A-Rod: Trapped By His Own Brilliance
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's not hard to come up with a list of great athletes who are adored by the public. Names like Michael Jordan, Cal Ripken Jr. and Chris Evert come to mind. Then there are great athletes who never win the hearts of fans.
Commentator Frank Deford has been thinking about two of them.
FRANK DEFORD: It was exactly 50 years ago this week that Wilt Chamberlain lost the NCAA championship as North Carolina beat his Kansas team in triple overtime. It was hardly Wilt's fault. He was named tournament MVP but it was then that he was christened the loser, a tag he would carry most of the rest of his career.
Eventually, one of Wilt's coaches, the esteemed Alex Hannum, said nobody loves Goliath. A phrase that Wilt would often woefully recite himself. Indeed, Chamberlain is the only great athlete I've ever know who seemed to be so much happier once his playing days were over. So much was expected of him that even if he finally did win two NBA titles, he understood he could never be loved. I never thought Wilt would remind me of anyone else.
But then along came Alex Rodriguez. I will not try to stretch comparisons. Wilt was a force of nature, Rodriguez merely an extraordinary talent, the best in his game, natural enough to play the Major League at the age of 18, which is virtually unheard of. But there seems in A-Rod, or A-Fraud as his critics like to call him, painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, there seems almost an embarrassment that he could be that naturally gifted. Wilt was that way. When scoring points could not make people adore him, he sought to get the most assist. And beyond that, ultimately, as we know, he boasted that he had had the most women. Rodriguez was happy in Seattle, where he found in his manager, Lou Piniella, a surrogate father. He positively gushed on an on about sweet Lou when I talk to A-Rod last month.
However, Seattle was too far out of the mainstream so A-Rod took a monster contract to become a mercenary for a losing team, Texas. But the great amounts of money, like Wilt's great amounts of points or women, didn't buy him respect, only the same sort of charges of greed. It was fool's gold. So A-Rod came to New York to the fabled Yankees where he would be at last in the center of the baseball universe. Very cheerfully gave up his shortstop position, played the unfamiliar third base magnificently, won of the league's MVP trophy but still couldn't earn the fancy of the fans.
Isn't it funny? Of course, Rodriguez talks of only wanting to win a championship, but somehow it seems that what matters more for him is to win the hearts of the people who root for his team. Maybe when you know you are that good, good isn't good enough. There are even rumors that A-Rod really only wants to find comfort. Go rejoin Lou Piniella, who is now managing the Cubs.
I always thought Chamberlain would have been better in an individual sport where the complications of team didn't intrude upon his personal majesty. Maybe Rodriguez is miscast in the same way. Sometimes, I suppose, an athlete can be trapped by his own brilliance, like an actress who is so beautiful nobody believes that she can act in a role. A-Rod is so great that nobody can believe he needs to be reassured on a team.
MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. And not to worry, he's won our hearts over the years, coming to us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.