New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez may be the most hated figure in sports, but he is a man for our time. He is a master at the insincere mea culpa, at self-involvement, at pretense and greed. Not just greed for money, but for fame and glory. If he had only disgraced himself playing for the Texas Rangers, that would be one thing, but he has done it playing for the most storied franchise in sports, whose legends are synonymous with baseball greatness.
So let’s consider the tale of two prodigiously talented Yankee corner infielders, separated by about 80 years and a vast moral chasm.
Like Rodriguez in his prime, first baseman Lou Gehrig posted awesome offensive numbers. But what is most remarkable about him isn’t the statistics — the career .340 batting average, the 493 home runs, the 184 RBIs in one season — it’s the character. He was modest even at the height of his powers, calling himself “just the Yankee who’s in there every day.” When tragedy struck, he made his debilitating illness an epic of dignity.
In 1939, he removed himself from the lineup after playing a record 2,130 consecutive games, for “the good of the team.” Soon after, he was diagnosed with the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that killed him two years later. On “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” on July 4, 1939, his sobbing manager Joe McCarthy called him “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman and citizen that baseball has ever known.” He recalled how Gehrig told him he was quitting because he had become a drag on the team. “My God, man,” McCarthy said, “you were never that.”
In his address, Gehrig famously said: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” He cited the “kindness and encouragement” of fans, his association with the “grand men” of the game, the gifts on that day from everyone, including the groundskeepers, and his wife, who “has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed.”
They called the movie about Gehrig “Pride of the Yankees.” Then, there’s Alex Rodriguez.
He knows the basic rules of 21st-century damage control: First, lie, and when that becomes unsustainable, confess and become a celebrity spokesperson against your vice.
Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids in his 2003 MVP season with the Rangers. He had previously denied using steroids on national TV, but eventually admitted it, explaining that he had been young, stupid and naive. He pledged never to use steroids again. He did events for the Taylor Hooton Foundation, named in honor of a 17-year-old who had abused steroids and taken his own life.
Nonetheless, here he is again, facing a 211-game suspension for abusing steroids. Unless he’s the victim of a vast conspiracy, he has been caught cheating a second time. Perhaps because he is old, stupid and cynical? Appealing the suspension, Rodriguez says that he’s “fighting for his life.”
Every era has its scamps and frauds, and there is still honor in baseball. Look no further than Rodriguez’s throwback teammate Mariano Rivera. But our diminished appreciation for self-restraint means our culture has become better over time at enabling Alex Rodriguezes than creating Lou Gehrigs.
The difference between the two Yankees is the difference between going away with grace when no one wants you to leave, and sticking around, gracelessly, when most everyone would prefer that you go. It’s the difference between fighting for your life but not mentioning it, and saying you’re fighting for your life when you are not. It’s the difference between calling yourself the luckiest man on Earth when you have been dealt an ugly hand by fate, and pitying yourself when your predicament is the product of your own bad choices.
From Gehrig to Rodriguez is a long way down.