I realize that the last thing regular Bronx Banter readers probably need is another Alex Rodriguez article, but there are two that I wanted to share with you. The first, by Eric Neel, is up on ESPN today. Neel explores what I've been talking about all year--how Rodriguez's vulnerabilites actually make him approachable. Rodriguez, Neel writes:
...Comes off as this odd blend of superstar talent and confidence, packaged with common-guy uncertainty and instability. He's someone we have to think about. What makes him tick? How's he holding up? Is being in the fishbowl getting to him? Someone we have to engage on a kind of basic human level.
"It's complicated with A-Rod," says Steven Goldman, author of the Pinstriped Bible at YesNetwork.com. "It's about us, too writers, fans, whomever about how we respond to him. Can we accept him; can we empathize with the possibility that he has weaknesses just like any of us? Or do we reject him? Do we make fun of him and distance ourselves from him? It's like an after-school special almost."
Everyone says, "It's hard to have sympathy for a guy making $252 million." We struggle to see ourselves in someone so wealthy and so talent-rich. The guy is so good, and at such a young age, that we literally have no analogs for him in our experience. We don't relate. He strikes us as robotic, as impossibly skilled. We can't sympathize. But empathy is a different impulse.
Empathy means stepping outside ourselves and our conventions. We don't really know what kind of stress A-Rod feels, but empathy would have us wonder. Empathy would have us thinking about how "sensitive" might be the flip side of "passionate." Empathy also could mean imagining how opening up to the media, or being vulnerable to the people, wouldn't be the easiest thing in the world for a guy who has been under the microscope since he was a teenage kid growing up in Miami without a father. It would mean being emotionally entangled, responsible even.
Most of us reject that prospect. We run from it. We prefer the simple, familiar mechanics of winners and losers, heroes and villains, guys who have it and guys who don't. We say it's all about the rings. We say, as if we have no weaknesses ourselves, as if we've never shrunk from anything in our personal or professional lives, "suck it up" and "be a man." We demonize, then exile the "weak" guy. We treat him as if his sensitivities were contagious, as if he had cooties.
Bruce Weber, writing in the New York Times several weeks ago, echoes this line of thinking:
The sports talk shows relentlessly parsed Rodriguez's personality. What the heck is wrong with the guy? It must be in his mind, right? One television analyst (baseball analyst, that is), said Rodriguez was already a lost cause in New York, that it would be better both for him and the Yankees if he were traded to another city, where his delicate psyche could repair itself in an atmosphere unpoisoned by the home fans' disappointment. The former mayor of New York Rudolph W. Giuliani was moved to give an interview, counseling New Yorkers not to boo A-Rod because, he said, positive reinforcement is clearly what the man needs, and besides, it's in the best interest of the Yankees.
Through it all, the lack of sympathy has been remarkable. People aren't exactly angry at the guy, but they seem to feel his troubles serve him right -- certainly not the general reaction to those in the throes of a breakdown.
His critics fixate on his failures: it was rare you heard that the same week he made the five errors, he also became the youngest man in the history of baseball to reach 450 home runs. Besides, hitting is more of a reactive enterprise than throwing; when a pitch is thrown you've got only a fraction of a second to swing the bat, and that's not enough time for a mental lapse. (Another bit of Berra wisdom: "You can't hit and think at the same time.") The point is that A-Rod's problems are not so easy to explain away with a definable diagnosis, as a mental tic that leaves him helpless, a condition you can look at and say, Huh, poor guy, it must be tough to live with something like that. Rather, he seems to be someone with a life, an attitude, a personality, demands, responsibilities, priorities and uncertainties, operating in an arena where success is far from a certainty. Someone, well, normal.
He turned 31 on Thursday; maybe it's a midlife crisis. In any case, unlike, say, Knoblauch, whose fits of poor throwing seemed alien, like an exotic disease he somehow unluckily caught, A-Rod is anything but strange. Maybe we're so caught up in his angst because we have met the All-Star and he is us.
We like our failures to be obvious--that is why it is easy to root for underdogs like Sal Fasano and Bubba Crosby. But when the guy who seemingly has everything--talent, money, good-looks, is also terribly vulnerable, it is a turn-off. Moreover, it brings out a viciousness in people that is almost palpable. What's up with that?