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A-Rod, Legend: The case for appreciating Alex Rodriguez's greatness

Despite his numerous controversies and his PED transgressions, the numbers say that the Yankees' retiring designated hitter was one of the 15-best players in baseball history.

This story appears in the Aug. 15, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. For more from Joe Sheehan, subscribe to his newsletter and follow him on Twitter

There are any number of strands to the Alex Rodriguez story, but let’s start here: He was, at minimum, one of the 15 best players in baseball history. The No. 1 overall pick by the Mariners in 1993, he reached the majors one year later at age 18, was a superstar at 20, the best player on a playoff team at 24 and later a three-time AL MVP over a five-year period. Rodriguez announced his retirement on Sunday while sitting on 3,114 hits and 696 home runs; just one person in baseball history, Hank Aaron, has more of both. A-Rod ranks 16th all-time in Wins Above Replacement, with many of the players above him having starred a century or more ago.

Rodriguez was a postseason hero who was never regarded as such; he batted .340 with three home runs in five postseason series for Seattle. In his first taste of the postseason in New York, in 2004, he hit .320 with three homers. A brutal finish to the ’04 ALCS and a three-series stretch from ’05 through ’07—a total of 61 at bats in which he had nine hits as the Yankees lost four consecutive series—gave him a reputation as a choker that was wholly unearned. He almost single-handedly carried New York to its ’09 championship, batting .365 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 15 games. For his career Rodriguez batted .259/.365/.457 in 76 postseason games and had a .973 OPS in his lone World Series. The only way to think of him as a choker is to carve out slices of his October résumé in which he didn’t hit well while ignoring the ones in which he did.

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With Rodriguez’s retirement an era has ended. The first star to be suspended for a failed PED test was then Oriole Rafael Palmeiro in 2005. Palmeiro was a member of the 3,000-hit/500-homer club that Rodriguez would later join, and, just as his former Rangers teammate would be when dealing with his own PED transgressions, he was vilified. Over the ensuing decade baseball has seen many of its signature superstars either admit to drug use, like Mark McGwire, or have seen their records and reputations tarnished by substantive allegations of it, like Barry Bonds. Some, like Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez, have been caught by the testing program. Others, like Rodriguez’s former Yankees teammates Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte, seem to have had their admitted use—of steroids and HGH by the former and HGH by the latter—glossed over. Rodriguez’s retirement, however, feels like the last time in which tearing down a great player—by the media, by the fans, by the league itself—was a primary goal of the baseball world.

For some, two paragraphs of Rodriguez’s numbers won’t matter. “Cheater!”, they’ll cry, minimizing his accomplishments due to his confessions of drug use. Perhaps they’re right to decide that Rodriguez is somehow different from generations of players who chased every edge before we cared how they did it. Perhaps they’re right to dismiss Rodriguez’s career in the same week that Ken Caminiti—whose steroids admission in 2002 helped expose baseball’s PED problem—is posthumously inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame, and when Dee Gordon, who served an 80-game suspension this year, pushes the Marlins toward a playoff spot. Perhaps they’re right to ignore the specifics of Rodriguez’s case, to not ruminate about the issues of promised anonymity or stolen evidence or the financial support of criminals that are all a part of his story.

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Where they’re wrong is this: You don’t find greatness in a pill, or a syringe or a cream. There’s never been a substance created that will give you 696 home runs and 3,114 hits. Alex Rodriguez is one of the greatest players who ever lived, and neither the mistakes he made nor our particular generation’s obsession with them will change that.