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The Alex Rodriguez I remember sat on a flight of stairs that led to the indoor batting cages at the Oakland Coliseum. This was years ago. A lifetime ago. A reputation ago.
He was a New York Yankee. Maybe he was not yet a "true Yankee," but still full-blooded, unlike now. He hadn't won a championship. He hadn't opted out of a contract. We didn't know he had a cousin Yuri or, if we did, we didn't care.
The worst you could say about him then was he had some issues with October. But, at least he wasn't Bonds or McGwire or Sosa. He could be aloof, a bit plasticky, like a child star who'd grown up cocooned from real warmth or, worse, real consequences. People would like him because he was beautiful and could hit. They always had. He dealt with that the way a lot of people would, I'm guessing. Sometimes he trusted no one. Other times, everyone. Often, he got it wrong. He should have trusted the people who said no once in a while, not the ones who always said yes.
Rodriguez was on the top step. He rested his chin on the backs of his hands, which he'd stacked and placed atop the knob of his bat.
We talked about his family, and life as a Yankee, and the crap baseball was going through because of all these selfish cheaters. Some of what he said turned out to be lies, of course, but he sold it well. As suspicious as I had become, I was still willing to believe. What can I say, it was a loosey-goosey time.
[Sources: MLB plans to suspend A-Rod through 2014]
Mostly, we talked about his future, because he was young and it could only be glorious. One day, he would be the greatest home run hitter baseball had ever seen, and he would go to the Hall of Fame, and he would win championships, and if he wouldn't ever be Jeter or Gehrig or Mantle in the eyes of New Yorkers and Yankee fans, he'd still be remembered as a Yankee, and one of the greats at that.
Rodriguez was radiant, too. This, he believed, was his destiny. When teammates squeezed past us on their way to the batting cages, he'd nod hello but lower his voice, because they didn't need to hear him talking about this stuff. It would have been embarrassing to be caught dreaming about becoming a legend, and fed into his reputation for self-absorption while everyone else was, you know, thinking about getting a hit or two that night.
He said he knew the league office was pulling for him, too. Given what was going on with Bonds and the home run record, how Maris and Ruth and Aaron would be displaced by these guys the public would view as frauds, Rodriguez was the perfect solution. The perfect hero. We'd watched him grow up, and become the best player in the game, and even turn Yankee. Wait long enough, through enough sunny days at the Stadium and curtain calls and standing ovations, the new home run champion would be above reproach.
He confided these things man to man, eye to eye. He smiled. He laughed. And I appreciated the honesty. Hell, I thought, why not? Why not him? Why shouldn't he be shooting for these things? I mean, it would have been disastrous to say them aloud, to let the whole world in. The people would have called him selfish, and they'd have been right. But, this is a game of selfish, the best almost always are, but hope not to make it so obvious. In a quiet moment in that musty, filthy hallway, Rodriguez shrugged. He was just being honest, just between us.
For all I know, even as he spoke the "boli" was pooling on the carpet under him.
A few years later he admitted to using steroids while playing for the Texas Rangers, and his future – the way he might have envisioned it, the way he'd described it – was gone. He wasn't the great clean hope. He was one of … them. Now there's all this. He's fighting for a few more at-bats, for however many millions of dollars he thinks he'll need to live on for the rest of his life. He's made some terrible decisions. This looks like another. Pay people enough money and they'll say yes as often as you'd like them to.
I wonder if, when those people go away at the end of the day, he thinks about how it could have been. If he wonders what he would have been without the bad decisions. If he could have lived with second- or third-best, or if he could even have been the best without men like Yuri and Tony Bosch handing him packages of whatever.
When we talked on that stairway in Oakland, he was lying. You wouldn't have known it. I didn't. He was a man poised to carry us away from all this.
On Friday, he was in Trenton, N.J., a 38-year-old man, washed up, his reputation shredded, fighting the very people he once said he'd intended to make proud. Now, clearly, he sickens them. The commissioner has apparently threatened him with a lifetime ban and offered a sentence of about 210 games as an alternative. Maybe it's 150. Or 100. We'll know more soon, perhaps by Monday. The details hardly matter anymore.
Meanwhile, I wonder if he sickens himself. I wonder if he can be that honest with himself. I wonder if he even cares. Probably not.
Too bad. I liked that guy.
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