The myth of Sisyphus tells the story of a Greek king damned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill as punishment for a life of arrogance and greed. Until the end of all things, and beyond, Sisyphus will still lie below in Tartarus, rolling his boulder up his hill until it falls back down, and he begins his struggle once again.
Alex Rodriguez is the active leader in games played. He has taken the field 2,719 times. He has stepped into the batter’s box 11,964 times, and reached base 38.2 percent of the times he was there. He is the active leader in hits, home runs and walks. He has rolled the boulder up the hill at the highest level since 1994. This spring, he will shoulder the load once again.
A-Rod is baseball’s Sisyphus. He is a once-mighty warrior reduced to a shell of his former self, ground to dust by the relentless march of time and by himself, and then reborn like a power-hitting positionless phoenix out of the ashes. Nobody expected A-Rod to be anything better than even replacement level last year. After a furlough of a year and a half, A-Rod turned in a full season and 2.5 WARP while celebrating his 40th birthday.
Rodriguez has two years and $20 million left on his contract. He will be the team’s designated hitter as long as his body allows it, and possibly a little bit beyond that point too. He, CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner will be the final members of the 2009 World Series team left in pinstripes when he enters his final year with the team. A-Rod will also be the final member of my childhood Yankees to depart.
I was a sophomore in high school when the Yankees beat the Phillies and won it all. The season is a bit of a blur in my mind. It was a merging of the old (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, A-Rod) and the new (Sabathia, Mark Teixeira) to devastating effect. The Sabathia and Teixeira signings, as well as the trade for Nick Swisher, put a new jolt of energy into the team. There was a new stadium, a new ace, and a new first baseman. The Yankees still had the same closer, the same shortstop, the same closer, the same Godzilla, the same A-Rod. But this was an A-Rod marred by injuries and fan outrage over a perceived lack of clutch performance. It was an A-Rod that would eventually carry the Yankees to the World Series almost entirely by himself.
He was in a truly strange position in my mind. I first paid attention to baseball around 2000. The Yankees were winning championships with homegrown talent and a dash of Martinez, O’Neill and Clemens. As someone who grew up in the tri-state area, you had to throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza to be reviled by kids my age. The Yankees were fun and cool, led by a wholesome posterboy in Jeter that could do no wrong. There were no gift baskets yet, just good Yankee baseball, and all was well. Then Aaron Boone was a fool and hurt himself playing basketball, and all bets were off. The Rocket was the first big heel that the Yankees acquired during the dynasty years around the turn of the century. But he was nothing compared to the sheer disdain that was conjured up by A-Rod.
A-Rod, who had a fling with Madonna and with the Manhattan Madam. A-Rod, who alienated Jeter. A-Rod, who was embroiled in a steroid scandal and opted out of his contract while the World Series was on. A-Rod, who had to deny that he was involved in illegal underground poker games. A-Rod, who so infamously waltzed into Mike Francesa’s studio after blowing up at an MLB hearing. A-Rod, who developed a reputation as being woefully unclutch. A-Rod, who Mark Wahlberg should have shot instead of Jeter. Clemens may have been a steroid-fueled hothead who spirited away Andy Pettitte to Houston, but at least he wasn’t A-Rod.
Though A-Rod, Sabathia, Teixiera and Gardner were on that 2009 team, A-Rod has been in New York far longer. He’s been a constant figure on the Yankees for almost all of my baseball-watching life. He’s the final link to my childhood on the team, and he will be the link between three versions of the Yankees.
A-Rod’s first year in the Bronx coincided with the beginning what I like to think of as “The Gary Sheffield Yankees.” Though Sheffield only played in the Bronx from 2004-06, he was the defining figure of the period from 2004-08 in my young brain. Sheffield was old, and he missed a lot of time in his third year. This was the era of Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson; of Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez. Stars on the decline passed through the Bronx like travelers on the D train. Though the teams won, there was a palpably odd feel to everything. The core of Jeter, Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Petitte (minus his Clemens-organized field trip to Houston) was largely still intact, and Hideki Matsui was loads of fun, but it was hard to get attached to any of the outsiders. Chein-Ming Wang’s injury, Kei Igawa’s crash and burn, the Joba Rules and the trials and tribulations of Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes all imposed a feeling that the team could only grow through external methods. Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera were the only ones that offered a glimmer of hope.
Rodriguez won two MVP awards during this time. He was utterly brilliant. It may have been because I was young and not very cognizant of the game beyond New York, and because of my father’s disdain for him, but I never truly realized just how titanic A-Rod was. I took him for granted because I didn’t have anything to compare him to. He laid waste to the big leagues as he always had, and the Yankees routinely made the playoffs.
Until they didn’t. The Yankees failed to reach the postseason in 2008, Joe Torre was fired, and the next age of Yankees baseball, which I mentally refer to as “The CC Sabathia Era,” began. A-Rod has persevered through that era, suspension and all. Between Jeter’s retirement, A-Rod’s return and the new youth movement, 2015 is the beginning of something new. The Yankees are beginning to grow themselves from the inside again. Luis Severino, Greg Bird and more are the beginning of the next wave of youth from the farm.
What Rodriguez did in 2015 was nothing short of a miracle, but it was also the greatest trick the man so many see as baseball’s devil ever pulled. In one fell swoop, A-Rod returned to the field, got his 3000th hit, and made New York love him. It can be argued that Rodriguez was never truly loved by the city until last season. Everybody loves an underdog. The only thing that’s easier to love than an underdog story is a redemption story. The media loved him. New York loved him. My dad didn’t hate him anymore.
A-Rod didn’t simply start slugging again. He became the true face of the team, with no Jeter to stop him. This will only be his team for so long, as someone like Greg Bird, Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge will take up the mantle. But for now, it is none other than baseball’s biggest heel that holds the honor.
2016 will mark the 13th year that A-Rod has been a Yankee. His story is in many ways the story of the franchise over that time. Just as his career has been rebooted, so too has the Yankee method of team-building. It’s entirely possible that we don’t see the Yankees go on a massive free agent binge until the Great Bryce Harper HuntTM that’s coming to a theater near you in 2018. A-Rod will be gone by then, and that’s when Harper will likely become the player that steers the ship through the various future iterations of the team. A-Rod has had Yankee teammates that range from John Olerud to Jacob Lindgren. He was teammates with Goose Gossage in Seattle, a man that began his career in 1972.
A-Rod’s story is the story of the Yankees, and of baseball in the 21st century. For better or for worse, he is the defining figure of the franchise for the duration of his tenure in pinstripes. The Yankees are timeless and will carry on until the heat death of the universe. Yet for me, it’s been Alex Rodriguez that has defined the team. He is the last vestige of a bygone era, a baseball coelacanth. It’s only fitting that he will be the last to leave.
Lead photo: Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports