What it's like to spend a day inside Alex Rodriguez's world
TAMPA, Fla. – It's hot out here on the sidewalk of North Himes Avenue, the kind of hot that burns skin and makes a mockery of antiperspirant. The sun is unrelenting, laughing at the suckers camping beneath it and waiting to be part of the farce yet again.
This is how it works with Alex Rodriguez, how it's worked ad infinitum. Sometimes it is in an antiseptic room swathed with the logos of the New York Yankees and the Yankees' sponsors, and others under a tent, the literal big top, and on Monday it is outside the Yankees' minor league complex, which is off-limits to non-Yankee personnel, leaving two groups on the sidewalk: a horde of media and autograph-seeking fans, neither a particularly well-regarded phylum in the baseball kingdom.
For the first time since his record 162-game suspension, A-Rod is planning to address the media. Both parties are complicit in the charade. Questions are asked, hoping to elicit answers not just worthy of quotation marks surrounding them but some insight into how a 39-year-old who hasn't played a game in more than a year expects to trundle into Yankee Stadium and acquit himself. Rodriguez answers with words that are only sounds. The media rolls its eyes, cynicism borne of experience. Wash, rinse, repeat. The only honest thing about it is that everyone involved would agree to the whole endeavor's dishonesty.
Around 9 a.m. Monday, the first responders arrived: a reporter and photographer from the Daily News. Word slipped out that A-Rod would be checking in with the Yankees at their major league complex before heading to the minor league side less than a mile away. Maybe he would talk. Maybe he wouldn't. The Yankees stakeout is a time-honored tradition, dating back to George Steinbrenner's prime, when a group of poor schnooks waited out The Boss in case he popped off, which he happened to do with great frequency.
The crowd grew, and word of A-Rod's imminent arrival spread on social media, alerting the autograph hounds to join. The parties stood on opposite sides of the complex's driveway, like boys and girls at a seventh-grade dance. Together they endured the heat, the boredom and the helplessness of knowing they were at the mercy of A-Rod's whims.
Finally, at 12:48 p.m., word came that he left the big league camp and was headed toward the minor league side. A white Suburban took a right turn into the driveway 10 minutes later, and there he was, in the driver's seat, weaving into the parking lot, carrying his own box of bats, a proletariat move captured by the clicking cameras that sound like a family of cicadas.
The horde migrated half a block down Himes, to an open patch of land that abutted a baseball field. A chain-link outfield fence separated Rodriguez and the group, fostering a modern Knothole Gang. The voyeurism was unmistakable, the means to it emasculating. Standing atop a picnic table to look 400 feet away at a tiny figure of a man swinging a bat against 65-mph fastballs doesn't exactly imbue much knowledge.
And yet because it's A-Rod – because the audience will read about him, click on him, consume him, use him as a platform for more opinions, start the perpetual cycle of madness threatens to consume him – that real estate atop the picnic table was prime. Heaven forgive anyone who misses a tweetable, Vineable, Instagramable moment. One person kept track of Rodriguez's swings, another his home runs, and when the batting-practice session ended at 2:24 p.m., one person tweeted the final tallies of both.
When I hit the send button saying A-Rod took 71 swings and hit six home runs, I wondered whether I was in on the joke or just a sad part of it.
Back to the sidewalk. Traffic on Himes picks up. Drivers rubberneck, wondering what would bring two masses of people out in the sun on a day like this. On the other side stand those not there out of professional duty but of their own volition. Two men wear No. 13 Rodriguez jerseys. A woman in a wheelchair holds a black bat. A guy sports a shirt that says RE2PECT, a woman one that reads SHAKE IT OFF. A kid, maybe 7 or 8, holds a baseball. A shirtless dude on a bicycle stares at them with a blank face befitting the scene.
A 45-year-old man named Henry Sutton dares mingle with the other party and walks to the reporters' side. He's holding a grass-stained ball. He says it's the first home run of the day A-Rod hit. Sutton comes down from Clifton, N.J., every spring to visit his dad, and they imbibe Yankees Kool-Aid. He wants to believe in Rodriguez, wants to see something from 400 feet away.
"He looked good, though, no?" Sutton says, and the cynics grumble their well-practiced grumbles. It's not even the first day of spring training; good doesn't reveal itself until sometime in March, and when it does, the chances of it affixing itself to A-Rod remain slim.
Because the truth about Rodriguez is that he's 39, and that he hasn't played in a baseball eon, and that he's had two hip surgeries, and that the Yankees don't have much room for him, and that even if they did, serious complications still exist in the relationship, no matter what sort of détente they expressed publicly. Rodriguez sued the Yankees, just like he sued Major League Baseball and the players' union that represented him, all to protect the lie that he didn't gorge himself on Tony Bosch's pharmaceuticals. Captain Nemo couldn't have sunk to the depths Rodriguez plumbed trying to save his name.
Nobody on the other side of the driveway cares, and when the white Suburban pulls back toward the front of the complex at 3:13 p.m. and the door opens, the crowd stirs. Rodriguez walks toward his fans. He's wearing a green University of Miami tracksuit and an ivory smile. At the front of the line is a man wearing his jersey.
"Eight hours," he says. "Well worth it."
Nearly every greeting is a variation of this, awestruck and genuflecting and excited to be in the presence of a man whose 654 home runs matter far more to them than whatever else he did.
"We love you," the woman in the wheelchair says. "And miss you. And support you. Thank you, Alex, so much. We missed you so much."
"Where you from?" he says.
"Big Yankee fan?"
"Yeah. Oh. It's hot out here."
"Thank you, Alex. We missed you so much."
There's more of this: the woman so nervous she forgets where she's from when he asks, and the guy who takes a selfie with Rodriguez, and the 50-something who says, "Make it for us old guys," and Sutton, who gets Rodriguez to sign the home run ball. When the line reaches its end, Rodriguez turns toward the media. He fed one beast. Time for another.
Everything gets back to the talking points. This isn't necessarily a problem unique to Alex Rodriguez or sports. It's everywhere, celebrity an avenue to put forth a message crafted by people who aim to shape the psyche through words. As much as Rodriguez tries, sincerity just isn't a trait he possesses, not when he so nakedly hits his talking points again and again and again.
Monday gives us three. The first is that A-Rod made a mistake. He said the same thing the first time he got popped for PEDs, of course, so this isn't a mistake so much as it is the consequence of sloppiness. The second is that he served his penalty. This is true. It doesn't erase what prompted that penalty, doesn't absolve him from the recourse, but, yes, that is a fact. And the third is that he's focusing on trying to make the Yankees. This sounds properly deferential, the superduperstar with Hall of Fame numbers humbling himself to those he wronged, even if he knows the Yankees either put him on their opening-day roster or pay him $61 million to go away.
This is the game, and he plays it well, because if he talks, he knows it will get quoted, and if he gets quoted, it will get clicked, and if it gets clicked, it will fulfill the circle of quid pro quo.
And what of these words, then? Are they any different? No, other than pointing out the fundamental insincerity of what happened on the sidewalk Monday. The farcical nature of anything to do with A-Rod is now fact, a fictitious do-si-do worth viewing through a lens equipped with a hair-trigger B.S. meter. There will be more, so much more, because one thing Rodriguez can't do is stay quiet for long.
The next show is later in the week, when Rodriguez's teammates opine on his return. For now, obligations satisfied, he gets back into his truck and takes a right on Himes Avenue and a left on Columbus Drive, past Ballers Barber Shop and the 7-Eleven, off into the afternoon, his first dance complete, too many more to come.