Print and Go Back Commentary [Print without images]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Our Alex Rodriguez conundrum

By Tim Keown

Alex Rodriguez remains one home run away from 600, and apparently none of us is reacting the way we are supposed to react. Nobody is quite sure what the proper reaction should be, but everybody is sure that we aren't employing it. On that point, there is unanimity.

There are theories to explain our bizarre behavior, whatever that behavior might be. It might be individual behavior on your part or collective behavior on all of our parts. Either way, it's not what anybody expected. At this point, without the benefit of a government grant and a few years of observational distance, the reasons behind our inadequate reaction(s) are pretty much all guesswork. Regardless, some of the great sports scientists of our time -- those working across all media platforms -- have blessed us with their expertise. They have advanced theories in the form of fact.

The three most popular, in descending order:

We watch. (Well, some of us.) We wait. But what do we think about Alex Rodriguez and the upcoming milestone?

1. A-Rod's numbers are stained by his admission of using steroids, and the baseball-loving public -- wedded to the sanctity of numbers in a 'til-death-do-us-part pact -- isn't interested in celebrating any milestone achieved by a cheater.

2. A-Rod is not easy to adopt, no matter the occasion. He is not lovable or huggable or even understandable. He is the human hologram, and those who love baseball are using it against him as he climbs the ladder of immortality.

3. A-Rod is not a True Yankee, whatever the hell this might mean. According to this theory, if Paul O'Neill were one home run away from 600, buses in Amsterdam would sit idling in front of appliance stores to allow passengers to watch through the windows every time he came to the plate. Don Mattingly would have families crowded around the set so expectantly they'd have to remind each other to breathe. If Bernie Williams were sitting on 599, even the A's would sell out when the Yankees came to town.

I won't try to speak for you or your motivations, but I can speak for myself. My response/reaction to Rodriguez is as follows: I don't have one. Usually, when someone is approaching a milestone like this one, I'd be interested in watching if only to see the reaction. That's a nonfactor with A-Rod, because we already know how he will respond: awkwardly, with actions that present a reasonable facsimile of human emotion but stop just short of the real thing. In the insular, atomized world of professional sports stardom, A-Rod is second only to Tiger Woods in terms of emotional distance from those who follow him. So yes, I guess there is a personal element to all of this.

Besides, we all knew this was coming, right? It's not like a hitting streak or a pennant race; as Rodriguez kept hitting home runs, well into the high 500s, it seemed clear he was going to reach 600 at some point. And for everyone who compares this with all the Milestone 600 homers of the past, here's something: You're making our argument for us. It's happened before, and it's going to happen at some point next year with Jim Thome, and with each subsequent 600th, we become less enthralled and enthused. Is that so hard to figure out?

Complaining about this, or making it some sort of referendum on baseball or steroids or A-Rod's own cipher-like self, seems almost willfully ignorant. If A-Rod somehow embarks on a late-career power surge and gets within one of Barry Bonds -- something that doesn't seem likely without a little more assistance from Slugger's Little Helper -- we'll probably sit up straighter in our chairs and pay the kind of attention we aren't paying now.

(By the way, just now on my television Vin Scully described Casey Blake being hit by a pitch for the eighth time this year as "ocho oucho." Now that's the kind of thing we can get enthralled and enthused about.)

Another missed opportunity for No. 600, this one on Monday night.

Honestly, do you remember where you were when Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 600th? I don't, and I bet you don't either. And he was never marked with the steroid stain, and he didn't have to fight the curse of The Real Yankee. However, if you believe all the grumping and pontificating, the world stopped every time someone other than A-Rod reached 599.

This is strictly a media-made creation: Concoct a scenario that is patently false -- steroids are causing our disinterest, we don't like A-Rod, he doesn't measure up to the uniform -- and then concoct reasons why it's happening.

Most of those bemoaning or explaining the lack of A-Rod adulation refer to what used to happen Back in the Day, a time when everybody cared about milestones because there weren't as many of them and we didn't know as much about what our heroes were ingesting or how they behaved off the field.

Which brings up another factor working against A-Rod: competition. How can we devote all our time to A-Rod when we're waiting for the next media member to attempt to run the Albert Haynesworth Shuttle in the allotted time? (Now that James Fallows, a 61-year-old writer for The Atlantic, has successfully completed the task, we hear John Madden's people are mulling a six-figure offer.) How can we be expected to pay attention to every at-bat when we're mock-drafting our fantasy football team while seriously considering taking a flier on T.O.? How can we be expected to care about one guy on one team looking to hit one home run when every other person in his or her 40s can't start their car without first posting a photo of the key on Facebook?

Sorry, A-Rod. We don't know what we're doing wrong, but we know we're doing it. Problem is, it's tough out here. The competition's fierce. A piece of advice: Just get it over with, because pretty soon the attention is going to take an ugly turn. You know the drill: A-Rod can't perform in the clutch. And nobody wants to tackle that one again.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Sound off to Tim here.