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Sunday, January 12, 2014
The sad truth about Alex Rodriguez

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

Alex Rodriguez is a chronic liar, an admitted PED user and a celebrity whose love of money, records and fame is exceeded only by his paradoxical lack of self-confidence and the pathological behaviors it inspired.

But of all the things Rodriguez lost Saturday when an arbitrator suspended the New York Yankees' 38-year-old third baseman for the 2014 season, what will level A-Rod the most is this: He won't have the simple right to jog out every day from March to October and play the game.

His love of baseball is the most genuine thing about him, his one public posture that is definitely not a lie.

Alex Rodriguez
Even during his circus-like minor league rehab stints last summer, Alex Rodriguez relished the chance to talk baseball.

None of that makes Rodriguez a sympathetic figure. But it does explain a few things, such as why every other player caught up in the Biogenesis scandal quickly took his punishment and moved on. Rodriguez alone chose to battle Bud Selig and the MLB establishment.

"I'm fighting here for my baseball life," Rodriguez has repeatedly said -- a lament he's sure to revive if he keeps his promise to continue his quixotic fight into federal court, even though most legal analysts give him a slim-to-none chance to succeed.

In a statement released Saturday after arbitrator Frederic Horowitz announced his ruling, Rodriguez threatened to show up for spring training next month, which has left the Yankees unsure of how to proceed.

"I will continue to work hard to get back on the field and help the Yankees achieve the ultimate goal of winning another championship," he said.

But Rodriguez used to routinely evoke his love of the game in less momentous situations. I'm thinking in particular of a conversation we had two seasons ago. Rodriguez and I had been sitting in the Yankees' dugout before a game, just talking for about 20 minutes during batting practice, and the topic that unexpectedly most animated him was not reliving the home run he had hit two Fridays earlier to move into fifth place on baseball's all-time list. It was not the buzz over Robinson Cano replacing him in the cleanup spot in the Yanks' batting order that night.

No, the long and passionate tangent that Rodriguez embarked on was about why he missed talking baseball like he used to after he hit the big leagues as an 18-year-old phenom in 1994.

Al Leiter, a former teammate and now part-time Yankees broadcaster, provoked the nostalgia, approaching A-Rod with a question about a 2-1 pitch in sixth inning the day before. Back and forth they went, two baseball nuts debating all the permutations for 15 spirited minutes.

"You can go six years without a question like that now. I really miss that," Rodriguez said with a sigh. "When I came up, it was always like that -- 6, 7, 8, 10 guys just having a drink after the game, icing their knees, just talking shop for two hours. And now it's just like there's no baseball talk now. Which is not bad. It's just the way the game is now. The culture has changed.

"Before, we didn't have videos like we have now. So you'd say, 'Jason [Giambi], what did his ball do?' Or he'd say, "Alex, did his breaking ball break 12 to 6? Six to 12? What?' And that's the way we'd educate each other. ... I mean, that stuff is priceless. But very little of that goes on now. Because guys don't have to. They go back 20 feet" -- A-Rod waved a hand toward the dugout tunnel to the clubhouse -- "and they have film, which they're going to believe a lot more than their teammate."

He was done illustrating his point now. He said, "You know?" one more time, looking for affirmation.

When I laughed and needled Rodriguez, telling him that of all the labels he had in his career -- kid phenom, legendary slugger, playoff goat-turned-playoff hero, occasional arm candy for singers and starlets like Madonna, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz -- people are going to be surprised to read he is a cranky old baseball wonk, Rodriguez rocked back and forth, nodding and laughing.

"Oh! I've always been a baseball nerd," he said. "The guys, they make fun of me all the time because I'm always doing some goofy plyometrics stuff or I'm watching film or I've always been a gym rat.

"They tell me all the time, 'Al? Just go home.'"

Rodriguez shrugged one last time, and then he said something else that hints at why his 2014 suspension will eat at him like nothing else.

Looking out over the field now and then back at me again, Rodriguez said, "This is home to me. You know?"