This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end, yet it was the only way it ever could end. Alex Rodriguez, one of the best all-around players in baseball history, will play his final major league game tomorrow night for a team that doesn’t want him in front of a home crowd that doesn’t particularly like him. Jay Z once asked “Would you rather be underpaid or overrated?” Over a checkered-yet-brilliant 22-year career, A-Rod wound up being neither.
When Rodriguez is inducted into the Hall of Fame—and that’s absolutely a when, not an if—his plaque should rightly feature him in a Yankees hat. He spent the better part of his career in New York, won two of his three MVPs there, as well as his only World Series title. He made sacrifices before he even put on the pinstripes, agreeing to move to third base—despite winning consecutive Gold Gloves at shortstop—so Derek Jeter could remain at short. A selfless act, it also placed him below Jeter in the all-important Yankee hierarchy. “I'm delighted that Alex really wanted to be a Yankee and to play side-by-side with our team captain Derek Jeter,” late owner George Steinbrenner said in the release announcing Rodriguez’s acquisition, “who has shown himself to be a tremendous leader both on and off the field.” Ouch.
Rodriguez not only established himself as a better player than Jeter, but as one of the best Yankees ever, winning two MVPs in his first four seasons in the Bronx. The last Yankee to win two MVPs? Roger Maris in 1960 and 1961, a guy who could have told A-Rod a thing or two about what happens when you out-play a fan and media darling. Just from his numbers alone, Rodriguez’s No. 13 should be retired and he should get a monument in Monument Park with the other Yankee immortals. But playing for a franchise that had been defined and defined itself by championships, Rodriguez constantly fell short. The Yankees blew a 3-0 lead against the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS, lost in the LDS the next three seasons (with Rodriguez batting deplorably in each series) and missed the playoffs entirely in 2008, before bouncing back and winning the World Series in 2009.
Rodriguez was never able to eclipse Jeter as a Yankee despite being better at virtually every aspect of the game.
This should have been Rodriguez’s proudest moment. Instead he played the entire season under a shadow, it having come out back in February that he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs back in 2003. His 2009 season was nothing special, not by his standards—.286, with 30 homers and a .933 OPS. He’d miss the All-Star Game after nine straight selections. But he was a hero in the postseason, batting .455 in the ALDS and .429 in the ALCS. He only hit .250 in the World Series, but still managed six RBIs in six games. Still, that shadow remained, especially contrasted with the light of Jeter’s perceived purity.
Rodriguez was never able to eclipse Jeter as a Yankee despite being better at virtually every aspect of the game. He was never supposed to—he was the outsider, the mercenary. He did, however, supplant Jeter as off-the-field tabloid fodder, as even what were ostensibly sports columns harped on his personal life. Rodriguez never really got the benefits of being a team’s No. 1 star, just the detractors. Yes, he made tons of money and was fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz, but Rodriguez says the 2009 championship was the peak of his Yankees career.
Everything afterwards was epilogue. Rodriguez would make two more All-Star teams, but only once come within 25 points of .300. He’d once again falter in playoff series, winning just one more, and serve a season-long suspension in 2014. If his initial 10-year, $252 million contract was something of a bargain, his ensuing 10-year, $275 million contract—signed after he famously and controversially opted out of the first during Game 4 of the 2007 World Series—was a disaster. Despite a miraculous 2015 comeback season where he hit 33 homers at 39 (offset by a career-high 145 strikeouts), the Yankees have spent the last few years looking for an exit strategy.
They finally found one that, appropriately enough, has proven traumatic for just about everyone. On Aug. 7 Rodriguez was basically forced to announce his own retirement, that he was being discarded after getting just two at-bats over the previous seven games. He’d play one more week, but be paid for the following season and take on an ambiguous advisor role with the club. There would be no prolonged farewell. In fact, there’d be hardly any farewell at all, as manager Joe Girardi gave him all of one at-bat in the first two games against the Red Sox, leading to the cosmic absurdity of Boston fans in Fenway chanting for A-Rod. "My job description does not entail farewell tours," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said tersely Wednesday, as if he hadn’t orchestrated exactly that for Jeter in 2014.
So there is Thursday against the Sox, and there is Friday against the godawful Tampa Bay Rays—a home farewell that online ticket seller Gametime is still trying to sell tickets for, sending e-mails headed “A-Rod Final Game Prices Plunge.” This isn’t Kobe in L.A., no one is expecting a final blaze of glory, no one is spending five figures just to be there. It will be a sweltering night in the Bronx, just another game for a team barely in the wild card race. It’s a long way from where he started. "It's tough to come up with the words to describe how you feel when a player of Alex’s ability and class is so suddenly in your lineup,” then-manager Joe Torre said when Rodriguez was acquired. “I know that the fans of New York are going to love having him here on an everyday basis.” Friday is their chance to say goodbye. It won’t be the send-off he envisioned. It won’t be the send-off he deserved. But it will be the one he should have expected. Right from the start.