A-Rod, formerly of the former Appleton Foxes

Baseball player Alex Rodriguez got what might amount to a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball for his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The suspension issued Monday is for the rest of this season and all of next season. But with 20 seasons in baseball, taking more than a year off is likely to end his career.

Wisconsinites may forget where Rodriguez’s career began. It began in Appleton, where the Foxes, Seattle’s Class A affiliate, played at ancient, amenity-free Goodland Field. My wife and I saw Rodriguez play (and not well this particular night) before the Mariners promoted him to Class AA, and then to the big club before sending him down to Class AAA just before the 1994 baseball strike so that he could continue to play. Once the strike ended, Rodriguez was in the major leagues to stay.

The Foxes were not, exactly. The next year, the Foxes moved to Grand Chute and became the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, whose Fox Cities Stadium hosts the WIAA spring baseball tournament. Rodriguez has signed a few lottery-grand-prize-size contracts — one with the Texas Rangers, two with the New York Yankees — but those days are certainly over.

David Vecsey writes about Rodriguez in his Foxes days:

In the summer of 1994, I was the clubhouse manager for the Peoria Chiefs, a job that entailed washing hundreds of dirty uniforms, setting out pregame meals and vacuuming copious amounts of chewed-up sunflower seeds out of the carpeting, all for about 40 cents an hour. Best job ever. I was paid to come to the ballpark every day, where I shagged balls in batting practice and traded obscenity-laced barbs with Jimmy Piersall. …

The No. 1 overall draft pick from the year before, Rodriguez was perhaps the top prospect in all of baseball. The Seattle Mariners had given him a $1 million signing bonus and a three-year, $1.3 million contract. Everybody in the ballpark knew he was a big deal, and his natural talent was obvious. As with any teenage phenom, the only question was whether the big deal could be the real deal. And it was trial by fire, with fans riding Rodriguez mercilessly and jeering every move he made.

I don’t recall what he did on the field over those couple of days. What I do remember was something that I, and almost nobody else, saw him do off the field. Standing outside the clubhouse one night, he peeled off a few bills from that million-dollar bonus and sent my assistant to get a stack of postgame pizzas for his teammates. …

People will puzzle over and debate this strange, spectacular athlete for years to come. And that’s fine. He deserves it. Rodriguez is responsible for his own legacy, whatever that may yet be. And I don’t begrudge anybody’s opinion of him, of his ambition or his ham-handed public-relations fiascoes. I don’t come to praise A-Rod, nor do I come to bury him.

In the end, just as I did 19 years ago at a minor league ballpark in central Illinois, I won’t remember him for whatever he did to amuse the cheering mob of the bloodthirsty coliseum. I won’t remember him for his postseason struggles or for dating Madonna or for kissing his own reflection. Or for Biogenesis. Or for eating popcorn out of Cameron Diaz’s hands. Or for any of the other ridiculous chapters this epic failure will ultimately comprise.

I’ll try to remember him as an 18-year-old with the whole world in front of him, riding the buses and buying pizza for his teammates.

The Times’ George Vecsey makes you think:

The singular event in the life of Alex Rodriguez is not his imminent suspension, or the career home run record that now will never happen.

The event that makes him so remote, so rudderless, took place when he was 9, when his father disappeared. This is not pop psychology to explain a man who blundered into the airplane propeller of adult reality. This is his own theory.

Back when he was a young major leaguer, Rodriguez would occasionally explain himself in terms of his missing father. His mother was strong and smart, and remains so to this day, but he expressed bewilderment that a father could just take off.

People who knew him in Seattle accepted that as the flaw in that apparently perfect equipment — the willowy shortstop with power, who worked so hard and innately understood the game but not life. He went from earnest to clueless, with no warning light — “always on the outside of whatever side there was,” as Dylan wrote about the gangster Joey Gallo.

Barely into his 20s, Rodriguez once told a reporter a poignant tale that in his spare time on the road he visited college campuses, like Harvard, asking students how they chose the college, and what they studied. He had once feinted toward taking a few courses at the University of Miami, probably as a negotiating tactic with the Seattle Mariners, before taking their huge bonus. Now he claimed he was sampling that alternative life — but common sense, self-protection, could not be grafted on by visiting a campus or accumulating elegant business suits.

Many athletes, many people, grow up without a parent or two. Some get through it. But Rodriguez stands on the brink of the suspension that will take him out of baseball, perhaps through the 2014 season, or forever. It is quite safe to say he would not be paying his newest set of lawyers — he is always changing authority figures — if baseball did not have a huge case against him. …

One does not have to be a Yankees fan to understand that there are two kinds of Yankee stars: Rent-a-Yankees Yankees and Real Yankees. Roger Clemens, that swaggering bully, apart from any drug or legal issues, was not a Real Yankee. Wade Boggs was just seeking the brass ring on the merry-go-round. What about Dave Winfield? Ask the Bleacher Bums to take a vote. But Paul O’Neill and Hideki Matsui became Real Yankees, instantly.

Maybe A-Rod never had a chance to be a Real Yankee, but he ruined his image permanently with his scandals and machinations and posturing. He missed the voice in his childhood saying, “Alex, cut that out.”

“Dad left us when I was 9,” Rodriguez told Bob Finnigan of The Seattle Times in the spring of 1998. “What did I know back then? I thought he was coming back. I thought he had gone to the store or something. But he never came back. … It still hurts.”

His father ran a shoe store, but after moving from New York to the Dominican Republic to Miami, he suddenly left.

“He had been so good to me, actually spoiled me because I was the baby of the family,” Rodriguez told Finnigan, adding: “I couldn’t understand what he had done. To this day, I still don’t really know how a man could do that to his family: turn his back.”

His mother remarried and did well in business, but Rodriguez said he was still upset over the split.

“After a while, I lied to myself,” Rodriguez said. “I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t care. But times I was alone, I often cried. Where was my father? To this day, I still can’t get close to people.”

By contrast, Derek Jeter has a father, Charles, who was a drug counselor and a mother, Dorothy, who was an accountant, as well as a sister. The family seems to have sent him a message: “Derek, whatever you do, don’t be a jerk.” Which he never has been.

He is heading for the dreaded Sargasso Sea of sports, where banished athletes wait, becalmed, hoping for winds of pardon. Shoeless Joe Jackson, who never ratted on the plot to throw the 1919 World Series, never reached the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose hobbles around on his aging stumpy body, paying for being a knucklehead when baseball caught him betting on his team’s games, as a manager. Lance Armstrong is downsizing his life in Texas. Many behemoths of the past generation are hoping baseball writers forget why they aren’t voting all those fantastic career statistics into the Hall. And good luck with that.

Alex Rodriguez, just turned 38, is about to fade away. He never had that stern voice in his ear that said, “Alex — don’t!”

You wonder if Rodriguez’s father, wherever he is now (assuming he’s still alive), thinks about that.

A lot of people envy athletes and other celebrities, or at least the money they make. (As you know from this blog, they shouldn’t.) In older days, many star athletes had, shall we say, complicated relationships with their fathers. (That can be seen with some high school athletes today.) There may well be a disproportionate number of pro athletes who grew up not knowing their fathers, or not knowing them for very long. For many pro and college athletes today, growing up in single-parent families in poor areas, the money of sports is their only ticket out of repeating the life of their parents. Fathers are, for better or worse, the first and most important role models for boys. It’s hard to have a role model when the role model isn’t there.


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