Imagine a child prodigy. It doesn’t matter what field, but this kid is really good. By the time he is 17, he is so good that someone pays him to do it professionally. Within a few years, he is the best in the world at what he does, better than people many years older and with far more experience. But even though he maintains that excellence year after year, people hate him. Sometimes it’s because he makes more money than the others in his field, or because he left one job to go to a higher-paying one. Sometimes it’s because he is pretty awkward socially — that happens with child prodigies, you know. Some people even hate him because he ends up working alongside another prodigy who isn’t quite as good but is far more social and likable.
Wouldn’t you feel a little sympathy for this kid? Maybe not empathy, because most of us can’t imagine being the best in the world at anything, but your heart has to go out to him a little bit, right? Even if he felt so much pressure to be liked that he ended up cheating, thinking that maybe being a little bit better than the best would make people love him — you might not approve, but you’d get it, right?
Now imagine that child prodigy’s skill is baseball and he gets paid an enormous amount of money to play a child’s game. Did the sympathy go away? And if so, why?
Perhaps the most commonly said cliche that very few people actually believe is this: “Money can’t buy happiness.”
I think people want to believe it. In fact, most people will insist that they do believe it. But when push comes to shove, if you ask someone to have any sympathy for the struggles of an extremely wealthy person, they have a very hard time doing it. That is especially true with rich athletes, who not only have a ton of money, but they get paid that money for playing a game!!!
So I know I’m fighting a losing battle when I say this, but I’m going to say it anyway: We should not be so quick to condemn Alex Rodriguez. Don’t come at me with facts — I will not be surprised to learn that he cheated or that he was self-absorbed or anything else you might want to tell me. This is not about A-Rod; this is about people.
Any attempt to elicit sympathy for A-Rod is met with some form of, “How hard can he have it? He has half a billion dollars!” That is our natural inclination. And like most natural inclinations, it is wrongheaded and selfish.
A-Rod’s biggest offense was cheating by using performance-enhancing drugs. But let’s be honest — if you hate him, there’s a pretty good chance you hated him when you thought he was clean. The tide of public opinion turned against A-Rod long before 2009, when it was first revealed that he was a PED user. He was hated by Seattle Mariners fans for leaving their team, as if they wouldn’t have jumped from their job if a competitor offered them a huge raise. He was hated by Texas Rangers fans for making too much money on a team that was awful. He was hated by New York Yankees fans for not being Derek Jeter. Yankees fans might think they hated A-Rod for being terrible in the postseason, but his .822 career postseason OPS is only 16 points lower than Captain Jeter’s .838.
I’m not going to tell you you should love A-Rod. I’m not even going to tell you he should be in the Hall of Fame — if your stance is that no PED users should be in the Hall of Fame, that’s just fine. It will be interesting to see how you respond when we finally find out which current Hall of Famers used PEDs, but I won’t begrudge you that stance.
What I’m saying is that if Alex Rodriguez were employed in any field other than baseball, we would have sympathy for the child prodigy with few social skills and an overwhelming need for the approval of strangers. And the reasons we don’t have that sympathy say a lot more about us than they do about him.