Appreciating A-Rod: It ain’t easy, folks

A-Rod played his final game as a Yankee on Friday and had an RBI double. You probably weren’t sorry to see him go. If he winds up playing again, you probably won’t be glad he’s back. You probably dislike A-Rod. Almost everybody does.

Everything about A-Rod — seldom-used full name: Alex Rodriguez — has always felt a hair off. He’s at worst the second-best position player of the past 40 years, one of the dozen best ever. And we pretty much hated his guts. We turned his nickname into the Swiss army knife of insults: A-Roid and A-Fraud and, invoking an actual New York Post headline, A-Hole.

If there’s one word not beginning with “A-” invariably used to describe him, it’s “phony.” He has never projected himself in any way as sincere. He insisted he didn’t take A-Roids right up until the moment — two moments, actually — when he said, “Know what? I kind of did.” He was the 5,000th baseball player to tell that fib. We reacted as if he’d been the first.

Because he tried to come across as a Good Guy, we read it as trying too hard. He’d answer a question and glance back at the questioner, as if to say, “Was that OK?” Barry Bonds didn’t give a rat what you thought. A-Rod wanted you to like him and couldn’t fathom why you didn’t.

In the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field, I watched him browse the pile of magazines on the center table and, eschewing Maxim and its ilk, pick out People. Standing alongside was Associated Press stringer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd, who voiced my exact thought: “He’s looking to see if he’s in there.” (His fling with Kate Hudson was then the tabloid rage.)

Much of our scorn surely had to do with the green-eyed monster — not to be confused with Fenway’s Green Monster — of envy. Like Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady, A-Rod is too handsome to be trusted. Also too rich: He signed with the Rangers for $252 million. That was the biggest contract in baseball annals until, naturally, he beat it. Having opted out of that deal, he signed for $257 million to remain a Yankee.

About that opting-out: News that A-Rod would become a free agent leaked during Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, upstaging Fall Classic’s finale. “He thinks he’s bigger than the sport”: That’s what many of us wrote that night in Denver. (And remember, this was before any whiff of PED use had attached itself.) We didn’t like A-Rod. Nobody liked A-Rod. But you know what?

That was our loss, kind of.

In loathing the pretty boy, we lost sight of the player, except to wonder, “Why isn’t he more like Derek Jeter?” This failed to note that A-Rod, seen as an October flop, had a postseason OPS of .822, not far off Captain Clutch’s .838. It failed to note that A-Rod accepted a move to third base even though he was the better shortstop — heck, better player — by far. A-Rod’s WAR (wins above replacement) value from 2004 through 2013 was 52.3; Jeter’s was 31.2.

It’s no accident that every written appreciation of A-Rod comes via the Sabermetric Set. His stats jumped off the spreadsheet. Of the 200 top WAR seasons in baseball history, he has seven. Hank Aaron’s best WAR season was 9.4; A-Rod matched or bettered that four times.

But you’re saying: “He cheated!” Point taken. But let’s slash 25 percent from his career WAR — I say 25 percent knowing it’s unknowable how long he took PEDs or how much they helped — and reduce 117.8 to 88.4. Chipper Jones was an A-Rod contemporary. On merit, Chipper will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His career WAR is 85.0. (Jeter’s is 71.8, since you asked.)

Among the many incongruities regarding A-Rod is that those who had no reason to like him felt duty-bound to defend him. The website Fire Joe Morgan was founded by Red Sox fans who appreciated advanced analytics. Every so often, one of them would write something advising Yankee fans to curb their whining about A-Rod as choker/Not Jeter. Strange bedfellows, huh?

True confession: I wasn’t above picking those nits. I sat in the old Yankee Stadium on June 26, 2006, and watched Jason Giambi hit a first-inning homer off Tim Hudson. A-Rod, who’d been on deck, didn’t shake Giambi’s hand. I thought maybe I’d seen that wrong. I hadn’t. Next time up, Giambi hit another. A-Rod didn’t shake his hand. Too into himself, I sniffed.

And maybe he was, and still is. He was also the American League MVP in 2005 and 2007 (9.4 WAR both times). I should remember him as one of the best players I’ve seen, but that was the A-Rod disconnect: Seeing made you appreciate him less, not more. His was the weirdest great career ever.

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