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Love and Infamy

The retirement of Alex Rodriguez is cause to assess a player who cherished the game, tarnished it—and has more to offer it

LUDWIG TIECK, who died in 1853, was a poet and an essayist who became a founder of the Romantic movement. He captured the high-minded honor of his times when he said, "He is not dead who departs from life with a high and noble fame; but he is dead, even while living, whose brow is branded with infamy."

Few brows in baseball were ever branded more with infamy than that of Alex Rodriguez. But far from dead is he. Rodriguez is a brand, more famous for being infamous than for being a baseball player, and he still has something to offer the sport.

It was a tribute to these forgiving times that when the Yankees essentially fired him from his job as a DH—he will be released this Friday after being allowed to play one last home game in front of family and friends—they kept him on as a special adviser who will serve as a mentor to their minor leaguers.

Even Rodriguez had to shake his head on Sunday when asked how a guy who sued Major League Baseball, the Yankees' team doctor and the MLB Players Association in 2013 and was thrown out of baseball for all of '14 could be hired less than three years later by New York as a mentor. So how might he be remembered? "Hopefully as someone who tripped and fell a lot, but someone who kept getting up."

What kept him going, and what will serve him well in his new duties, is his unquestionable passion for the sport. It's odd that someone who hurt the institution of baseball as much as he did could love the game of baseball so much. But it's true with Rodriguez. I was at his locker in Fenway Park's visiting clubhouse on July 8, 1994, his first day in the big leagues, and I was struck by the reverence with which the 18-year-old Mariners shortstop spoke about Cal Ripken, about watching Mets games on television as a kid and about baseball history.

One of my favorite stories about A-Rod's baseball habit goes back to when he and Derek Jeter were young friends playing for different teams. When Rodriguez was in New York, he would hang at Jeter's apartment after games. One night Rodriguez grabbed the remote and couldn't find any West Coast action on TV.

"Don't you have the package?" he asked. Jeter told him no—why would he want to watch games after he just played in one? Rodriguez was incredulous.

Working the back fields at the Yankees' minor league complex in Tampa, speaking baseball from the heart in both English and Spanish, is a pure avocation without measurement or scrutiny. It will suit him well.

RODRIGUEZ WAS the perfect player for these times, when baseball moved out of the labor wars and into, and slowly out of, the Steroid Era. The game lost some of its soul and much of its national appeal in those years, but it exploded economically. Rodriguez moved the needle, figuratively and literally. He craved, in order, acceptance and fame. Consumers may not have approved of his behavior, but they loved the spectacle. Rodriguez made himself matter—and, by extension, baseball.

Infamy was never a problem for Rodriguez; insecurity was. He said he needed steroids to be the all-time great that he was expected to be after signing a 10-year, $252 million deal with Texas in December 2000. We know of eight years in the heart of his career with connections to PEDs: 2001, '02 and '03 (admitted steroid use); '07 (therapeutic use exemption for testosterone); '08 (therapeutic use exemption for clomiphene citrate); and '10, '11 and '12 (received PEDs from his drug supplier in South Florida, Anthony Bosch). Rodriguez also confirmed being treated in '09 by Anthony Galea—a Canadian doctor who pleaded guilty to bringing mislabeled drugs into the U.S.—but not with banned substances. Is it possible that he never played a day clean in the big leagues? Even Rodriguez, back in '09, recognized the opening he gave people to doubt it all.

"There will be some people that say, you know, 'Alex is not a great player, going back to high school,'" he said. "I mean, they're just going to have this blanket cloud over my career. And for those, they may have their own point."

Rodriguez won his only world championship that year. The next season, having just turned 35, unhappy about gaining weight and lacking energy, he turned to Bosch.

The doping went on for three years, a staggering array of drugs administered morning, noon and night by multiple delivery systems, such as lozenges, creams and injections. During the 2012 American League Championship Series, a struggling Rodriguez reportedly called Bosch and told him to meet him in Detroit and to bring his needles and potions. When a federal arbitrator reduced his suspension from 211 games to 162 in January 2014, Rodriguez declared, "I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances ... and in order to prove it I will take this fight to federal court."

Of course, he couldn't make good on his threat, not at the risk of perjury. He did his time—a year out of baseball, immunity from the feds—and came back in 2015.

FREED FROM expectations and rested from a year off, Rodriguez hit .282 with 24 homers in the first four months of the season. But without Bosch, his body withered as the season wore on. He hit .191 after July 31.

The snap in his swing never came back. Watching him this year was painful. He couldn't elevate the ball, couldn't generate the ferocious backspin on his towering drives that helped him launch 696 home runs. He would hit ground balls in batting practice. He batted .197 over a calendar year.

Turning 41 last month, Rodriguez reached his physical limit. The Yankees could see it better than he could. They had to make way for young legs such as catcher Gary Sanchez, 23, and outfielder Aaron Judge, 24, to get at bats. Principal owner Hal Steinbrenner handed Rodriguez a graceful exit strategy.

Centuries ago, infamy derived from Latin to define the opposite of fame, to capture a public dishonor that even leaned toward evil. Time and culture have softened the edge of the sword. Rodriguez, in his own way, left an indelible mark on baseball. His playing days behind him, now he has a chance to leave a better one.

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