Of Course There Were Cheers

It was inevitable.

Alex Rodriguez was going to reach the 3,000 hit mark this season. After a year away from the game, Rodriguez has surprised some by producing at a high level during his age 39 season. Through 71games, Rodriguez has slashed .285/.388/.522 with 12 doubles, 1 triple, 15 home runs, and 44RBI.

His 13th home run was the historic hit, as Rodriguez joined the 3,000 hit club by hitting an opposite field shot off of the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander.

As Rodriguez circled the bases, his teammates came out of the dugout. There were the prerequisite hugs, patting of the head, and the handshakes. It’s a scene played out in most dugouts whenever a magic number is reached. Rodriguez’s teammates seemed genuinely happy for the man with the long, well documented history of problems with performance enhancing drugs and even being a team player.

But, the 39 year old Rodriguez has done and said everything right since returning to the field this spring. He hasn’t commented on the bonus clause dispute that he and the Yankees are having. He’s talked about the team in every press conference, even after historic home runs. He’s been out on the field before the game tutoring Didi Gregorious. In a season that looked as if everything would be about him, Rodriguez has done something atypical of his career; he’s managed to maintain a low profile as the biggest name on the Yankees’ roster.

Perhaps it’s a bit of age. Maybe it’s the years of consistently doing the wrong thing in terms of publicity. Maybe someone has finally coached him enough to avoid the arrogant statements. Or, possibly, he’s been humbled enough with the game taken away from him.

Whatever the reason, Alex Rodriguez has been different. While the Tigers didn’t give him a standing ovation while he circled the bases on his 3,000th hit, the team was all on the top step of the dugout. Verlander waited for the moment to pass before beginning to pitch again. No one will mistake Rodriguez for being a beloved player; he is a player who has put together one of the most statistically incredible careers in the history of the sport.

As all of this played out, Rodriguez was greeted by applause from the New York crowd. Even the night before, when Rodriguez stepped into the box in the 8th inning with a chance at number 3,000, fans were loud.

That was the inevitable part. Of course, fans cheered. They cheered loudly for a chance to see that moment.

The idea of Rodriguez getting wild cheers and support in Yankee Stadium is one that is one part ironic and one part juxtaposition. This was a man who was booed on an Opening Day in the late-2000's after striking out with runners in scoring position. Yankees fans didn’t let him forget that his last name didn’t begin with “J”. Rodriguez would never be accepted, with the exception of that incredible 2009 Post Season performance. It was the year Rodriguez would hit five playoff home runs and drive in 18 runs to lead the Yankees to a World Series title.

But, now, those same fans cheer him with each at bat and each milestone reached. The same fans cheer for many reasons. First, they realize that without Rodriguez, the 2015 Yankees would not be near the top of the American League East. Fans know that Rodriguez is second on the team in home runs, runs batted in, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. Take Rodriguez’s production out of the lineup and the Yankees become, well, last year’s Yankees, a team that finished just 7th in the American League in home runs, 10th in slugging percentage, and 14th in on base percentage.

They cheer because Rodriguez is helping the team win. He’s performing well. There simply is no other reason why Rodriguez has gone from pariah to embraced. It was just a year ago when New York talk radio stations were filled with callers screaming that the Yankees should cut Rodriguez; they would be better off without the distraction. It’s that whole misguided idea of addition by subtraction. That sentiment wasn’t just from the fans. Many New York journalists expressed the same idea.

Most of the loudest detractors are now gone. Columns are now written detailing Rodriguez’s statistical accomplishments. Talk radio is now filled with voices acknowledging Rodriguez’s importance to the 2015 team. And, now, the Yankees look petty for fighting the bonus clauses for his historic achievements.

The tone has shifted. Some may choose to paint this as a redemption story. And, the narrative would be an easy one to write. The 39 year old with so much controversy has managed to come back and win over fans and media. He’s changed a bit off the field, yet that elite level production is still there. While he’s slower, runs with a limp, and can no longer play in the field much, Rodriguez’s swing still has that look that makes all fans stop what they are doing to watch his at bats.

It’s an easy narrative, but it is an incorrect one. Rodriguez is being cheered because he is producing at a high level. If he were hitting .220 at this point with just 5 home runs, the tenor of any of his achievements would be different. There wouldn’t have been the loud cheering as Rodriguez stepped to the box. There would not have been the curtain call.

It’s no different than the sports entertainment world. Rodriguez is a bit like famed wrestler, Hulk Hogan. Rodriguez was the darling who was going right the wrongs of the home run record book. Major League Baseball seemed poised to give Rodriguez that push as he vaulted up the home run chart and won his third Most Valuable Player Award in 2007. He was going to be the one to get Barry Bonds, perceived cheater, off the top of the home run list. Baseball would have a “clean” player with its most sacred award. Rodriguez was the chosen All-American, knight in shining armor player.

Then Rodriguez went heel. It wasn’t exactly like dropping an elbow on Randy Savage like Hogan did in his transformation into Hollywood Hogan, but there was the same type of impact. Evidence surfaced against Rodriguez. He denied, then admitted, and then denied again. And yet, it got worse as the once good guy was the biggest enemy in the sport. He appealed his first suspension. He went on New York talk radio and said he was being framed. He continued to play, hit some home runs, and almost embraced being booed at every park, even his home park. He threatened to sue his team, his union, and everyone else who seemed to be in his way of his paycheck. He alienated everyone. The media pounced as retaliation for being duped once again.

His hubris finally led to his downfall. After intricate schemes and cover ups, Rodriguez was suspended for the year. We forgot about him until this winter and then wondered what would happen. When he stepped foot on the field, he was met with the typical reaction — cheered at home, booed on the road. But, the older Rodriguez is playing with a sort of passion that is only seen from a veteran player who knows the end is nearing. Each at bat just looks appreciated. Rodriguez never comes off as sincere, but he sounds downright grateful to be playing the sport.

People are cheering, much like fans did when the aged Hogan donned the yellow tights once again. The heel — Hollywood Hogan — was somewhat forgotten because the good guy was more entertaining. Alex Rodriguez swatting home runs is much more entertaining.

This doesn’t make Yankees fans hypocritical or wrong. This is just how it is for fans. While we may like to talk about morality and doing it the right way, neither ever trumps winning. Minnesota Vikings fans will cheer Adrian Peterson if he returns to being the best running back in the National Football League. Ray Rice will be cheered if he can still play. If a player has the talent to help his team win, anything can be forgiven.

Why?

The answer is quite simple. Sports isn’t a metaphor for life or a stage for morality passion play. Sports exist to entertain the fans. While we may like to romanticize sports — in particular baseball — and its players, we simply don’t care as long as the production leads to more wins than losses. To most fans — the vast majority of fans — there’s no such thing as the sanctity of the game or the debate about whether or not a player should be allowed to play after using performance enhancing drugs or doing something far worse like committing violent crimes against children and adults. The only debate is whether or not the player can help the team.

Maybe none of that is wrong. Maybe it isn’t a comment on society that we would rather watch special moments achieved by flawed people rather than seeing the ordinary performed by regular people. Maybe our lives have enough drama, decision making, and morality battles that we don’t want to have them with our sports. When put in that lens, cheering Alex Rodriguez seems about right. While Major League Baseball — or any other professional sport — isn’t scripted and shaped like the world of professional wrestling, it is entertainment. Rodriguez has done some remarkable things in the sport over the past two decades. Lately, his longevity has allowed him to achieve milestones that only a select few have ever reached or can ever hope to reach.

Of course there were cheers.

The writers and Hall of Fame voters may look to enforce morality when it comes to the PED era, but that isn’t necessary. Keeping the likes of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and every other suspected/proven PED offender out of the Hall of Fame doesn’t erase them from the consciousness of the fan. It doesn’t erase their accomplishments as we were witnesses to them all. And, it certainly doesn’t mute the applause Bonds received for his historical home runs or the reaction Clemens received for his 300th win. There were cheers because the achievements were remarkable. There were cheers because we were entertained. If all of them were allowed into the Hall of Fame, the institution wouldn’t suffer. They wouldn’t need a special wing for cheaters or something on the plaque. Instead, the fan will take care of a player’s legacy.

We’ll probably say something like this: “Rodriguez was one of the best players of his generation. There weren’t too many better. He was caught cheating, but then came back like a lot of other players from that time. Still, his 3,000th hit was a home run to right field. It was a great moment.” When passing Pedro Martinez’s plaque, one would simply have to say, “He was one of the best ever.” Both statements give the historical perspective, but separate the two. Fans can do that. It’s why fans can applaud players like Rodriguez.

Would it be better if the game were clean? Of course, there is no debating that. But, it isn’t and it seems that the majority of fans have made peace with that. It’s not a statement on society nor should it be judged as right or wrong. It simply is.

Of course there were cheers. Why would it be any different? Rodriguez hit a historic home run, gave his team the lead, and continues to produce at a high level. All of that outweighs all of the winter vitriol spewed by fans and writers. He’s helping the Yankees win and, as with every other elite athlete with a checkered past, that’s all that matters.

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