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Why Alex Rodriguez isn’t the villain he’s been made out to be

Alex Rodriguez

The legacy Alex Rodriguez will leave behind does not look to be a good one. In fact, there aren’t many above him on the “most hated MLB players of all-time” list. While we can’t say that’s entirely unfair, it’s not exactly fair vilification, either.

Think to a time when you saw old pictures of your now middle-aged parents when they were teenagers. The hair and clothes no doubt looked goofy. At times, it had to be hard to keep a straight face.

But in reality, none of that made your parents goofy people. In reality, that fashion just made your parents a product of the era that they grew up. If we’re telling the true story of A-Rod, it’s not that dissimilar to those pictures.

Rodriguez didn’t bring performance-enhancing drugs into baseball. No, he was just starting to become a star in the game during the “steroid era.”

You know? The years when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were repeatedly smashing some of baseball’s most cherished records. The era when Roger Clemens was winning two Cy Young Awards after turning 38 when he wasn’t chucking bats at Mike Piazza during the World Series.

Major League Baseball and its commissioner, Bud Selig, largely turned a blind eye to that.

Coming off of the embarrassing 1994-95 strike, attendance was down. Baseball needed something to get people back into the parks. Record chases are a great way to do that, even if said chases are influenced by enough drugs to make old East German Olympians blush.

Unfortunately, it eventually left Selig with a problem. In time, public sentiment turned from awe to disgust. The same people who flocked to the parks to watch those records be broken were now disgusted.

How could those records be broken so dubiously? Who allowed that to happen?

Naturally, the commissioner had to answer some of those questions. He may not have been entirely to blame for the “steroid era,” but it unquestionably happened under his watch, leaving him responsible.

Bud SeligWhen the Biogenesis scandal broke, it was a gift from the Baseball Gods to the commish. A real scandal coming at the end of Selig’s tenure that named two star players — Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.

While both men had previously avoided suspensions, each had been linked to PEDs in the past. This was pretty close to a smoking gun. Selig could now use this to rewrite his legacy. No longer would he be the commissioner who let the “steroid era” happen. He could now be the commissioner who dropped the hammer on two stars, one of whom played for baseball’s flagship franchise. The other on the franchise that he used to own. Nobody could accuse him of being soft then, right?

That opportunity did not go wasted.

Both players were suspended for significantly longer than 50 games, which was the standard suspension for a first violation at the time. Braun received a 65-game suspension, while Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season.

It’s hard to express any sympathy for either player. Each man was guilty of cheating and was punished for doing so. But was either man really more guilty than any of the cheaters that preceded them? Was the Biogenesis scandal really worse than the BALCO scandal, anything that Jose Canseco detailed in Juiced, or anything else detailed in the Mitchell Report?

While the suspensions would say yes, the reality is that it’s all very doubtful.

Of course, A-Rod’s PED use is only part of the problem.

Following the 2000 season, Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. It shattered the previous record contract and in many ways, contracts like that helped keep small market teams out of contention for the better part of a decade.

But let’s look at what really caused that:

  • Cause 1: Major League Baseball had no salary cap at that time. Now, nearly two decades later, MLB still has no cap.
  • Cause 2: Small market teams couldn’t compete with those contracts largely because of the guaranteed money. They might be willing to spend that kind of money if they had a way out. But in baseball, there is no way out. Every penny of he contract is guaranteed to the player. So, the question isn’t really who can spend the most on the best players. Instead, it’s who can afford those big contracts if and when the stars decline? As we’ve seen over the last few years, that’s tough on the big market teams like the New York Yankees. For the small market teams, it’s impossible.
  • Cause 3: The owners. The players play as best as they can. When it comes time to negotiate a contract, the players and their agents ask for the most money they can possibly get. That’s simply how negotiations work. Ultimately, though, those contracts are agreed on by two sides. Criticizing the players/owners for asking for that kind of money is fair, but only to a point. After all, how many people would turn down such a contract if it was offered to them?

The owners need to be at least as heavily criticized for signing them.

Rodriguez was hardly the only player to sign a crazy contract at that time. Quite frankly, he was just the best player to sign a contract like that. As such, he signed the biggest contract.

None of this is to justify anything that A-Rod has done.

His final final week of MLB action won’t see the kind of sendoff that former teammates Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter got in 2013 and 2014 — it shouldn’t. The end of Rodriguez’s should also do nothing to take away from the farewell tour that David Ortiz is currently enjoying.

Rodriguez deserves some scorn. Unless the institution is significantly reworked (as we’ve contended it should be), he is not a deserving Hall of Famer.

But A-Rod’s legacy isn’t as simple as “He sold out, he cheated, so he should be one of the most vilified players in MLB history.”

If we’re telling the full story of Rodriguez, we have to talk about the era in which he played, as well as the actions of others associated with Major League Baseball.

That doesn’t turn Rodriguez into a hero. It does mean that A-Rod isn’t quite the villain that some would have us believe.