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The Slow Decline of Alex Rodriguez

“Time waits for no man.” ~ Age-old aphorism or, alternatively, Jasper Fforde.

Getting old sucks. Regardless of what we do, we can’t stop our bodies from aging and slowing down. Muscles get weaker, it gets harder to get in shape, and our reflexes slowly fail us. Time cares nothing for our fond remembrances or youthful delusions; in the words of Joe Posnanski, age is undefeated.

It can be difficult enough to accept that we’re slowly getting older and losing our physical skills, but in some ways, it’s more painful to watch your favorite athletes age. These guys are supposed to be living gods: chiseled, millionaire athletes that are impervious to many of the daily cares and concerns that plague us. In my mind, that’s a large part of what gives sports their charm – they’re a form of escapism from the rest of the world. Athletes aren’t supposed to be like the rest of us; kids grow up believing that they exist in their own world, where their largest concern is the batting slump they’re in right now and their team’s position in the standings. We can watch the game at night and escape from our lives, being pulled into baseball’s universe instead.

Or at least, that’s what I think baseball starts out as when we’re young. When we grow up, we find out that this delusion isn’t true; baseball players are people, too, each with their own flaws, and some of them are jerks (or just plain stupid). And hey, baseball players get old, too… even the really, really good ones. But still, even though we realize this, I think everyone feels a punch in the gut when they watch one of their favorite player’s struggle toward the end of their career. We root for our favorites to stay eternally young, so that way we don’t have to be reminded that we’re getting old, too, and that we know what it feels like to fail.

But anyway, enough with that digression: I’m here to talk about the Yankees, and no, not Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada. While both players have dominated the tabloid headlines this year, there’s one player whose decline is hiding in the background: Alex Rodriguez.

I remember a time when Alex Rodriguez was the yearly consensus first pick in fantasy baseball. People would try to argue for other players depending on the year, but for a long stretch of time in the middle of his career, A-Rod was the best player in baseball. Sure, Barry Bonds was flashy for a while and Albert Pujols made lots of noise, too, but there’s no denying that Rodriguez was a superstar — a yearly threat to hit 45+ homeruns and take home the AL MVP award. His reign of dominance seemed unstoppable.

But slowly, over the last couple years we’ve seen A-Rod’s shadow begin to dim. He’s entering his mid-to-late 30s now, and there’s no denying that he’s no longer the player he used to be. He hasn’t cracked more than 35 homeruns since 2007, and his wOBA last season was a very human .363. He had to deal with a hip injury in 2009, and it took him a long time to fully recover from it. While he used to be the best player in the game, now it’s debatable if he’s even the best third baseman in the American League.

At 35 years old, Alex Rodriguez already has over 600 homeruns — 622 to be exact. Of all the other players with over 600 homeruns, Alex was the quickest one to reach this milestone; Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ken Griffey Jr. had all just cracked 500 homeruns by this point in their careers, while Barry Bonds was only sitting around 450 homeruns. All these players weren’t just great home-run hitters — they were great late home-run hitters as well.

So what’s going to happen with Rodriguez? He’s hit 30 home runs each of the past few seasons, so it’s tempting to think his totals are only going to keep decreasing from here on out. But as we’ve seen in recent years with players like David Ortiz and Jim Thome, it can be very difficult to predict how sluggers are going to age, and many times they have more left in the tank than we give them credit for. Each player has a unique body, and everyone ages slightly differently when they get old: some drop off quickly due to injury or age, while others can linger on for many years.

The truly great players tend to age well. Ruth, Mays, Aaron, and Griffey averaged 180 home runs after they turned 35 years old, and none of them retired until after they turned 40. Hark Aaron lasted the longest of any of them, hitting 40 home runs at age 39, but even he didn’t have much left in the tank after that. If Rodriguez can do something similar to what these players did and hit 150 home runs over the rest of his career, he’d be able to pass Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds on the all-time list with relative ease.

But here’s the question that none of us knows the answer to: will Rodriguez follow the career path of all these other great sluggers? As tempting as it can be to say, “Of course!” we really have no way of knowing. The future is a crapshoot; at this point, the only thing we know for certain is that A-Rod is no longer the player he once was. He may still have a few seasons of greatness left in the tank — which I think is likely, considering how talented he is — but regardless, his time is numbered.

For all the fans of the Yankees, enjoy these next few seasons with A-Rod and soak up all the good memories. Because as we’ve seen with Jeter and Posada, things have a way of getting ugly eventually. Sooner or later, time always wins.