BALTIMORE – Alex Rodriguez might play in 81 road games this year, which means for a half summer he will encounter people like Tolbert Rowe. Monday afternoon, Rowe made the drive from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Camden Yards, riding and chatting with friends who share his partial season-ticket package.
“We’re like, what are we going to do when A-Rod comes up?” Rowe said. “I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do.’ ”
Each time Rodriguez walked to the plate Monday night, Rowe rose from his seat in Section 78 four rows behind the left field fence, crossed his arms over his Baltimore Orioles track jacket and turned his back on the field. Rowe refused to watch as Wei-Yin Chen struck Rodriguez out twice, as Rodriguez popped up to shallow right field in his third at-bat and as he grounded out to short in his last attempt.
“I don’t respect him,” said Rowe, a 56-year-old who serves on the Caroline County board of education. “He doesn’t deserve to be watched. Absolutely not, I’m sorry. You know, and now they got all this about his tying Willie Mays’s record and the $6 million, and he has the audacity to think that he should be paid. I’m sorry. I don’t respect the guy. Not one bit.”
The boos sounded the same as they always used to for Rodriguez. The noise had long ago grown perfunctory during his walk from the on-deck circle to the plate, a constant road-stadium soundtrack. The precise context may have been different for this, his first road game since Sept. 19, 2013, his first appearance away from Yankee Stadium since his year-long suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. But Rodriguez has shouldered the enmity of an entire stadium.
“Same I’ve heard the last 15 years,” Rodriguez said. “Par for the course. I thought they were great.”
Rowe provided a different kind of rebuke, and in the process he revealed the highly visceral, somewhat illogical matter in which Rodriguez makes fans loathe him. Or, to be more precise, loathe what he has come to represent.
Rowe used to attend games at Memorial Stadium, and he’s owned a small season-ticket package since Camden Yards opened in 1992. The Orioles have fielded teams with convicted PED users, including Nelson Cruz, whom the Orioles signed after he served a 50-game suspension as part of the same Biogenesis scandal that ensnared Rodriguez. Rowe never turned his back on them, and he said he would not have protested any drug cheat aside from Rodriguez. “Oh, no,” he admitted. “Just him.”
So, why just him?
“Because he’s the worst,” Rowe said. “He’s the epitome of all that was wrong about it. And he’s been so successful. Maybe it’s jealousy, maybe it isn’t. But I just don’t think that he deserves to be in the class with other players that have never had … and I mean, he lied about it. I’m sorry. He doesn’t deserve my respect.”
The way Rodriguez reacted in 2009 to the revelation he tested positive for steroids earlier in his career sets him apart. He pleaded for mercy, played fans for fools, lied when he got caught, sued everyone including his own union.
But his biggest difference in comparison with other players caught using, whether hecklers admit it or not, may be his sheer talent. They may be mad he wasted such greatness, or they may feel deceived at how he achieved greatness. Either way, it’s the greatness — on top of his other flaws – that draws so much loathing.
As he watched the bottom of the seventh inning, a reporter asked Rowe why he didn’t mind the Orioles signing Cruz. He paused. “It was different,” Rowe said. “Cruz’s record wasn’t anywhere near what A-Rod’s was. It would be similar to me finding out that Cal Ripken was on steroids during The Streak.”
Even now, remnants of Rodriguez’s greatness remain. In a largely bleak start to their season, Rodriguez has been perhaps the Yankees’ most indispensable player. He leads them in RBI. He is the only Yankee to have started every game. He has batted in every spot in the lineup between second and seventh. He reclaimed his old position, third base, Monday, if only for a night, after having served as the designated hitter five times and first baseman once, for the first time in his 21-year career.
“The only question he needs to answer is, how many days can you run him out there before you need to give him a day [off]?” Manager Joe Girardi said.
He may be a drug cheat and a proven liar, an unrepentant egoist and a scoundrel of the highest order. Rodriguez remains a genius with a bat in his hands. At his apex, Rodriguez hit a pitched ball as well as any man who ever lived. Even if he utilized chemical enhancement to reach that peak, even if time eroded his skill and time away disturbed his timing, Rodriguez retained expertise.
“I mentioned in spring training that he was born to hit,” Yankees hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. “He hasn’t changed my mind.”
At the start of spring training, Pentland and Rodriguez watched video of Rodriguez’s swing from 2009, the year he hit .286 with a .933 OPS and helped the Yankees win the World Series. Pentland instructed Rodriguez to revert to the short stroke and balanced lower half he used then. Rodriguez continued to watch the film all spring. Pentland said a side-by-side comparison of the two swings, from 2009 and this week, would yield “no differences.”
“There’s still some good life in his bat,” one National League scout said. “He’s still a threat. He’s got real simple mechanics. The question is how long he can hold. He’s playing on -year-old legs.”
If Rodriguez bashes another five home runs, the Yankees will face a controversy of their own manufacturing. In the “Upcoming Milestones” portion of their media notes Monday, the Yankees stated Rodriguez needed one run to tie Derek Jeter for ninth place in Yankees history and two stolen bases to match Bernie Williams and Tony Lazzeri in team history. Absent from the page was the five home runs he needs to reach 660 and tie Willie Mays for fourth-most in history.
The omission was not a mistake. Under Rodriguez’s contract, the Yankees owe him $6 million for several milestone home runs, including the one that ties Mays. But the Yankees are prepared to fight Rodriguez over the incentive, claiming that the home runs have been tainted by his use of performance-enhancing drugs. (The Yankees are not rushing to give back the 2009 World Series trophy Rodriguez won them.)
“There’s going to be a lot of discussions,” Girardi said. “Some people are going to want to celebrate it, and some people are not. I think it’s personal preference. There’s been a lot of different things that have happened in the game of baseball, and people are upset with the use of PEDs in our game. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.”
Barry Bonds, another legendary hitter who shredded goodwill through association with PEDs, told USA Today he believes Rodriguez should be celebrated. Rodriguez will take it, even if it comes from a fellow rogue in baseball’s gallery.
“Anyone who supports me at this point, it’s well-appreciated,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not taken for granted, that’s for sure. But my focus continues to stay between the lines.”
Rodriguez said the fans’ jeers failed to affect his concentration Monday night, a game the Yankees won, 6-5, even if he admitted the familiar noise seems fresh. “Nothing about this year is the same-old,” Rodriguez said. There are another 80 road games on the Yankees’ schedule. The drama will be must-watch, except for those who refuse to watch.