Don't Hate A-Rod: He's One of the Cleanest Yankee Greats Ever

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Gambling accusations are just the latest empty reason for the media to beat up on the star

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Reuters

When the news broke a week or so ago about Alex Rodriguez having participated in "illegal" high-stakes poker games back in 2009, the sports media rode it as if it was the second coming of the Pete Rose betting-on-baseball scandal. As of this morning, the story seems to have faded so quickly that some are wondering whether Commissioner Bid Selig will even bother to meet with A-Rod.

Why did the media jump on this one so hard? Could it be that they're really out to get him for his known association with gangsters, or for assaulting a fan in the stands, or for contracting syphilis?

How about holding out for more money at a time of great national hardship, or for causing a scandal when he kicked open the hotel door of a famous actress he had been married to?

It's becoming increasingly obvious that his real sins are being handsome, talented, young, wealthy, famous, and notoriously shallow.

Maybe for venting his wrath after striking out by smashing water coolers in the dugout? Or for a string of affairs with show girls? Or for public drunkenness on numerous occasions?

Perhaps for punching out his manager in the dugout on national television? Or bragging to the press, "I am the straw that stirs the drink"?

The answer is “no” to all of the above. The offenders in these instances were, in order, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio (the famous actress, of course, was Marilyn Monroe), Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson.

It's sobering to think about it, considering the huge amount of bad press Alex Rodriguez has garnered since coming to New York eight seasons ago. In fact, by the standards of Yankees superstar history, Rodriguez's behavior seems almost schoolboyish. Just what crimes, exactly, has Alex Rodriguez been guilty of?

None, really. In fact, just about everything you've heard about his transgressions is either exaggerated or just plain wrong. Let's start with the taint that followed him to New York: the curse of the ten-year, $252 million contract. Legend has it that the deal put Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks in a financial hole that it took the team years to dig out of.

Hicks did screw up the Rangers' finances, but it didn't have anything to do with A-Rod. For some reason, the media has usually chosen to overlook the fact that the Rangers, just prior to acquiring Rodriguez, negotiated a ten-year, $250 million cable agreement hooked to the team's signing a major Latin star, their research having determined that Hispanics were a huge, largely untapped market for cable.

What Hicks did was make the cable deal and pass on the money to Rodriguez while signing baseball's biggest gate attraction, and then reap the profits from ticket sales and merchandise.

Oh, by the way, the Steinbrenners picked up A-Rod from the Rangers at a bargain price. They only had to pay half his salary, with Hicks picking up the balance. How much of a bargain was that for the Yankees? Think of it this way: Derek Jeter, who's never approached A-Rod's production at the plate or in the field, has cost the Yankees more than Rodriguez, and now the Yankees are stuck with Jeter in his rapidly declining years.

Second, there is the rap that has plagued A-Rod since his first Yankees playoff game—the idea that he doesn't show up in the big games. Bill James has observed that once a player gets a reputation as a clutch hitter, he never seems to lose it. The inverse also seems to be true: When a guy becomes known—rightly or wrongly—for not being able to hit in the most important games, nothing he does can ever seem to dispel that notion.

In A-rod's case, however, the numbers just don't support the reputation: In 63 World Series and playoff games and 231 at-bats, Rodriguez has hit .290 with 13 home runs for a .396 on-base percentage and a .528 slugging average.

Let's compare his postseason performance with Reggie Jackson's: 77 games, 281 at-bats, .278 BA, 18 home runs, .358 OBP, and .527 SLG. Reggie's fame as "Mr. October" is based essentially on one World Series, 1977, where he hit five home runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and probably on a single game in that Series, when he hit three home runs. Even counting those legendary games, A-Rod has higher batting average, OBP and SLG than Mr. October.

Then, of course, there is Rodriguez's use of performance enhancing drugs while he was with the Rangers, from 2001 through 2003. That he was seeking a boost from these substances is undeniable, but whether they actually did boost his performance is dubious. From 1998-2000, when he was with the Seattle Mariners, he hit 51 home runs playing at home in two ball parks considered bad for power hitters (the team moved to a new stadium mid-season), and 74 on the road. Any baseball analyst will tell you that the true measure of a power hitter is how he performs on the road, outside his home ballpark.

Then, after going to the Rangers, from 2001-2003, a time he admitted to using steroids, Rodriguez hit a whopping 85 home runs in The Ballpark at Arlington and 70 on the road. The road numbers were actually slightly less than he had hit while playing with the Mariners. There's no evidence, though, that 85 home runs had anything to do with PEDs. The evidence instead points to the ballpark itself, which might have been the best power hitters' park in the American League in those years. Stated simply, Rodriguez's numbers were about the same as you'd expect from a really good slugger going from bad hitter's parks in Seattle to a good one in Texas.

But there's a larger point to be made. The constant assertions that Rodriguez used "illegal" drugs or that he violated the rules of Major League Baseball are patently untrue. Baseball did not ban any substance until the 2004 season. Rodriguez and all other major league ballplayers agreed to voluntary, anonymous drug testing in 2003 to determine how many were juicing. (It proved to be 103 out of around 1100.)

So, as far as anyone has been able to determine, Alex Rodriguez has never taken a substance that is either illegal or in violation of the rules of Major League Baseball.

So where does that leave us with poker? According to Star magazine, which, amazingly, the New York Times and ESPN seem willing to regard as a reputable source, Rodriguez played in illegal, high stakes poker games, possibly with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck. True, it does not speak well for Rodriguez’s character that he would play poker with notorious Red Sox fans like Affleck and Damon. But aside from that grievous lapse of judgment, what is he being accused of?

What is an "illegal" poker game if it takes place by invitation in a private home? (And why would someone who makes as much money as Rodriguez play anything but high-stakes poker?) There are rumors of cocaine use at one such poker party and possibly of violence or near violence when one of the players didn't pay up, but so far no one has suggesting that any of that has a connection to Rodriguez. The primary source for the Star magazine story, a professional gambler named Dan Bilzerian, now says that the magazine got it wrong, that A-Rod wasn't even there for those games and in fact he was playing against the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series.

MLB and Commissioner Bud Selig, of course, are going to look into this matter, and the commissioner will probably meet with Rodriguez in late August, shortly before A-Rod returns to lineup after knee surgery. But with no hard evidence and the always sturdy backing by the Players Association, don't expect anything to come from this whole non-incident.

Except, that is, a further tarnishing of Alex Rodriguez's reputation. Whatever the commissioner decides in this matter, it's becoming increasingly obvious that Rodriguez's real sins are being handsome, in fantastic condition, absurdly talented, relatively young, fabulously wealthy, ridiculously famous, and notoriously shallow. And lucky enough to have Cameron Diaz feed him popcorn at the Super Bowl.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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