So, this is a Cardinals blog. We pretty much just write about Cardinals stuff here. That’s the way these things work. However, I have to ask if you'll indulge me just this once in talking about something not-Cardinals related. Right now is one of those rare times where I’m a bit stuck on what to write about when considering the Cardinals. At the same time, there is one baseball-related thing that continues to swirl in my head, and that’s the fact that the Yankees plan to release Alex Rodriguez, and that he might not ever play major league baseball again. The reason this is a big deal to me, is that, as a 28 year old, it feels like part of my childhood is ending. Let me explain.
Ozzie Smith made me love baseball. He made me want to play shortstop, and make the type of plays that only he could make. I made my parents buy me Ozzie Smith-sponsored glove conditioner, because I wanted to break my glove in just like Ozzie. Of course, I was disappointed when I learned weeks later that Ozzie Smith never used glove conditioner, preferring more old-fashion methods of breaking in a glove. Through Ozzie, I learned a lesson about business and marketing, and how I shouldn’t buy a product just because a celebrity I like puts his name on it.
And yet, I don’t have many memories of actually watching Ozzie play. My strongest memory of Ozzie Smith’s playing days was how outraged eight-year old me was when then-new manager Tony La Russa announced that Royce Clayton would be starting at shortstop instead of the all-time great. That was in 1996. I learned another lesson through Ozzie Smith: out with the old and in with the new. Ozzie had been great, but his best days were behind him, and Royce Clayton’s best days were, presumably at least, in front of him.
That 1996 season is the one I usually think of as my first "baseball conscious" year. I watched and played baseball before that season, but because it contains my earliest memorable thoughts on baseball, I like to think of it as my first. It was also the first year I went to a playoff game, game 5 of the NLCS against the Braves, a completely disappointing 14-0 loss. Don’t get me wrong, it was still great to go to a playoff game.
While Ozzie was heading out the door, a new all-time great was walking in. No, not Royce Clayton. Alex Rodriguez had made the big leagues at the tender age of 18, a rarity even back then. Back then, Alex Rodriguez had a level of hype comparable today only to the hype Bryce Harper received as an undrafted high schooler. The Mariners drafted him number one overall in 1993, and he saw playing time in the majors in 1994 and 1995, but was sub-replacement level.
That 1996 season though, was when A-rod turned from super-prospect to superstar, turning in a 9.2 WAR performance due to a 159 wRC+ with great defense at shortstop. Of course, eight-year old me was not yet into advanced metrics, but nevertheless I was impressed with the .358 Batting average, 36 home runs, and 123 RBI’s, all coming from a great fielding shortstop. Ozzie never hit like that. As a youngster so sure that I would end up being an MLB shortstop one day, it was easy to idolize A-rod at that point in my life.
Rodriguez continued to pile up impressive numbers, and I continued to be impressed. Of course, the Cardinals eventually got their own superstar in Albert Pujols. I’ll continue to feel very lucky to have seen so much of one of the greatest hitters of my generation in Pujols. However, he still wasn’t A-rod, if that makes any sense.
Getting traded to the then-villainous Yankees in 2004 didn’t even subdue my fandom, though I was annoyed that the clearly superior fielding shortstop was the one moving down the defensive spectrum just to placate the King of New York. Yup, I basically didn’t like Derek Jeter because A-rod was better but didn’t get the same level of attention. Of course, Jeter was a great player and seems like a class act. That’s just how being a fan works sometimes.
It was a bit tumultuous for me when he admitted to doing PED’s in the past, but learning that steroids have been in the game since the 1800’s, that Babe Ruth once injected himself with extract from sheep testicles, and that amphetamine use of one form or another has been rampant since at least the 1960’s has changed my opinion on that. By the time the whole Bio-genesis clinic thing broke I was already over steroid use in baseball.
In later years, my A-rod fandom changed. It was no longer about hoping for him to do well, but hoping for him to keep going. You see, Alex Rodriguez is the only active player left from that special year for me, 1996. In that sense, Alex Rodriguez’s impending exit from playing baseball now represents and end of MLB’s last reminder of my childhood. When I see Alex swing at a pitch, it can sometimes remind me of what I was thinking and feeling back when I was at that young age, in much the same creepy way that an old song can ignite old memories. I really enjoyed that, but now that occasional event may now come to and end, and that’s sad for me.
My baseball fandom has evolved over the years. A significant change certainly came from buying an e-book of Moneyball, the story of how the Athletics managed to win on an extreme budget in the early 2000’s. That wasn’t until 2012. That brought me into the fold as far as advanced stats goes, and directly led to me taking this position as a writer here at Viva El Birdos.
However, throughout my conscious baseball-following life, Alex Rodriguez has always been there, usually raking. He’s been the one constant. Some of you here have been following baseball long enough that by the time Alex Rodriguez debuted, your childhood players had already long retired. Others here may not have even started following baseball until A-rod played for the Yankees. I'm sure you all have your own players you idolized at that age, but he was mine.
So today I say good-bye to the last baseball player of my youth. He was an all-time great, and unfortunately seems unlikely to get into the Hall of Fame despite being 13th all-time in fWAR. He not only leads all active players in fWAR, he has a 23 WAR cushion over Pujols, who will assume first place when A-rod retires. Also, Mike Trout ranks 15th on the active all-time list, which is amazing. A-rod is one of only four players in MLB history to have a 40-40 season, that is, at least 40 homers and 40 steals. He's also 4th all-time in career home runs, sandwiched in-between the Babe and Willie Mays. Alex, though you'll probably never read this, good luck in all your future endeavors, and thanks for the memories and inspiration, old friend.