Not so long ago, Alex Rodriguez was the undisputed best baseball player on the planet. An elite player throughout his time in Seattle and Texas, Rodriguez was the only true threat to Barry Bonds as the greatest player of the modern era. Then came the fall.
His career was marred by steroids, while his struggles in the post-season as a Yankee overshadowed everything else. But after he briefly removed the "choker" label when he powered the Yankees to their 27th World Series title in 2009, his numbers declined as he fell in the shadow of Albert Pujols.
After losing his grasp on the title of best hitter in baseball, Rodriguez slowly drifted away from baseball prominence.
Suddenly his most notable accomplishments were chronicled in US Weekly instead of Baseball Tonight. Since the bulk of his on-field accomplishments came before the tabloid stories, people identified him with steroids and being a centaur. The non-baseball entity of A-Rod came to overshadow his on-field performance.
Then came the 2012 postseason. All of a sudden all eyes were on Alex Rodriguez the baseball player again. Suddenly his individual baseball performance drew the same scrutiny as the rest of his life. And when it did, people were shocked to see an athlete in decline in his late thirties. All of a sudden it wasn't the nagging injuries, Joe Torre's book selling campaign or Jeter's high and mighty attitude toward the team's highest paid player that explained his struggles. It wasn't a steamy sex life with Kate Hudson that the New York papers cared about. He just couldn't hit.
But, inevitably, Rodriguez' struggles got the A-Rod scrutiny. It's because he's off the steroids. He's giving his number to models during games; he's just not focused. Hmmm... Wrong! Rodriguez' stats have been declining since his last MVP year in 2007. His power numbers have tumbled, his batting average is falling and he's getting injured more often... because he went from 32 to 37 years old during that time!
The only shocking aspect of Rodriguez' crucifixion is the criticism itself. The exorbitant salary is a factor to be sure, but who in their right mind thought there was such a person who could rake into their 40's? Rodriguez seems to think he can bounce back "like in 2007." But to be clear, he was "bouncing back" from a 35 home run, 121 RBI season then. Now, unless he can make up with Jeter and get a taste of the captain's syringe of youth, he won't be having a career turnaround after 35 like the Yankees' shortstop.
To be clear, Rodriguez isn't likely to plunge into a deep abyss either. At 37, it's as much about staying healthy as anything else. His hip issue a couple years back was a sign of wear, but some of the other injuries (like the broken hand this year) are simply poor luck. If he can avoid any injuries during 2013, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Rodriguez produce a season of 20-25 home runs and 85 RBI. He still has good baseball in him, even as the greatness trickles away.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman summed it up best -- he's a good player, just not an elite one anymore. How is this such a shocking and sudden realization to so many you ask? First it was off the field noise shifting the focus away from his performance. Initially it was steroids. Then it was Kate Hudson. Then it was the half-man half-horse mural in his apartment. Then it was Madonna. After that it was the injuries, the hip and the hand.
But it wasn't just the personally driven distractions. The Yankees lost Steinbrenner, then Torre, then Jeter struggled, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain flamed out, Jeter made a miraculous comeback and hit 3,000, Pineda went down before ever throwing a pitch and, finally, Mariano Rivera went down. With the Yankees there's always another earth-shattering event. Another dramatic story to be written. Now it's Rodriguez' turn to endure an overblown story about his future -- a future that will inevitably continue in the Bronx, where they have no better option on the corner and no hope of trading an overpaid player with a full no-trade clause due to his status as a 10/5 player.
Simply put, Rodriguez' struggles were camouflaged by virtue of being a Yankee. From his personal life to the life of the team, the power of the pinstripes shifted the focus away from A-Rod's individual game. It wasn't until it affected the team in its most desperate hour that his performance became relevant again. Only then did people take notice of how human A-Rod has become on the field. Only then did his salary become a hot topic again. And only then did he become the fall guy.