By John Otano
A few weeks back, Derek Jeter was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, becoming the first Yankee in history to win the award.
Jeter had a historic year for the Yankees, surpassing Lou Gehrig’s franchise record for hits while remaining a model of class and integrity both on and off the field.
And that’s admirable and all, but Derek Jeter has been this guy for the past 15 years. He should have won years ago.
This is 2009. Alex Rodriguez is the Sportsman of the Year.
Before examining A-Rod’s case for being, rightfully, the Sportsman of the Year, let’s look at some previous winners of this prestigious award:
Pete Rose was named Sportsman of the Year in 1975. In 1989, Rose famously accepted, voluntarily, a place on baseball’s permanently ineligible list for gambling on baseball. On January 4, 2004, some 15 years after the charges of gambling on baseball first surfaced, Rose admitted to gambling on baseball.
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were co-winners of the award in 1998 for their memorable race against one another to break Roger Maris’ single season home run record. At the time, baseball was suffering from losses in attendance and revenues, and the home run race in ’98 breathed air back into a sport on the decline. In 2005, Sosa and McGwire famously testified in a Congressional Hearing investigating the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Sosa forgot how to speak English while McGwire wanted nothing to do with the past. Don’t look now but Rafael Palmeiro is still wagging that finger.
The list goes on. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox won the award as a team. Last season, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the power behind that curse-busting squad of self-proclaimed “idiots,” became a part of a growing list of All-Stars surrounded by baseball’s drug problem. Ramirez received a 50 game ban for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy. Ortiz claimed he never used steroids but might have used drugs that were legal before testing began in 2003.
Tiger Woods won the award. Twice. ‘Nuff said.
Today, the sporting world is a messier, more public forum where athletes are going to be exposed for any, to use Tiger’s vernacular, “transgressions.” Yet that’s not to say we should bury these people for their mistakes, because at the end of the day, they’re as human as any of the fans they captivate. Into this ever-changing landscape where athletes aren’t the perfect models they’re expected to be walks Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is the athlete with errors, just like so many that has come before him and that’s exactly the reason he deserves to be recognized as Sportsman of the Year for 2009.
In February 2009, Sports Illustrated published a report that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids while a member of the Texas Rangers in 2003. A-Rod proceeded to bust a trend athletes had set before him…by admitting that the reports were true. He didn’t wag his finger. He didn’t forget his language. He didn’t sue his trainer a la Roger Clemens. Two days after the report came out, Alex Rodriguez sat in that chair, across from Hall of Fame journalist Peter Gammons, and answered the questions everyone else was afraid to answer. He’s not to be commended for his actions because, plain and simple, he cheated the game of baseball by taking these drugs. But he did something else, too: He admitted to being human.
With his admission came the bright lights, which shone even brighter when he arrived at Spring Training. A tumultuous spring came to an end for A-Rod when he had to have arthroscopic hip surgery on March 9, 2009, taking him out of the Yankees lineup until he made his season debut on May 8 against the Baltimore Orioles. At the time, the Yankees had stumbled out of the gate to a (13-15) record and rumors began to swirl whether Joe Giradi’s job was safe. A-Rod crushed the first pitch he saw in the 2009 regular season from Baltimore’s Jeremy Guthrie into the left field stands.
A-Rod went on to notch his 12th straight season of 30-plus home-runs and 100-plus runs batted in. He provided protection for MVP candidate Mark Teixeira, allowing a seamless transition in his first year with the Yankees. A-Rod may have not had his best statistical season to date, but the argument can be made that his 2009 campaign was his best as a professional athlete.
After leading the Yankees to a pennant, A-Rod soon faced the only challenge he had yet to overcome as a baseball player: Performing in the postseason. What did A-Rod do? He put the team on his back and carried them all the way to the World Series. Yes. Alex Rodriguez.
A game-tying home run off of Joe Nathan in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 2 in the Divisional Series against the Twins. A-Rod ties Game 2 of the ALCS in the 11th against the Angels. He homered in games 3 and 4 for good measure. In the World Series, A-Rod would find himself the center of controversy again where he seems to be most comfortable. In Game 3, A-Rod lined a shot down the right field line that would be his first home-run in World Series history.
A-Rod produced in the clutch; this is a player who had been bumped down to the 8 spot in the lineup in 2006 against the Tigers because of his inability to perform in the playoffs.
So, for a man whose circus lifestyle off the field often overshadows his legendary ability on the field, Alex Rodriguez emerged as the athlete of the year in 2009. He faced the scrutiny and the heckling in every city he went. In the end, he manned up to his mistakes and performed in a way that will erase some of the blemish that was left from the years of steroid use. His involvement with the Tyler Hooton Foundation, one of the best known anti-steroid foundations in America, allows A-Rod to speak to kids about the dangers of steroids.
That seems to get lost in translation because we’re more concerned with his involvement (or breakeup) with Kate Hudson these days. Although he’s not the sexy, clean pick for Sportsman of the Year like Derek Jeter, he’s the right choice.
When legends like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds slip away into the unconscious of society, A-Rod has taken on his failures and turned them into successes that make him deserving of Sportsman of the Year.