Monday night, Alex Rodriguez singled in his first at-bat of the season—which for Rodriguez may end as early as Thursday, when Major League baseball intends to enforce its 211-game suspension of him that will include the remainder of the 2013 campaign and all of 2014. With the 12-time All-Star third-baseman turning 38 on Saturday, it may be that a ballplayer once believed capable of breaking many of the game’s most famous records has now entered his last week of big-league baseball. It’s a very different kind of countdown than the one envisioned for Rodriguez more than a decade ago when he distinguished himself as the most gifted player of his generation, one capable even of breaking the all-time home run record.
It’s not clear how much the performance-enhancing drugs that may cost Rodriguez a lengthy suspension (which he intends to contest) have also hurt his health. He is rebounding from major surgery on his left hip, where doctors repaired a torn labrum and a femoroacetabular impingement, which causes groin pain and limited hip motion due to extra bone that develops on either side of the ball-and-socket hip joint. Rodriguez underwent surgery on his right hip for the same condition in 2009. It seems that one of the problems is that his perhaps drug-enhanced body is rebelling against the constant grind of big-league baseball, spring training, 162-game regular schedule and the Yankees’ typical post-season games. The hitting alone—at-bats, batting practice, short toss, etc.—would wear down Rodriguez’s hips, the source of a hitter’s power, but there’s also defense, and he’s simply grown too large for infield play.
Over the last few decades, major-league infielders have gotten bigger and bigger. Consider for instance that at 6’ and 210 pounds, Yankees’ second baseman Robinson Cano is larger than the 6’ and 195-pound Reggie Jackson, the Achilles of his generation. Reggie once explained that he always wore long sleeves under his uniform jersey even during the hottest months of the season so as not to show off his massive arms—pipes that by today’s standards would mark him as something like a pre-Spinach Popeye.
It’s been clear watching Rodriguez the last several years that it’s a burden for the 6’3” third-baseman to carry his weight, almost certainly much more than the 225 pounds at which he’s officially listed. Unlike the middle infield spots, short and second, the hot corner requires less range than quickness and instinct—twisting to spear a shot down the line or turning the other way to cut off a ball before it goes deep in the hole. The third-baseman’s signature play is the slow-roller, an acrobatic feat requiring extraordinary balance, timing and body-control in catching the ball and then throwing it across your body and the infield to get the out. It demands more play in the hips than dancing merengue. George Brett, Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles—you don’t want a linebacker at third base but a rodeo clown, someone who feeds off the reckless comedy of racing down the line in a bunt situation only to find a 95 mph fastball turned in their direction. The ideal body type now is something like that of Orioles star Manny Machado’s—lean, flexible, strong lines with a hint of the gangly colt, just like Alex Rodriguez was before he made his body grieve.
The winter that Rodriguez was on the verge of becoming the richest ballplayer ever, I met him at a charity event in Miami. He was 25 at the time and surrounded by high-school students. He looked like one of them, just taller and shinier, the world’s prom king who could have had any girl he wanted, even the galaxy’s prom queen, Madonna, which he later did. I seem to recall he was in a white tuxedo but maybe that’s just because Scott Boras, Rodriguez’ agent at the time, told me that Rodriguez was an archangel and had the stats to back it up. Boras, whom I was in Florida to interview for a profile of the super-agent, had printed up large binders to give the general managers bidding for Rodriguez after his 2000 season, in which he hit .316 with 41 HR and 132 RBIs. Alex, according to Boras’ projections, was going to rewrite the record books, and the team that signed him was buying the privilege of having the all-time home-run leader enter the Hall of Fame with their cap on his head.
I know that baseball fans aren’t supposed to like Boras, a man who many think ruined the game, but I think he made it better. A gritty former minor leaguer from central California who idolized his one-time teammate Keith Hernandez, Boras made his reputation, and made his clients money, by outmaneuvering a baseball establishment run by people who knew nothing about business and often less about baseball. Boras told them there was lots of money in the game, money for players and owners, if they knew where to look—and if they didn’t, he’d force them to find it. The Moneyball era, typically credited to A’s general manager Billy Beane, is inconceivable without Boras, who is effectively Yang to Beane’s Yin. General managers learned to find value in places where they’d never looked before not just because Beane’s methods worked, but because Boras left them no choice. Darn right you were going to pay for premium talent—and if you didn’t know better you’d wind up overpaying. All of the Ivy-educated sabermetricians may have been inspired by Beane, but they were hired because big-league ball clubs realized that their executives, typically former ballplayers with no experience in management, never mind legal contracts, were overmatched by Boras. In taking care of his players, and challenging the clubs to be smarter, Boras made baseball better. But the reason I really liked him is because of Harvey Dorfman.
Harvey had worked as a psychologist for the A’s and Marlins, and then Boras brought him into his office. He didn’t have a degree in psychology, but as a sportswriter in New England he won the attention of a minor league general manager who prized his insights and recommended him to A’s management. Harvey’s athletic career ended after college, where suffering from asthma he played goalkeeper on the school’s soccer team. Nonetheless, as a native New Yorker his easy and frank style earned the trust and respect of his players, including several Hall of Famers like Greg Maddux. Harvey loved the pitchers above all for they were the center of the game’s drama and its psychology, too. For him, it was all about fear and failure and the issues that trouble people from their childhood on, especially boys since it is a game played by boys. One player, an All-Star, Harvey said, had a father who used to come on the field during batting practice and scream at his son—can you imagine what this does to the guy, having to relive little league his whole life?
Harvey would never talk in particulars about the players that sought his counsel and his friendship, but if you were a baseball fan you could pick up on the details—childhood traumas, the death of family members. In the end, these were all regular people, suffering from the same things as everyone, except that fear and failure were the large dragons that they were compelled to slay before large audiences—or be slain. Baseball for Harvey was simply a staging ground for the human condition. I don’t know if Harvey, who died two years ago, talked much or at all to Alex Rodriguez. But I believe he would’ve wished that, baseball or not, Rodriguez fixes the mess he’s made of his life.