THIRTY-NINE IS OLD for a ballplayer, but not for a human, and a few months ago Alex Rodriguez appeared to be neither. Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 baseball season for using performance-enhancing drugs. Many intelligent people said he would never come back, a notion they usually capped with the word please.
Now look at him, in the heart of the Yankees' lineup, climbing his way up the all-time home run list. A-Rod just passed Willie Mays's 660 home runs. Next is Babe Ruth, whose 714 homers are second to Hank Aaron's 755, unless you count Barry Bonds's 762, but of course we don't count those. Well, we count some of them. Most, I guess.
A-Rod is no longer a great player, but he is a pretty good one. He can still hit for power, which was always one of his two most impressive skills, along with paying legal fees. He hasn't sued anybody in a while, leading to speculation that his litigating muscles have atrophied to the point of uselessness. But it's a long season, folks. Do not count him out.
The Yankees obviously still believe in their guy, which is why they are practically begging him to sue them. See, New York is supposed to pay Rodriguez a $6 million bonus every time he moves up on that home run list. It's a marketing deal. But now the Yankees don't want to pay him. They say steroid revelations have voided the marketing value of his accomplishments and thus those bonus clauses in the 10-year, $275 million contract they gave him in 2007. You can only sell so many autographed syringes.
Rodriguez hasn't said much about it, but he presumably wants the money. And he keeps hitting home runs, putting the Yankees in the awkward position of saying, "Hey, our designated hitter just passed Willie Mays, but never mind that—just enjoy the next pitching change!"
Most of America, when asked to choose between the Yankees and A-Rod, wouldn't. In a sense, both sides are getting exactly what they deserve. The ultracapitalist Yankees, who stopped just shy of selling Derek Jeter's facial shavings last year, are victims of their own marketing gluttony. And Rodriguez, always desperate for validation, has learned that even his own team sees his accomplishments as worthless.
The money itself is not the real issue, of course. Rodriguez probably uses $100 bills to floss his teeth, and the team is worth upward of $3 billion. But the Yankees surely think Rodriguez sold them an artificially inflated version of himself, and this angers them. Rodriguez wants everybody to think his career means as much as he thinks it does. Baseball writers have decided that his career stats are meaningless, the proof being that they won't elect him to the Hall of Fame.
New York fans are cheering for Rodriguez again, for the same reason manager Joe Girardi keeps putting him in the lineup: He is helping their team. But Rodriguez should not confuse that with love, or even respect. If the Yankees felt either of those, they would pay his bonus.
There is a simple resolution to this debate: Donate the $6 million (and any future home run bonuses) to charity. That way the Yankees would pay what they owe, but they wouldn't have to pay Rodriguez.
Yes, this is easy for me to write. But it would also be easy for New York and A-Rod to do. The team is the most valuable in American sports, and Rodriguez has been paid more by teams than any athlete in American history. Why pay a bunch of lawyers to settle this dispute when you could actually use the money to help people?
The first time A-Rod got busted for PEDs, he got involved with the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which warns youths about the risks of steroid use. The Hooton foundation now refuses to cash his checks, and understandably so. But Rodriguez and the Yankees should keep shopping for a worthy charity until they find one that says yes.
Rodriguez, always desperate for validation, has learned that even his own team sees his accomplishments as worthless.
Does A-Rod deserve to get his bonus?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED