By the numbers, Alex Rodriguez will go down as one of the greatest players in baseball history. He was also suspended for the entire 2014 season for his use of performance-enhancing drugs and what Major League Baseball described as an ongoing effort to hinder its investigation into those drug allegations. Everything else is open for interpretation.
That interpretation kicked into high gear Sunday, when Rodriguez announced he would play his final game for the Yankees on Friday. The team will release him from his contract immediately afterwards, then retain him as a special adviser to owner Hal Steinbrenner and mentor to younger players through the 2017 season. The agreement allows A-Rod to earn all the money left on his 10-year, $275 million contract that expires at the end of next season. It also enables the Yankees to clear a roster spot in the midst of a reloading phase, without worrying about how to handle a 41-year-old player who's likely on his last legs.
Bill James used to say you could split Rickey Henderson in half, take his on-base skills and power on one side and his mind-boggling stolen-base totals on the other, and get two Hall of Famers. Split A-Rod's career into Yankee and non-Yankee stats, and you could argue he enjoyed two separate Hall of Fame careers.
In 11-plus seasons and 1,506 games as a Yankee, Rodriguez blasted more home runs than Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, or Derek Jeter did in their entire careers, with better overall numbers as a Yankee than Reggie Jackson. Wearing pinstripes, A-Rod batted .284/.378/.523, cranked 351 home runs, made seven All-Star games, won three Silver Sluggers, and two MVPs. That stretch as a Yankee included three injury-marred seasons of fewer than 100 games played, plus the downward spiral that comes at the end of nearly every career that's not David Ortiz's. It doesn't include his 10 seasons with the Mariners and Rangers, in which he bashed another 345 home runs, batted .307/.383/.586, made seven more All-Star games, won two Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, another MVP, and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting six times.
Those numbers haven't been enough to win over a large swath of the baseball world. Just the opposite. By surging to fourth on the all-time home-run list and reaching multiple other major statistical milestones, Rodriguez has earned a level of derision that blows the minimal scorn directed at, say, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta out of the water. A-Rod's jaw-dropping career numbers, combined with a pattern of denial that included suing MLB and the MLB Players Association in an effort to overturn his 162-game suspension, made him the most reviled PED-linked player since Barry Bonds, the all-time home-run king who was never actually suspended for using anything.
But really, the animus directed at Rodriguez predates his PED bust by many years. There were A-Rod's paintings of himself as a centaur. The photoshoot for Details magazine, in which we see him kissing himself in the mirror. The 2004 ALCS play in which he slapped the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo's hand. The accusations of dishonesty and crocodile tears from even the most respected journalists covering the game. He is, by many standards, unlikeable.
Still, it is possible to feel ambivalent toward everything from A-Rod's personality to his PED use and still recognize what he accomplished in his 22-year career, and how we can go overboard in the bloodlust we direct at players who hit a bunch of home runs and also did steroids.
First, there's the great PED debate. Three years ago, Scott Lemieux wrote a great piece for Deadspin, arguing that the "furor over PEDs is fundamentally a moral panic, and like the much more serious War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs it's defined above all by arbitrariness and irrational double standards." As Lemieux notes, singling out A-Rod as a supervillain because he took steroids reinforces the unfair level of scrutiny that baseball players get, especially as compared to, the rampant PED use in football that nobody cares about. We know that cheating per se isn't what gets people riled up either, given both the Hall of Fame status and smiling winks granted to spitballers like Gaylord Perry. Really, hating A-Rod (and Bonds) largely boils down to modern-era players wiping out records set by their predecessors, and older fans -- and especially older media members -- resenting them for it.
Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and countless other previous-generation athletes popping amphetamines like candy? Fine. Many, many, many players who either took different types of PEDs or got busted by far more egregious offenses? Also fine. A-Rod? Burn him at the stake. The animus directed at Rodriguez (and Bonds, and Mark McGwire) looks especially curious given that all three are now employed by major league teams as coaches or advisers.
SI's Jay Jaffe detailed why Rodriguez might have a better chance at Hall of Fame induction than you'd think, despite the lingering anger held by many media members against PED use in general and A-Rod in particular. As Jaffe explained, with the Hall of Fame requiring a five-year waiting period before a player can climb onto the ballot, and 10 years of eligibility once he's on (assuming he nets at least 5 percent of the vote each time), Rodriguez will still have a shot at induction into the 2030s. That's a long time from now, long enough that a lot of the older generation of voters won't be voting anymore, and a younger, generally more PED-indifferent class of voters will take their place.
As for whether Rodriguez should make the Hall, the argument for me is simple: A significant percentage of an entire generation of baseball players likely used PEDs, even if only a few have been specifically blackballed for it. For better or for worse, these were the conditions in play at the time, just as sky-high mounds and huge strike zones pumped up pitching numbers in the 1960s, and just as the sport before 1947 was a much weaker product, since both integration and rigorous scouting programs hadn't arrived yet.
A-Rod -- along with Bonds and Roger Clemens -- rank among the best of all time. Slap an asterisk on their plaques if you like. But ignoring an entire generation of superstars would be a case of the Hall (and the writers who vote for the Hall) burying their heads in the sand.
When it comes to the incredible and checkered career of Alex Rodriguez, we should lay everything out for review. The yeas and the neighs.