The Yankees have been associated with Star Wars for quite some time, most notably when then-Red Sox president Larry Lucchino called them "the evil empire" back in December 2002. The team also enters the field at Yankee Stadium to the pomp of the famous "Throne Room" score by John Williams, though it would probably be more enjoyable if they just embraced the evil and played the Imperial March.
However, maybe their strongest tie to the epic sci-fi saga is their longest tenured player. No one in baseball history has had a career quite like Alex Rodriguez. There was the hype and promise of his youth Mariners that quickly evolved into scorn based off the record-shattering free agent contract he signed with the Rangers in 2000. Of course that was followed by the wacky up-and-down road of his Yankees career--the playoff slumps, the World Series run, the Biogenesis scandal, and his 2015 renaissance. Pretty much all of these different kinds of characters appear in Star Wars.
There is a new Star Wars movie coming out on Thursday night. Yes, yes, I know, this is absolutely shocking news to break on a baseball blog, but it is true! No, George Lucas isn't involved, so it should be better than the prequels! Kylo Ren looks like a badass! OLD AND GRIZZLED HARRISON FORD!
Digressions aside, I thought that it would be fun to commemorate its release by exploring A-Rod's career through some of the saga's most famous characters. (Emphasis: some.) The traits are all there.
When A-Rod first burst onto the baseball scene, he was basically raised among royalty like Leia. He was the number one overall pick of the 1993 Draft at age 17 out of the Westminster Christian School in Miami. A-Rod was every bit the draft prospect that Bryce Harper was just a few years back, and possibly even more. He was absolutely phenomenal and everyone knew he was going to be a star. There might not have been constant Twitter updates, but the TV stations sure knew about him as he made his way through the Mariners system.
A-Rod demonstrated that he wasn't just hype, much like Leia. She was a fiercely strong character in a universe constantly doubting her abilities, unafraid to grab a gun and just start shooting at Stormtroopers like it was nothing, even strangling Jabba the Hutt with a chain. Likewise (NATURALLY LIKEWISE), A-Rod seized baseball by storm once the Mariners gave him a legitimate starting chance in 1996. He hit .358/.414/.631 with 54 doubles, 36 homers, and 9.4 WAR, absolutely ludicrous numbers for age 20. BBWAA voters were still more fascinated with veteran Juan Gonzalez and his RBI total, so the AL MVP went to him, but it was already conceivable that A-Rod was the best player in baseball.
No, you're not getting an A-Rod/Leia Photoshop. Weird.
Boba Fett/Jango Fett
A-Rod was baseball's hottest young star, and over the next decade, his career flourished. Both the $252 million contract he signed with the Rangers after 2000 and the 2004 trade to the Yankees brought the first open gripes about him, but even then, he continued to mash. At the end of his age 32 season, his numbers were unbelievable: 553 homers, a lifetime .306/.389/.578 triple slash with over 2,400 hits, and 100 WAR. After PED scandals engulfed the likes of former heroes Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds, MLB looked hopefully upon A-Rod. Bonds might have broken Hank Aaron's career home run record, but perhaps A-Rod could "purify" the record books.
The rebels turned to Luke, the one Jedi remaining after the passing of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. He became pretty much their only hope to defeat Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Their plan to destroy the shield generator on Endor would have been rendered moot if Luke couldn't take them down. Luke fought his own demons as the Dark Side tempted him, but the rebels still had to trust him. He achieved his greatest moment as his father finally fought back the Dark Side to kill Palpatine when Luke was near his death from Force lightning. He was the man of the hour, just like A-Rod was when he finally broke out of his playoff struggles to lead the Yankees to the 2009 World Series title.*
*Yes, we're jumping ahead in the A-Rod story a little bit, but shhhhhhhhhhhhh, just go with it, dammit.
I CAN SEE IT
...but seriously, stop asking for an A-Rod/Leia Photoshop.
As A-Rod entered his mid-30s, he emerged as an unheralded mentor to countless young players on the Yankees. Robinson Cano was never shy about owing his maturation into a superstar to the countless hours spent training and bonding with A-Rod. Cano was not even considered a Top 100 Prospect when he debuted in 2005 and it looked like his career was headed for an early tailspin after a lackluster 2008. He kept working with A-Rod though, and from 2009-14, he was one of the best players in baseball and a perennial MVP candidate. Melky Cabrera was another player who broke out under A-Rod's tutelage, and whenever A-Rod went down to the minors on rehab assignments, his young teammates raved about his baseball acumen. In 2015, he continued this role, helping shortstop Didi Gregorius work through his early struggles to discover his Gold Glove caliber form and become an actual presence at the plate. In the broadcast studio for the 2015 playoffs, A-Rod once again demonstrated how much he brings to table in terms of pure baseball knowledge, a fact that the Yankees' front office has known for years.
Both Obi-Wan and his close friend from the prequels, Qui-Gon Jinn, could fit for this A-Rod trait, but I'm going with the one fans first met in 1977. The mentor angle is obvious, but consider Obi-Wan's background. When Luke first meets him in the original film, he barely knows much about him, referring to him as a "strange, old hermit." Even after he finds out that Obi-Wan was a Jedi master, there was still an air of mystery surrounding his past. To minor leaguers and rookies first meeting A-Rod, it's a pretty similar story. They're not idiots. They know the controversies of A-Rod's past. Yet he still finds ways to make meaningful connections with them--that's not for nothing.
In spring training 2009, A-Rod admitted to using steroids during his three years with the Rangers after a Sports Illustrated report revealed that he was on the anonymous list of players who tested positive in 2003. Baseball's dreams of him as the savior to take Aaron's record were suddenly gone. He was able to rehabilitate his image to become a star in the Yankees' aforementioned championship run in '09, but the honeymoon was short-lived. After a few more seasons that featured homers, injuries, and forgettable postseason memories, 2013 arrived and everything went to hell. In January, A-Rod was linked to the Biogenesis clinic busted for PED distribution.
The following year and a half saw nothing but discord as A-Rod became pure evil in the average MLB fan's eyes, the one who seemingly had all the blame pinned on him by commissioner Bud Selig. A-Rod tweeted that he was ready to come back from his hip surgery before the Yankees thought he was ready. GM Brian Cashman told him to shut the front door, or something like that. A-Rod was suspended for 211 games by Selig. He appealed and sued the Players' Association. The boos rained down harder than ever and fellow players threw at him (which did lead to a glorious response). We learned about his absolutely bonkers lawyer Joe Tacopina. The ban was reduced to the entire 2014 season and A-Rod stormed onto Mike Francesa's show for a surreal denial of the charges in which he referred to Selig only as "the man from Milwaukee" while also suggesting they grab brunch to discuss it. There were the equally bizarre e-mails between him and team president Randy Levine, made public. To top it all off, there was this amazing piece of journalism by Steve Fishman at New York Magazine chronicling all of the madness, featuring night club injections, corrupt cops, a tanning salon, and more.
2013 was the absolute cratering of A-Rod's reputation. Almost everyone hated him, and even longtime defenders had to admit that he royally screwed up. Sure, MLB adopted a bit of a witch hunt policy where he seemed to be blamed more than others, but he certainly wasn't making matters easier. It was full Palpatine.
Credit: Kunj Shah
The story of A-Rod in 2015 was the Han Solo story. Not even A-Rod supporters knew what to expect from him. Sure, he had spent the majority of 2014 off the grid and quietly serving his suspension after giving up the fight. Nonetheless, going into spring training, there were rumors that he might refuse to surrender the third base position to Chase Headley, even though hip injuries rendered him almost exclusively a DH. He was the rogue brought into the fold by force, not by choice. It was that or pay him roughly $60 million to simply go away. Similarly, the rebels had basically no choice but to trust Han Solo, a smuggler out for top dollar who had no qualms about shooting insignificant people like Greedo (ahem).
Yet over the course of both stories, the character evolves to become so much more. Solo is the classic "thief with a heart of gold" who comes through in the end for people he eventually considers friends. A-Rod stunned the world with his first 30-homer season since 2010 while also having his healthiest season in eight years. He was a team leader, provided much-needed right-handed power, and without him, the Yankees would not have won the Wild Card. What's next for Solo in The Force Awakens and for A-Rod in 2016? I have no idea, but I can't wait to find out.
Finally, the A-Rod/Star Wars comparison that lines up almost perfectly. This works so well because Darth Vader's entire story also features traits from just about every other character. He was the prodigy. He was the classic "chosen one." He threw it all away and became the villain. Yet at the very end, the good in him shined through and he took down the Emperor.
A-Rod is Darth Vader. Darth Vader is A-Rod. It all makes sense. Embrace it.
Okay fine, here's your A-Rod/Leia Photoshop. Let it haunt you forever.