Within about a week after the trade was announced in February 2004, I went to Modell’s and got his jersey: Rodriguez, 13. I was 9 years old, and the best player in the game was coming to my favorite team. I wore the pinstripes to school the next day, proud of the name on my back and excited to show it off.
Eleven years later I no longer own an A-Rod jersey. By the time I outgrew the first one the Sports Illustrated story was published in 2009, and everyone knew the truth. His haters felt vindicated, his fans felt betrayed and all of baseball felt a blow. A-Rod was supposed to be the one to surpass Bonds and restore order to the record books, but now we knew he wasn’t clean.
Now we’re in a year that in some alternate universe would have been much more historic and celebratory for A-Rod: surpassing Willie Mays with home run 661, reaching 2,000 RBIs and on Friday, collecting his 3,000th hit.
Even with an asterisk, the accomplishments are still remarkable, and the reaction at Yankee Stadium on Friday showed just how complex the relationship is between Yankee fans and A-Rod — the most polarizing player in the team’s history. The crowd was on its feet for Rodriguez as he came up in the first inning, cheering loudly, phones at the ready to capture the moment. Then he belted a homer over the right field wall, and the stadium erupted. His teammates came out of the dugout, and A-Rod got his time to thank them. He then came out for a curtain call, and then the moment was over.
It’s hard not to compare what happened when Jeter recorded his 3,000th hit, which was also a home run, in 2011. The team came out for him as well, but the ovation was longer, and louder. In some ways it is fitting A-Rod’s moment was similar to Jeter’s; though both are extraordinary players, Jeter always served as the perfect contrast to Rodriguez: He was unselfish, caused no controversies, had everyone’s respect. He was pure and clean.
For me, I found that the moment prompted a lot of reflection. Although I was excited to see history like all the Yankee fans at the game, I realized how confused I was about A-Rod’s place in the game and why exactly I was cheering him.
The most blatant reason for the cheering is success. Rodriguez has helped carry this team since Opening Day. No one knew what to expect from a 39-year-old designated hitter that sat out a year and has had two hip surgeries. But it’s clear he’s part of the reason the Yankees have a shot to win the AL East.
I’m not naïve, though. I know that most fans and I wanted him to retire after his suspension. We thought he’d be terrible, and we did not want to pay him the $60 million remaining on his contract. If I rooted for any other team, I would despise him. But I’ve been a Yankee fan all my life, and I know my feelings on Rodriguez are not so black and white as to root for him solely because he is helping the Yankees win now.
I never wanted to hate him. During the mid-2000s when the steroid scandal was in full swing, everyone I knew that hated A-Rod said he was on steroids. I always came to his defense and said there was no way. It would’ve been too much to think about. However, I didn’t deny that he wasn’t perfect: He couldn’t hit in the playoffs, he smacked Bronson Arroyo’s glove in the ’04 ALCS and he was showing up in the tabloids for the wrong reasons. I was fine if someone wanted to fault him for those things, but he wasn’t mentioned among the dozens of other players in the Mitchell Report in December 2007, and he went on “60 Minutes” and told Katie Couric he never took anything. I thought that would silence everyone.
Then ’09 came and everything changed. His admittance to steroid use while with the Texas Rangers from ’01 to ’03 caused me and other fans a lot of pain. When you stand up for someone for so long, it’s difficult to accept that you were fooled.
However, for some reason I still wanted to give him a chance. It was just three years, and I felt that his performance in New York vindicated him. He helped lead the Yankees to their 27th title in ’09, playing outstandingly in the playoffs: He hit .365, drove in 18 runs and had dramatic, game-tying home runs in Game 2 of the ALDS and the ALCS. It seemed he had turned over a new leaf; all that weight on his shoulders was gone. I thought A-Rod was a new man, and Yankee fans were excited and seemed healed.
Then the injuries started to slow him down, he didn’t hit perform in the 2010 or 2012 ALCS, he got hip surgery twice, and then Biogenesis broke. Once again the baseball world was shocked, and like I said, we all wanted him to just go away.
But now we’re cheering him on. I’ve realized that seeing A-Rod play well has reminded me of how much I wanted to support him when I was younger, before all the lying and cheating. While I know A-Rod has shamed the game and deserves every ounce of criticism and hate that he’s gotten, that young fan with a desire to believe is still in me, and I know that’s why I was cheering for A-Rod after number 3,000.
Robert DePaolo is a rising senior in the College. The Wind-Up appears every Saturday.
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