Two hall of famers, two very different legacies
Alex Rodriguez’s retirement announcement on Sunday was acknowledged by fans and media the same way his career had been received. There were plenty of yawns, murmurs of “Finally,” and remembrance of past embarrassments. There were poor puns such as “A-Roid,” and “A-Fraud” that had been a staple of Rodriguez’s persona for his entire career. There was talk of his first mega contract. There was discussion of his final contract. Very little fanfare was sent Rodriguez’s way.
Compare that to David Ortiz’s retirement announcement at the beginning of this season. Big Papi is about as beloved a baseball player as they come. He is a large, goofy, homerun hitter to just about everyone (Minus the Evil Empire), and a near saint figure on par with Tom Brady in Boston. Ortiz has been given the Mariano retirement tour package, as every last city he visits showers him with love, respect, and goofy and heartfelt sendoff gifts.
There is no denying the impact that Ortiz has made on the sport of baseball, but Rodriguez has made just as an important contribution as well. These two players will always be linked due to playing against each other during a high point, and some would say end point, of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. When both players were at their peak, Yankees-Red Sox hysteria was at its highest it had been in decades, culminating in the Red Sox breaking The Curse of The Bambino and winning a World Series in 2004 after an 86 year drought. With both players being major contributors, oftentimes the best players on their respective teams, the comparisons will exist for eternity.
So why is it that Ortiz is showered with love while Rodriguez is met with at best ambivalence, and at worst outward hostility (Often even from his own team’s fans)? Rodriguez’s numbers not only dwarf Ortiz’s, but also make him without a doubt one of the greatest players of all time. But the perception of legacy, and public image, matters so much in answering this question.
Rodriguez’s career has been an exercise in “Almost” from the beginning to end. His shoulders were those of big expectations, from his phenomenal rookie year where he batted .358/.414/.631 with 36 home runs, to his first major contract with the Texas Rangers for 10 years, $252 million. He always had potential to become the greatest player of all time and supplant Hank Aaron (Later Barry Bonds) as the greatest home run hitter ever. He played the shortstop position with such poise and beauty, many called him a “Perfect” player: incredible in the field and transcendent at the plate. However, everywhere he played he was never the true “Star” of the team. He would never be as affable, loose, and natural as Griffey in Seattle, or as cool, poised, and calm as Jeter in New York. The one franchise he truly was the star, the Texas Rangers, was terrible every year he was on the team.
Rodriguez placed such a strong focus on his own image that he would inevitably screw it up. He wanted so hard to be beloved, to be embraced, to be “The guy” and he just never put it together. He has always been seen as “Too polished” and “Too slick,” his image has always come off as forced and fraudulent. His desperation to be loved, and his frustration when he did not receive it, resulted in stranger and stranger off the field excursions. He cheated on his wife. He was rumored to be dating Madonna at one point. He was photographed kissing a reflection of himself in a mirror for Details Magazine. Quite simply, he was a laughing stock off the field. On the field, he played on lousy Texas teams, chased money after abandoning the Mariners, and choked time and time again on the Yankees. Although he has strong numbers on the field (Some of the best ever) and a World Series ring, he will always be remembered for things that took place away from the game. Too often these things were negative.
David Ortiz meanwhile was the opposite of all of this. His large, natural smile and strong on field personality resonated with fans, coaches, and players. His leadership and emotional impact were felt almost immediately upon signing with Boston. While a decent young player with the Twins, no one would venture him to be a star, and signing with Boston in 2001 was a widely panned move at the time. But in no time at all, Ortiz’s work ethic showed through, and he became an indispensable bat in the middle of Boston’s order for nearly 15 years. Ortiz was genuine and honest with people, telling it like it is (Or was). After the horrific Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013, Ortiz took the field days later to deliver an incredible speech to a shaken city, telling them things would be okay. It was one of the most powerful displays of emotion I have ever seen.
Ortiz of course also was a key member in helping the Red Sox win their first title in 2004, after 86 years of heartbreak. The fact that he would be huge in helping them win two more World Series was inconsequential, the first one was so powerful because it lifted “The Curse.”
These two players shaped baseball for over 20 years and both played a key part in major sports franchises and the biggest rivalry. They both have incredible numbers that make them hall of famers, but while one is mostly mocked, the other is almost universally beloved. It goes to show every body has a different story, but no matter which side you fall on, you cannot deny their legacy to the sport of baseball.