Saturday, May 9, 2009

A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez by Selena Roberts

Last night, Alex Rodriguez returned to the New York Yankees' lineup after recovering from surgery. He took the first pitch he saw from the Baltimore Orioles' starter and parked it in left field for a home run, thereby demonstrating several things - his credentials as a major leaguer and why he should be the subject of a controversial biography, and the ability of a crowd to forgive a man who can hit a baseball over a fence.

"A-Rod" is not really a sports biography in a real sense, any more than Kitty Kelley's biographies were history. "A-Rod" is a celebrity biography, a beach read that gives a superficial dusting of biographical facts for anyone curious about its subject. It was in that spirit that I came to the book. It would be impossible to ignore the obvious hype around its speculations that Rodriguez may have used steroids as early as high school to gain an edge on the diamond, that he "tipped" pitches to opposing teams, that he has alienated his teammates over the years with prima donna behavior in various clubhouses.

I say speculations though - not revelations - because Roberts relies so heavily on speculation and innuendo as to undercut the case she makes. Anonymous sources carry the heavy lifting in this story, and Roberts places the greatest weight in the narrative on what they have to say. The prose is replete with loaded words and exclusionary thinking, all focused on Roberts' premise - that there is no real A-Rod, just an amalgam of shifting personalities tuned to whatever the demands of the moment are. Rodriguez can be humble when talking to a reporter and monomaniacal when dealing through his agent. He can be humble at the All-Star Game when giving up his position to Cal Ripkin Jr., or selfish in announcing new contract demands during the final game of the World Series. "The truth was that Alex's baseball career and almost every other part of his life consisted of one artifice atop another," Roberts writes.

That sentence illustrates the problem with this book - those are Roberts' conclusions. She finds others who will back them up, but not enough to successfully convict. She shouldn't be making those conclusions as the author, but quoting someone else who will. The narrative voice has "inside" information that we doubt she could know - many times we are treated to A-Rod's "thoughts" when we know she can't possibly have them (how can she, if Rodriguez is the shape-shifter she says he is?)

That's not to say the entire book is a fabrication. Obviously not. Alex Rodriguez has long been dogged by accusations that he is too selfish a player, too needy, too focused on statistics to ever gain the fan acceptance and reputation he would need to accomplish what he longs for - a world title. And in light of the Manny Ramirez suspension, the idea of A-Rod relying on performance enhancing drugs isn't at all implausible. In that, he seems the latest example of his species - the modern professional athlete, with otherworldly talents but all-too-human frailties. But that should engender a measure of disappointment, not the kind of personal distaste that Selena Roberts revels in between the pages of this book. This is a nasty book, a vicious, personal screed where the author seems to think her subject guilty of much more despicable things that one can find between its covers. Leaving its journalistic integrity aside, one wonders what might have inspired it. If there is more to this story, it should have been nailed down more precisely than it is here.

On the issue of steroids itself - it is now obvious that both the owners and players of Major League Baseball colluded, whether by design or accident, in the steroid use of the last 20 or so years. We have now entered a climate where sports journalists, using sources of varying veracity, are seeking to expose the users and thereby render judgment on whether their accomplishments are "real." This is an endless, ridiculous quest, and it won't result in any kind of satisfaction if any end is ever reached. The records, broken and set by steroid users, are there. They happened. To decide which ones we will recognize and ignore after the fact is to render a moral judgment that I think is outside the bounds of the discussion, especially since it's being rendered by journalists who are not exactly disinterested observers, as this book proves. The athletes who are the subject of sports journalism are, unfortunately, human, and while undeserving of the salaries and adulation they garner, they also don't deserve a witchhunt which won't punish fairly or totally and will only diminish both the games journalists cover and the profession they practice.

One last point - Roberts, in the act of telling this story, renders a moral judgment on Rodriguez's life. That's obvious. That's why we - and Roberts - pay attention when A-Rod courts Madonna or when he indulges in celebrity Kabbalah clinics. It's an old story. It's the nagging feeling that being the highest-paid player in the history of the game isn't enough, and will not satisfy. When A-Rod's trainer tells him he's leaving, fed up with the celebrity behavior, Rodriguez asks him what he wants. "I'll give you whatever you want," Roberts tells us A-Rod said.

We shouldn't be surprised when the trainer, who has worked for Rodriguez for 10 years, hands him a slip of paper bearing the words - Find Jesus.

No comments:

Post a Comment