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The sense that Jeter doesn't seem to care whether he's loved or not only increases the affection, and sets off the contrast even more. To this day, the temperature among Rodriguez's inner circle rises at the mention of Jeter's stature, the one obstacle they can never surmount. Once Rodriguez peppered Costas with questions about Mickey Mantle, always returning to one theme. "Obviously he was great," Rodriguez said to Costas. "But why did people love him so much?"
"Alex cares about it: He wants to be liked," Damon says. "He wants to be that guy."
Such a quality makes for pleasant company. Rodriguez has none of Barry Bonds's snarl or Roger Clemens's daft intensity; even as the Biogenesis questions flew, he was still asking reporters' names and thanking them. It hardly seemed genuine, but who better to represent the most suspect generation in baseball history? Insecurity is doping's common thread. Years of tin-eared statements and off-putting quirks now seem all of a piece. "The performance-enhancing-drug stuff—that's at the heart of it," Costas says. "Remove that, and all his other stuff sort of fades; it's a footnote. But the PED stuff doesn't just confirm it. It pulls it all together."
Still, there Rodriguez was for three nights in Moosic, engaging with fans as if he didn't have a care—10 minutes of autographs in the outfield, chats through the screen before at bats, a fist bump for the batboy after striking out. Clusters of the faithful gathered wherever he seemed likely to go: He was still a Yankee. "No sellout, though," employees and spectators kept pointing out. Jeter? He sold the place out twice when he came through.
Yes, even injured the two men seem fated to serve as the Yankees' version of Goofus and Gallant. Jeter, on the road back from last fall's ankle fracture, had been suffering from tightness in his quad too, but his rehab was typically drama-free. For good measure, on Sunday, his first game back with the Yankees, he hit the first pitch he saw for a home run. "Alex is a player for us: We treat him like we do every other player to make sure he's healthy," Levine says. Then he laughed. If A-Rod's thinking of filing a grievance, the Yankees figure they've got a needlingly perfect response.
"It's very interesting," Levine says. "He and Derek Jeter have the exact same injury, happened around the exact same time—and he's being treated just like Derek Jeter is."
Over a decade ago, when few could see the downside of a makeup so savvy, so rich in curiosity, calculation and drive, Rodriguez's manager in Texas tried to make him understand. "I told him, 'You're going to play about 15 more years in the big leagues, but enjoy playing the game,' " says Jerry Narron. " 'Don't try to be an owner or general manager, manager or coach. Just enjoy being a player.' That's one thing I really wanted to see from him, and ... I don't know."
Who does? So much clutter has attended whatever A-Rod means in the public mind that it nearly obscures what has been lost. Not to him. To us. Because—remember?—he was going to be the best player ever. Wash your hands, if you will, of Alex Rodriguez—the smile, the disgrace, the moments of sheer weirdness. Soon it will all be over. A nation rolls its lonely eyes: enough.
But, still: He was going to be the best. Everyone thought so. George Brett predicted it. The Yankees bet $275 million on it, even after his 11th full season in the majors. Isn't that reason to pause, as he drifts toward the door? Rodriguez was the youngest to hit 500 home runs, then 600; he beat out Babe Ruth by a year. Barry Bonds was in sight: 800 was a lock.
No one had ever seen anything like him, coming up. Rodriguez was a five-tool player, yes, but the tools were gold-plated. Hofman, the best high school coach in Florida history, sent eight kids to the majors, spent 46 years talking to baseball men. "He's the only player in my entire history where a scout never found anything wrong," he says. "Every other player that I've seen, known or heard about, somebody always had some comment about them lacking something. With him they couldn't find a thing."