along the way," he says. "I'm most grateful for the second chance. I had a very tough day in that press conference. I said some things that I'm proud I've lived up to. I try every day to be a better human being and teammate."
Teammates still see Rodriguez as someone who tries too hard, who can be awkward in conversation even if well-meaning. "Alex being Alex," one laughs, the allusion to Manny Ramirez rich in more than one way. They see that even if Rodriguez yearns to be something – the kid in the polo and cargo shorts on the quad – he is the furthest thing from it. He knows only one thing: baseball.
And how baseball remembers Rodriguez could depend upon just how doggedly he pursues Bonds. Awesome though Bonds' talent was, even the most ardent PED supporter would admit baseball is better off if its most sacred record isn't held by a player who bulked up artificially so he could break all the big records and stick it to the establishment.
[Big League Stew: Babe Ruth's old house in Massachusetts is up for sale]
"To say you wouldn't want to reach a goal like that, a monumental number, would be a lie," Rodriguez says. "It would be amazing to own that. But when I'm done playing, I want them to say Alex was part of two, three, four championship teams. Not that he ended up with 750, 755."
Asked if he knew the actual number to surpass Bonds' record, Rodriguez pauses, cocks his head 20 degrees and says: "I would say 763. Is it 763?"
During spring training, Rodriguez will occupy back fields himself and work out after the team's practices are over. His training habits are legendary, more basketball or football than baseball, and so it's no surprise he gravitated last offseason toward Mike Clark, who made a name turning Steve Nash into an age-defying point guard and saving Grant Hill after dozens of doctors couldn't solve his degenerative ankle problems.
Clark broke down Rodriguez's mechanics from head to toe, isolating weakness in something as minute as a toe, and while he didn't rebuild Rodriguez's stance, he did emphasize a different sort of workout that Rodriguez embraced all winter.
Others got to see a sneak preview, with A-Rod's house in Miami serving as something of a campus for ballplayers in the area. He tries to play good host. Yankees teammate Andruw Jones stayed with Rodriguez for two months. Former teammate Melky Cabrera came. And Eric Hosmer, the young Kansas City Royals first baseman and among the best talents the Miami area has produced since Rodriguez, stopped by one day to hit in Rodriguez's batting cage.
"In Miami, he's the face of baseball," Hosmer says. "It's tough to understand what he's like down there. Everyone is compared to him. Everyone who comes out isn't as good as A-Rod."
It's not just Miami. Rodriguez has continued to climb the all-time home run list, passing Ken Griffey Jr., his former teammate, for fifth place, eyeing Willie Mays at 660 next and then beginning the arduous drive to the summit: Ruth, Aaron, Bonds. Those names won't come for another couple years, not with Rodriguez's slugging percentage sputtering along at a career-low .432. He's still a plenty effective player, his on-base percentage 13th in the AL, his third-base defense benefitting from his rejuvenated knee, his knowledge on the basepaths strong as ever.
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He's comfortable with that. Or says he is. Reared by Scott Boras and represented by Hollywood agents, Rodriguez has been through Spin 101, and he gets that nothing plays better than wanting to be part of a championship. So when he says, "If I was on a team losing 80, 90, 100 games a year, it would be difficult to come to grips with any type of regression, but this organization allows me to play a role, and while it's not what it once was, that's OK," well, it sounds too good. No 36-year-old who's content with his lot flies to Germany for a procedure that's illegal in his home country.
"I love the game of baseball," Rodriguez says. "I'm a huge fan of the history. I respect it tremendously. When you hear these names, it's flattering. It's hard to grasp."
It's real, though, real enough that he desperately wants his name to sound right among theirs. That's all Alex Rodriguez ever has wanted, in fact: to fit in, to be a guy, to walk around a college campus so he could feel like one of them. Polo shirts or home runs, he wants to be a part of something. As much as he cares about the idea of owning a record – as nice as it is to see his name in bold letters – the legacy he desires is one of inclusion, and there's a sadness to that.
The kid who wanted more than anything to be normal never could be.
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