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What does rooting for Alex Rodriguez say about us?

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Even though we all watch the same player, our interpretations of his play and actions vary wildly.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Perceptual differences are a funny thing. Baseball is not immune to these human biases and perceptive lens, and we as fans find ourselves disagreeing, arguing, and debating the fine points of what are--or, what should be--the same events for all of us. Of course, baseball only has some sort of meaning or significance once we infuse it with such. There is no way we can denote the difference between a ".300 hitter" and a ".200 hitter" without both tallying the events to give it a number, and also having an associated meaning with what being a .300 hitter or .200 hitter really means.

Consider, for example, the case of the hostile media phenomenon, evidenced through a study done by Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril in 1954. Hastorf and Cantril enlisted the help of Princeton and Dartmouth psychology students, and they had each group watch a football game between Princeton and Dartmouth. They were instructed to answer a questionnaire, and in particular they were to determine which team they thought had the most penalties, from what they saw. What they found was that Dartmouth students interpreted more fouls for Princeton, and Princeton students saw more fouls for Dartmouth. They found that "...we experience primarily those events that fulfill a familiar pattern and have personal significance... This classic case study demonstrates the crucial role of values in shaping perception." Both saw the same game, but the interpretation of those events were quite different.

In dealing with a figure such as Alex Rodriguez, the complications only mount. This is not merely watching a game and tallying the perceived fouls, it's watching a career and interpreting the successes, trials, and tribulations of a complicated person. What often gets lost is that he is in fact, yes, a person, and not just the guy on your TV. Often times when we see a player on television or at the ballpark, we construct them as some other, almost like watching a cartoon character. The cartoon character only exists within the context of the self: it only appears when we turn on the TV, so its existence, at least in our mind, is constricted to that platform.

Alex Rodriguez, too, as with all ballplayers, exists for us only when they play the game. From November to February they are buried in the recesses of our mind; we'll never get to watch three hours of them, say, reading their children a bedtime story or going with their significant other to dinner, but we'll spectacle at their job. It's very hard to construct the player as another human, and many fans fail to do so. A beautiful humanization of Rodriguez was found in ESPN Magazine earlier this year, and J.R. Moehringer was frank about how fans felt about Rodriguez:

"People hate him. Boy, wow, do they hate him. At first they loved him, and then they were confused by him, and then they were irritated by him, and now they straight-up loathe.

More often than not, the mention of Alex Rodriguez in polite company triggers one of a spectrum of deeply conditioned responses. Pained ugh. Guttural groan. Exaggerated eye roll. Hundreds of baseball players have been caught using steroids, including some of the game's best-known and most beloved names, but somehow Alex Rodriguez has become the steroid era's Lord Voldemort."

The interpretation of Rodriguez as "the steroid era's Lord Voldemort" is not just strong, but also fascinating in what it says about us as fans and humans. Even though fans are dealing in the utterly abstract--a very complex human playing a game for our entertainment--many can easily make sense of all that information and place it into a neat category. "Morally ambiguous" is not something that fits into any of our minds, at least not fully, and our need to categorize takes over.

This need for categorization is something even self-proclaimed intellectual baseball fans, many of whom would argue otherwise, fall into quite easily. A popular trope among the supposed "Baseball Twitter", the conglomeration of new media types, sabermetric fans, and baseball personalities, is the love for Rodriguez. #BaeRod, the hashtag actually put out by the Yankees Twitter page, was later co-opted by Baseball Twitter as a mantra for the love of his recent success. In short, this new generation of baseball fans, myself included, have rallied around Rodriguez because it not only signifies the return of a great player, but also because it sticks it to the supposed curmudgeons who would like to see him fail.

So while rooting for this man may just seem like a fun way to enjoy a player and the game, it really means more. In this new era of baseball, the Balkanization of baseball ideology has become not just a bug, but a feature. "Old school vs. New school" and "Scouts vs. Stats" is just a couple of the more prominent debates, but there are more. There are also cultural changes to the game; as baseball gains a worldwide audience, the interpretation of an event such as a bat flip takes on a cultural significance beyond the act. Just as with the 1954 study, the same event is infused with different--in this case, cultural--meaning based on the associated connotation with said action. Of course the same person can fall into different categories on different debates, but there's no way you're not required to have some opinion. Taking a side, or even qualifying, is necessary in establishing a fan's identity.

This Balkanization extends to Rodriguez. Choosing to support him or not still falls into this sense of duality; goodness is defined as the quality of play or the quality of career, and badness is quite the opposite. Badness is also defined by the ethical character of the player, and those two are weighed. There are some who despised him who were won over by his quiet demeanor and play, others who continue to despise him, and others who always supported him. Always, though, is this sense that he sat on some scale of good and evil, and one good act (a home run, for example) would push the needle into the green, or vice-versa.

This all is very abstract and convoluted, but it boils down to the fact that having an opinion on this figure, largely in binary, is necessary to being a fan. It's a non-trivial opinion, and the core of establishing fan identity and the nature of one's fandom largely depends on this. We're all watching the same player and the same events unfold, but we're no different than the psychology students in the experiment. Our value systems clearly inform our opinion of everything Rodriguez does, and it can often reflect cultural and generational differences, not to mention differences in ethical systems. This is often the case with any cultural moment in historical memory, and this is absolutely a cultural moment. In one hundred years from now, passions for Alex Rodriguez will likely be nowhere as heated as they are today. What is more interesting, though, is not the man himself, but the passions we have for him.