Christmas 1980 was a few days away. As Americans anticipated the swearing in of President-Elect Ronald Reagan to end the malaise that had befallen the nation, and the entire world was still dealing with the assassination of John Lennon, my dad and I had our first father-and-son weekend getaway. Destination: Cooperstown.
Lake Otsego was completely frozen. Dead branches like skeletal arms veiled the road into town. When we entered the actual Hall itself I was awed by the sheer quietness of the grand room. For this was a shrine, a temple to the greatest men to ever walk onto a field. I’d finally get to see plaques of players I’d read about when I should have been doing homework. I sucked at math and was failing algebra. But I could tell you any guy’s batting average.
All generations were represented. Pitchers from The Dead Ball era like Walter Johnson and Cy Young were honored alongside sluggers from The Live Ball era such as Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig. My dad ambled around, spending extra time at the plaques of his childhood heroes like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and his favorite Brooklyn player, the recently enshrined Duke Snider. I chuckled when he only gave a passing glance to Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and other Yankees from the 1950’s.
“Dad, here’s Yogi,” I pointed out, referring to the Mets former manager.
“Yogi was good,” my dad conceded, “But he was no Campy.”
“You think the Mets will ever get any guys in here?” I whispered reverently.
Without hesitation, he answered. “Tom Seaver.”
My dad arched a brow at me, probably wondering if I was really his child.
The players my father and grandfather saw as a boy were memorialized for all eternity. Eventually players I grew up watching would also be acknowledged. Guys like Willie Stargell, George Brett, Rod Carew—and yes, Tom Seaver.
And perhaps no player typifies the ugliness of The Steroids Era more than Alex Rodriguez. Ironically, by tying Willie Mays on the all-time HR list he has only cemented his standing as the poster boy for everything wrong with baseball for a generation.
Babe Ruth hit for power and average but didn’t have the speed. Rickey Henderson had the speed but not the power. Mel Ott had the power but didn’t have the glove. Roberto Clemente had the glove, the arm and the average but not the power. Ernie Banks had the power and the glove but was a career .274 hitter.
Willie Mays did it all.
The Say Hey Kid scored over 2,000 runs and retired with a BA above .300. When Willie said goodbye to America in 1973, he was 6th in RBI’s (1 903), 3rd in HR’s (660) and 7th in hits (3,283). As if these stats aren’t impressive enough, one must remember Mays played during a time when stadiums were massive enough to warrant their own zip code.
Mays also stole 338 bases, an impressive total considering he hit in the middle of the batting order. His success rate on the base paths was 76.6%. His 12 Gold Gloves ties him with Clemente for the most by any outfielder. Again, an amazing accomplishment considering Willie played the bulk of his career in the blustery winds of Candlestick Park, perhaps the worst location ever for a stadium.
He won Rookie of the Year, two MVP’s and his 24 All-Star games ties him with Stan Musial and Hank Aaron for most midsummer classics. Despite these numbers, SF Chronicle journalist Harry Jupiter once wrote, “As a player, Willie Mays could never be captured by mere statistics.”
Willie is one of those players, along with Aaron and Sandy Koufax, who even the casual fan knows what number they wore.
There have been probably billions of photos capturing many of the National Pastime’s greatest moments. However, no image is more iconic than that of number 24 with his back to home plate, snagging a deep fly off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. It’s an image so entrenched in our psyche that even today, more than 60 years later, whenever an outfielder makes an over-the-shoulder catch the announcer invokes the name Willie Mays.
In the 1950’s, Mays frequently played stickball with kids in the shadows of the Polo Grounds. To this day, in the Bay Area, Mays is treated like royalty, more so than Tony Bennett or Joe Montana. Willie is the only ballplayer in history to be equally loved on two coasts three thousand miles apart.
Alex Rodriguez, like Mays, also played on two coasts. And that’s where the similarity ends.
Despite the fact A-Rod has now tied Willie in HR’s as well as passing him in doubles, RBI’s and Slugging, the adoration Mays experienced from New York to San Francisco is not something A-Rod experienced from Seattle to New York.
Over the last two decades there’ve been numerous players who can be considered black marks on Baseball. But A-Rod is unique. Barry Bonds is still appreciated in the Bay Area. Sammy Sosa is idolized in Chicago. Mark McGwire is loved in both STL and Oakland. But A-Rod? He’s burned bridges everywhere he’s played.
In Seattle, he was appreciated for being the quiet kid with great talent. After the 2000 season, however, he left behind an admiring public and went to Texas. Granted, who amongst us hasn’t taken a job for more money? But despite the fact his contract was the biggest in history, it was clear A-Rod’s decision was all about A-Rod. The Rangers were an awful team, losing 91 games and finishing more than 20 GB. However, Arlington is a hitter’s park. And while making more than a quarter billion dollars, he could also pad his stats. That’s exactly what he did.
In just 3 years with Texas, Rodriguez clobbered 156 HR’s, 24% of what Mays hit over his 22 year career. He racked up 395 RBI’s while compiling a .615 slugging percentage. Now that A-Rod had locked up the Hall of Fame, there was one thing missing from his resume. A ring.
The Rangers were looking to free themselves of A-Rod, and the man who wanted a Championship found himself playing for the most successful franchise in the history of American sports, a team that played in 6 of the previous 8 World Series. After his arrival, A-Rod’s Yankees would appear in the Fall Classic just once in the next 10 years
Early on we heard he needed to ‘earn his pinstripes.’ Despite being a Yankee for more than a decade, he never truly did. In 60 post-season games he’s averaged an insipid 238. Yankee fans are quick to cheer him when he does something good but equally quick to boo him when he doesn’t. He’s failed to win the hearts of fans the way Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams or even Aaron Boone did.
Despite his impressive career stats, through artificial means or not, you never heard him praised. I can’t recall anyone saying he was a good teammate. I don’t remember a rookie ever thanking A-Rod for helping with a flaw in his swing. No one has ever called him a ‘positive influence in the clubhouse.’ If anything, A-Rod’s behavior over the last several seasons, his smug denial of steroid use in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has caused tenseness in the clubhouse. His off-the-field antics have overshadowed what transpired between the lines.
A-Rod being A-Rod.
Rodriguez has burned bridges from Seattle to Arlington. Ironically, even though he hasn’t vacated New York, he’s already burned that bridge as well. A new low even for him. Ownership has tried to rid themselves of A-Rod and the baggage that comes with him. The organization that spends money like there’s no tomorrow is refusing to pay his $6 million dollar bonus for tying Mays’ mark of 660. It’s difficult to imagine an Alex Rodriguez statue outside a stadium where he played. It’s even more difficult to picture him being immortalized in Monument Park next to Yankees like Mantle and DiMaggio and Mattingly, Yankees who DID NOT disgrace their uniform or the game.
We are generally a forgiving society. Twenty five years ago who would’ve believed Pete Rose would be taking baby steps toward inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Maybe twenty five years from now players from the steroid era will be considered.
Perhaps in 2040, some will make the trip from San Francisco to Cooperstown to honor Barry Bonds induction. People may don Cubs hat and cheer when Sammy Sosa steps to the podium. Yankee and Red Sox fans may stand side-by-side, simultaneously cheering Roger Clemens. And what about A-Rod? If he is one day inducted, would anyone even bother showing up.
In closing, the words of Ty Cobb seem fitting. Cobb was an avid racist and one of the most despised players in his day. But even he had a home and a loyal following in Detroit. In the twilight of his life with his heath failing, the 74 year-old Georgia Peach looked back on his career and said, “I wish I would’ve done things differently. I wish I would’ve had more friends.”