The Baseball Player as Android

How Alex Rodriguez inched toward humanity.

On Saturday, Sports Illustrated reportedthat Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003, in his last year with the Texas Rangers. According to SI, Rodriguez—who has long denied taking performance-enhancing drugs—was also tipped off about an upcoming drug test in2004 by Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association. In 2007, on the occasion of Rodriguez’s new mega-contract with the Yankees, Bryan Curtis argued that “baseball’s most robotic superstar [had] finally gained self-awareness.” The article is reprinted below.

What to make of the news that Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees have agreed to the outlines of a new 10-year, $275 million contract? Some have called it a triumph for Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, the once-hapless sons who have been tapped by their dad to run the club. Others have focused on the rare and humiliating defeat for “super agent” Scott Boras, the man who convinced Rodriguez not only to opt out of his previous Yankees deal—which still had $81 million left—but to announce this decision during the deciding game of the World Series, and thus incur the wrath of baseball. Both these things are true, but I prefer to read it another way: Last week was the moment that Rodriguez, baseball’s most robotic superstar, finally gained self-awareness.

Scott Boras and Alex Rodriguez

To this point, Rodriguez’s eerie precision with the bat has been exceeded only by his ability, in nearly every setting, to project the personality of an android. His quotes to the media are masterworks of banality: “I’m just going to do my job and go out and play.” This drabness has become more pronounced since Rodriguez joined the Yankees in 2004. For one thing, he was forced to move gingerly on a team with an established hierarchy; according to Sports Illustrated, his friendships with stars like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada had to be brokered by Tino Martinez, who was friends with both camps. Moreover, Rodriguez has been assailed by the newspapers for his poor postseason performance, which only pushed him further into his shell. The only truly revelatory moment of Rodriguez’s career in New York was his admission, in 2005, that he sees a therapist—quite a bit of candor for a baseball player. Even that was undermined when Rodriguez later said, “I didn’t do it for me. I did it for the children.”

The gaps in Rodriguez’s public persona have been filled in by Boras, who has been his agent since 1993, the year he was drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners. As Ben McGrath pointed out in his recent New Yorker profile, Boras seems to mesh best with “less self-assured stars.” Rodriguez and Boras had a symbiotic relationship that went beyond the usual player-agent connection. Boras not only negotiated A-Rod’s contracts but, in the face of the latter’s reluctance to say anything of interest, indirectly provided him with a kind of personality. It took Rodriguez many years to recognize that it was not a likable one.

When Boras orchestrated A-Rod’s first mega-contract in 2000, he distributed a 70-page booklet to interested teams that put Rodriguez’s statistics alongside quotes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. During the negotiations, Mets general manager Steve Phillips said that, in addition to an exorbitant contract, Boras had demanded Rodriguez receive a private office at Shea Stadium, a merchandise tent, and a large “billboard presence” in Manhattan. (Both Boras and Rodriguez denied making these demands.) Rodriguez said he would just as soon re-sign with his current team, Seattle, but Boras brushed off the Mariners when their offer came up short. The Texas Rangers eventually signed Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract, double the amount of what was then the richest guaranteed contract in sports.

A-Rod was a perfect lab rat for Boras’ rapacious capitalism. Rodriguez’s statistics were unrivaled in baseball history. Moreover, his sphinxlike demeanor played to Boras’ strength: the creation of an environment in which team owners have as little information as possible and thus are likely to submit enormous bids. When the Rangers began exploring trade possibilities for Rodriguez in 2004, the superstar maintained his circumspect style. Courtesy of Jamey Newberg’s Newberg Report, an exquisite annual devoted to the Rangers, here’s a list of A-Rod quotes as the player prepared to leave Arlington. A few weeks before he left the team: “I definitely think I’m going to be here for a long time. I’m probably pretty sure it will work out for the best.” On what he wanted: “There is a difference between image and reputation. Image is nice; reputation is developed over an entire career. Reputation is what I’m searching for.” Got that?

In New York, Rodriguez will forever suffer in comparison to Jeter, the Yankees’ captain and probably the team’s most popular player. Jeter is a Yankees lifer with four championships, but he’s also an aggressive media schmoozer and clubhouse politician. Though he’s also well-paid ($19 million per season) and hardly more profound than Rodriguez, he has a better sense of how much he can get away with. According to Rodriguez, he and Jeter used to be “blood brothers,” but their relationship began a steady downward trajectory after Rodriguez told Esquire that Jeter was a complementary player: “You never say, ‘Don’t let Derek beat you.’ He’s never your concern.” Jeter never would have been so tone-deaf.

Boras’ ventriloquism reached its reductio ad absurdum this November. It made sense that the agent would advise Rodriguez to opt out of the remaining years of his Yankees contract so that he could negotiate a longer deal for more money. But when the Steinbrenners requested a face-to-face meeting, Boras told them he wouldn’t allow it unless they offered $350 million—a ludicrous amount even for the free-spending Yankees. Though Boras had a 10-day window in which to opt out, he chose to do so during the World Series. This captured not only the attention of the Fox announcers but Red Sox fans sitting near one of the dugouts, who begun chanting, “Don’t sign A-Rod!”

One should not begrudge a player or agent for getting all that the market will bear. But the Game 4 fiasco seemed to be a tipping point. By outsourcing so much of his personality to Boras, Rodriguez seemed to realize he had sacrificed a huge amount of nonmonetary capital. A-Rod might be Michelangelo in the body of Hank Aaron, but fans loathed him because they knew him as nothing more than a self-interested punk—as Sports Illustrated put it, “a Narcissus who found pride and comfort gazing upon the reflection of his own beautiful statistics.”

Last week, the robot seemed to awaken. After a consultation with billionaire Warren Buffett (!), Rodriguez met with the Yankees without Boras on Nov. 14. He hammered out the parameters of a new contract that, in humbling fashion, was worth less in guaranteed money than the Yankees had offered initially. It was perhaps less money, too, than Rodriguez would have gotten in a Boras-led auction between teams like the Dodgers and Angels. But in meeting with the Steinbrenners on his own, Rodriguez became, finally, a man who could communicate his own desires. “I think it’s the best way you can do things,” he later told “I felt sometimes the messages can be mixed up, and you may be getting some information that is not 100 percent accurate. I just took it upon myself to call Hank and talk to him one on one.”

Boras was marginalized but not altogether absent. As of this writing, he is said to be finalizing parts of the contract. But it was clear, to borrow a term from the former co-owner of the Texas Rangers, who the “decider” was in this negotiation. And even if Rodriguez had merely dumped Boras to genuflect before Warren Buffet, an even more rapacious capitalist, he at least showed some temerity in making that decision. By speaking out, A-Rod showed that beneath his robotic exterior lurks a real player and a real human, one who values “comfort, stability, and happiness,” as he put it in a message on his Web site. For once, Scott Boras had no immediate response.