All That Glitters

The New York Times

November 6, 2009

By Doug Glanville

Alex Rodriguez has sent at least one monkey off his tired shoulders for the time being. The nagging feeling of inadequacy over never having been a champion often follows great players for their entire careers, whispering or maybe even yelling in their ear that they are not as good as they think, or that no matter how many records they break they are still somehow a notch below the other guy, whose statistics are dwarfed by their own.

Alex can put that to rest: he is now a world champion. His performance in the division series against the Twins showed why he is a three-time Most Valuable Player and a clutch performer. He capped it off with a big hit in Game 4 in Philadelphia that became the game-winning R.B.I. and put the World Series effectively out of Philly’s hands. Although he didn’t win a World Series M.V.P., he did enough to secure the Yankee victory.

But is Alex resting?

It has been well documented that he has had a tough year. The leaking of select names on the list of players who tested positive for steroid use in 2003 included his name first and foremost, and it dragged down the trajectory of his phenomenal accomplishments. A book about him didn’t paint a pretty picture. His marriage was in shambles and became the clichéd collateral damage in the self-absorbed world of baseball. And his championship trophy case was still empty.

Alex was gracious enough to drop me a note a little while ago, and I recently wrote him back. If I knew then what I know today — that he would soon earn that ever-elusive ring — I would have asked him whether it was all worth it, the dabbling in performance enhancers, the singular focus to the detriment of his close circle, the bouncing around the country and the contracts, and if so, why? But I’ll take an armchair crack at it.

When you sign a professional contract, apart from your obsession to get to the next level and ultimately the big leagues, you are also trying to be a winner. In fact, most players littered throughout the minor leagues have been champions at one point or another. They are coming from towns, cities, neighborhoods and countries where they dominated. They were the best, they have tasted sweet victory, and in a lot of cases they did it by just being better than everyone else.

But the idea of being better than everyone else disappears the higher you go. You might find yourself the best in a certain area, or the best for this month, or it could be you’re the best at hitting a curve ball. Usually, that level of specificity is not what most players expect after having being the best, period.

My reality check came after I won just about every foot race I ran as a teenager in Teaneck, N.J., and even one at age 25 in Puerto Rico against a couple of their national runners and the notably fast Bernie Williams (he did say I jumped the gun) during an all-star skills contest. And yet: Fernando Ramsey, from Panama, who played the same position as me, was faster than I was in the 60-yard dash. Ramsey would finish like Usain Bolt, arms lifted in celebration 10 yards before the end. He was that far ahead.

So how do you stay better when the competition is stiffer, and the idea of “better” is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be, and you’re also facing realities like age and injury?

In baseball’s last 15 years, the answer for some has been steroids or some form of performance-enhancing drug. Chemical advantages may have existed since the dawn of the game, but only during this latest era have the record books been so ignominiously torched. But while more records than ever were shattered, so was respect for history. The new level of greatness of today’s players is astonishing, but tainted.

The path of chemical enhancement hardly traces the curve of a rainbow, and only Alex can now answer whether the pot of gold was worth it (that is, if it even exists). Despite his assertion that his steroid use ended years ago, his path was forever bent in a new direction with big responsibility, big questions to answer and a lifetime of working towards new credibility, if only for his own peace of mind. I’d love to hear his response; not today while it’s all still fresh, but when he takes a vacation and finds himself alone at the top of the nicest hotel in the world, looking over the ocean and the mountains, with time to reflect, a quiet time to be honest with himself . . . then I would like to know.

Maybe he can shed light on some questions many athletes ask themselves. Did I miss something as a ballplayer because I wasn’t willing to make certain personal sacrifices in order to be great by the standards of statistics and longevity? Should I have traded something that was important to me?

Then again, I probably had my answer years ago, well before having seen many players go down that more expedient path and still end up as used goods after another bad year in Double-A. But maybe it is different when you make the Hall of Fame, or win the World Series in New York, of all places.

In any event, Alex has his ring, and I congratulate him. It could be another step towards just being able to play the game, as he started doing after the big secret was out and continued doing when he let it all hang out in the first round of the playoffs. In many ways, I root for him. I’m hopeful that this notch in his belt will change something profound for him so that he’ll pursue not just the milestones typical of a baseball career, but even more meaningful ones. Ones that glitter only through his eyes, and not for the world’s.

New York Times 11/06/2009


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