A-Rod's complex legacy in HOF voters' hands

November 22nd, 2021

sat on a countertop in the bowels of Yankee Stadium as the final seconds of Nov. 4, 2009, expired, a lit cigar in one hand and a half-empty bottle of bubbly in the other. A backward cap shaved years off his face, and he wore a goofy grin, announcing that no matter what else transpired in his wild life, he would always be a World Series champion.

That Yankees title was undoubtedly the apex of Rodriguez’s playing career, during which the big-swinging infielder bashed 696 home runs -- fourth all time behind Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth -- and collected 3,115 hits. There was also plenty of turbulence, which presents a puzzle for voters to unpack as Rodriguez debuts on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Legacy is not for me to determine,” Rodriguez said in 2016, about 20 minutes after playing his final Major League game. “I know that I’m someone who loves the game tremendously. I’ve made some tremendous mistakes, and I’ve also worked extremely hard in trying to come back and do things the right way.”

Rodriguez’s admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs casts a cloud over his candidacy, despite career statistics that should have made his case a slam dunk.

A three-time MVP, 14-time All-Star, 10-time Silver Slugger and two-time Gold Glover, Rodriguez ranks fourth all-time in RBIs (2,086), seventh in total bases (5,813) and extra-base hits (1,275), and eighth in runs scored (2,021).

Rodriguez also admitted to having used PEDs with the Rangers from 2001-03. He then missed the entire 2014 season, serving what was then the game’s longest PED-related suspension following a contentious and litigious battle with Major League Baseball and the Yankees.

"He’s spoken about being someone that has had his ups and downs,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “But he always got back up, and I think that’s really a true assessment of what he has done.”

The Mariners selected Rodriguez first overall in the 1993 MLB Draft, plucking the enticing shortstop from Westminster Christian School in Miami. Roger Jongewaard, Seattle’s scouting director, filed an effusive report that described Rodriguez as “similar to [Derek] Jeter, only bigger and better.”

Comparisons between Rodriguez and Jeter would become commonplace over the following decades, the star shortstops marching on parallel tracks toward stardom.

Rodriguez reached the Majors first, debuting with Seattle as a fresh-faced 18-year-old; he frequently joked that he’d gone straight from his high school prom to facing Roger Clemens at Fenway Park.

Rodriguez spent his first seven big league seasons with the Mariners, earning four All-Star selections (1996-98, 2000) and four Silver Sluggers. In 790 games, Rodriguez had a slash line of .309/.374/.561 and a 138 OPS+, 189 home runs and 595 RBIs.

He led the AL with a .358 batting average in ’96, became the third member of the 40/40 club in ’98 and helped the Mariners successfully move from the Kingdome to the sparkling new Safeco Field.

“I’ve always said I wish I had five more years with [manager] Lou Piniella, because I think I would have benefited from his tutelage and mentorship,” Rodriguez said.

In December 2000, Rodriguez signed what was then the most lucrative contract in North American professional sports, accepting a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers. Rodriguez put up huge numbers with Texas, winning three Silver Sluggers and the ’03 AL MVP, but the Rangers finished last in the four-team AL West each season.

Rodriguez played in 485 of 486 possible games over those three years, leading the Majors with home run totals of 52, 57 and 47. He later said that he felt immense pressure to live up to his contract. In 2003, Rodriguez tested positive for two anabolic steroids -- testosterone and Primobolan -- as part of MLB’s survey testing, records of which were seized during a 2004 investigation.

“I knew,” Rodriguez said in 2009, “we weren’t taking Tic Tacs.”

Aaron Boone’s ill-fated offseason basketball game set Rodriguez’s New York chapter into motion. Boone injured his left knee shooting hoops in January 2004, prompting the Yankees to scramble for a third baseman. Rodriguez jumped at the opportunity to leave Texas, approving a blockbuster February deal that installed him as the Yanks’ third baseman.

Many expected Rodriguez’s arrival to make the Yankees an unstoppable superteam. That did not materialize, despite Rodriguez winning AL MVP in 2005 and ’07. Over a dozen turbulent seasons in pinstripes, Rodriguez would endure back-page embarrassments, criticism over postseason performance, clashes with Jeter and others, plus a career-threatening right hip injury in ’09.

The nadir came in 2013, when Rodriguez was the focal point of MLB’s investigation into the Biogenesis PED scandal.

After Rodriguez threatened litigation against the league and the Yankees, MLB levied a 211-game suspension against him, alleging “use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone.” He accepted a ban reduced to 162 games, spanning the entirety of the ’14 regular season and postseason.

In 1,509 games as a Yankee, Rodriguez slashed .283/.378/.523 and had a 136 OPS+, 351 home runs and 1,096 RBIs. Rodriguez’s 113.7 career fWAR ranks 13th all time, sandwiched between Lou Gehrig (116.3) and Mickey Mantle (112.3).

Even after retirement, he remains in the spotlight, rehabilitating his image with regular appearances on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and elsewhere.

The numbers were always there. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, so was the noise. Whatever the voters ultimately decide, he’ll always have 2009.