ALEX RODRIGUEZ is so outsized a presence that it's easy to forget that in addition to being a paramour of Madonna, a user of steroids and an owner of tasteful sweaters, he's also a normal ballplayer. He does things like take batting practice, dive back into first base, and barrel into catchers at home plate. All of this causes small injuries, and whether you're an All-Star or a scrub, over time these add up. A microscopic tear is felt as nagging stiffness, the player eager to justify his absurd earnings ignores it, the tear spreads and before you know it the player is looking at losing a chunk of a season—and, for all he knows, his bat speed—to an operation. The Yankees third baseman, who announced on Sunday that he will undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip and will miss at least six weeks, is now familiar with the normal process of aging.
It's the most common story in the game, and also why teams don't usually commit to players in their fourth decade of life for 10 years at a clip. But in November 2007, when the Yankees gave him a contract extension worth nearly $300 million, Rodriguez was supposed to be a special case. He was 32, and at the time he had hit 54 more home runs than anyone else had ever hit at that point in his career. More than that, he was almost uniquely durable, having missed an average of fewer than three games a season over the previous seven years. Given this and modern conditioning, it was easy to assume that he would go along as he always had.
But what look like assets can, on closer inspection, prove to be liabilities, which is why Rodriguez's contract might be the biggest financial disaster in baseball history. Start with the home runs. Through age 31, Rodriguez had hit 518, placing him right ahead of Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey Jr., Eddie Mathews and Mickey Mantle. It was the heaviest possible company—and, in actuarial terms, some of the scariest. Those are four of the most notorious burnouts ever. Foxx was essentially done at 34. Griffey, after playing 111 games at 31, averaged 89 per season for the next five years. Mathews was never again a true star after turning 32, and like Mantle, who famously spent the last years of his career in pain, he played his last game at 36.
Each of these players were teenage prodigies who came up early and were ridden hard. What sets Rodriguez apart, of course, is that unlike them he came up playing shortstop, the second most physically demanding position on the field, after catcher. And he played it a lot, ranking third among post-integration players in games in the middle infield through age 27. A look at the players ahead of him is as frightening as a look at the home run rankings. Robin Yount never had a really strong season after he was 33, and played his last game at 38. Bill Mazeroski fell apart at 32, and played his last game at 36.
Set aside Kaballah, Boli, "Brandon" Arroyo's glove, "single white female," cheesecake shots in the tabloids and all the other detritus and kipple that's built up around Rodriguez over the years. More than any of it, he is defined by the fact that he reached the major leagues at 18 and was worked like a farm animal in years when his body was still developing. More or less every other player of whom that can be said fell apart disastrously. Whatever the exact state of his hip right now, the most significant number he's playing for isn't 763 but 138. That's how many games he played last year; it might be more than he ever plays again.