Monday, February 23, 2009

Uncool kid

Alex Rodriguez' real problem isn't PEDs. It's that he isn't cool. The cool kids get away with this stuff. Think about Jason Giambi, all golden thongs and tats and almost-confessions that let us pretend he's come clean so we can love him again. But the uncool kids - the jerks like Bonds and the bullies like Clemens and the sanctimonious teachers' pets like Raffy Palmiero - they don't get away with it. In the court of public opinion, ultimately they're tried for being uncool, and that's when they really get hammered.

So consider A-Rod. When he came up with the Mariners, he was the overachieving nerd, the gawky, hyper-talented kid on a team that already had its smiling, beloved face in Ken Griffey, Jr. He wasn't cool; Griffey sucked up most of the cool in the room, and what was left went to the glowering but personable Randy Johnson. A-Rod was the grind, the kid all the cool kids went to for help with their homework. Big Unit racked up strikeouts, Junior leapt over the wall to take away homers, and A-Rod was the baseball equivalent of the study-hound, quietly excelling in the shadow of the more popular kids.

When his free agency rolled around, that was the defining moment for Rodriguez' coolness. He could have established himself as cool if he'd stayed in Seattle, pledged his loyalty to one team and let the narrative be written for him. Loyal player, wants to win with the team that signed him, blah blah blah - the writers would have made him a hero. Or, if he'd signed with the Cubs, or the Yankees, or the Red Sox - one of the grand old "tradition" franchises - that would have been a story, and potentially could have cemented him as a Schilling-esque "student of the game".

But no, he chased the dollars down in Texas, forever branding himself the two-faced greedhead who lied about wanting to stay in Seattle while going for the big bucks. Never mind that's what me or thee might do - getting paid epic gobs of money to move to a more favorable work environment? Where do I sign? - it was an uncool thing to do. The contract made him an easy target, but the die had been cast. He was all about the money, and visible greed, without lip service to tradition or loyalty or "the chance to win" is uncool.

The botched trade to the Red Sox and the subsequent arrival in New York? More of the same. Never mind that he was willing to take less scratch to go to Boston; that didn't fit the narrative, so it got ignored. Instead, it was all about not caring which "side" in the rivalry he landed on, and then, the worst thing possible:

Landing in New York, playing the same position as Captain Jetes.

Derek Jeter, you see, is cool. Really cool. And he did exactly what the cool kids have been doing to the uncool kids since time immemorial - he picked on A-Rod. Forced him to acknowledge Jeter's dominance, sandbagged him in the media, withheld support at key moments, and made it clear that nobody else was supposed to like A-Rod either.

It didn't help that A-Rod wanted to be cool, which meant wanting Jeter to like him - a sucker bet if ever there were one. He agreed to slide to third base, despite the fact that he was the superior defender at short, but got no credit for the move - or for improving Jeter's defense. And he waited for Jeter to come to his defense over the post-season nonsense when it was never in Jeter's interest to do so. After all, making A-Rod cool would have diminished Jeter's own standing as the coolest kid in school, the queen bee of the Yankee scene's mean girls.

And yet, Rodriguez kept trying, as if he wanted to be cool but didn't know how. Dating Madonna? That's cool, right. Well, it might have been when Jose Canseco did it, but Madonna's coolness factor has long since passed its sell-by date. But it's what Madonna stood for that Rodriguez was after, anyway, the trophy that signified he'd made it past the velvet rope into a place that neither his money nor his stats could ever get him. It's sad to watch. Behind every over-calculated move is one eternally burning question: "Will this get people to like me?"

The answer, for now and always, is no.
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