MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

A-Rod's layered legacy coming into focus

A-Rod's layered legacy coming into focus

Alex Rodriguez has stood at the railing in the Yankees' dugout night after night in recent weeks, looking out of place and uncomfortable. His expression seems to be some mixture of resignation and sadness. It says this wasn't how it was supposed to end.

This is it, though. In Rodriguez's heart, he had to know. The Yanks have moved on, peppering their lineup with younger players, turning a page. Meanwhile, A-Rod has started one game the past two weeks and had one at-bat this month.

Rodriguez's batting average topped out at .223 on July 1 and now sits at .204. Where does he fit? He doesn't. That's the bottom line.

Sure, A-Rod has spent afternoons tinkering with his mechanics, waiting for another chance. That's how the great ones almost always think. Maybe they're the last to know, but that attitude is part of why they were great in the first place.

What's the point of Rodriguez hanging around other than to collect the roughly $21 million he's owed in 2017? He won't be. A-Rod announced at a news conference on Sunday he would play his last game on Friday against the Rays at Yankee Stadium and become a team advisor, working with the next generation of Yankees.

We never think they're going to go out this way, with a warmup jacket and a lost expression. When A-Rod has been asked about riding the bench, he has said he will be there when needed, that he'll do whatever is asked.

Rodriguez is not a sympathetic figure and hasn't been for a long time. His legacy is layer upon layer of complexity. But you have to give him this much: In the past two seasons, since returning from a year-long suspension, A-Rod has been a model citizen and a good teammate.

It was too late to rewrite his larger legacy. That's the thing about Alex Rodriguez. We're never really going to know how great he was.

Rodriguez's numbers will ultimately say he was one of the best there ever was. His 696 home runs are more than any player except Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. A-Rod won a batting title and five home run titles. He was a 14-time All-Star and three-time American League Most Valuable Player Award winner.

Dozens of scouts, the people who've watched thousands and thousands of players, argue about the best teenager they ever saw. Some argue it was Bo Jackson. Some say Bryce Harper or Ken Griffey Jr.

But in every one of these conversations, Alex Rodriguez's name comes up. All of them remember the first time they saw him as a tall, thin teenager in South Florida. He was graceful and had quick, powerful hands.

Rodriguez had that thing only the special players have in that he seemed to play the game in slow motion. He made the most difficult plays at shortstop seem routine.

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. remembered the spring of 1993 when his manager, Johnny Oates, invited the 17-year-old A-Rod to visit Orioles Spring Training.

Rodriguez had hung around Miami Stadium as a kid when the O's trained there, and Ripken was the guy he wanted to be.

Ripken was considered by most baseball people too tall to play shortstop when Orioles manager Earl Weaver moved him there in 1982. He played there 15 years and established himself as one of the best ever.

Ripken was A-Rod's role model, and the day they met started a long, warm relationship. In Ripken's final All-Star Game, in 2001, Rodriguez, the AL shortstop, moved to third base when his team took the field to force Ripken to appear at his original position one last time. Ripken was touched. A-Rod was emotional.

Prime 9 All-Star moments: Cal

Rodriguez played his first game for the Mariners at 18 in 1994, and by 2001, he had long since established himself as one of the great players of his generation. When he averaged 45 homers a year between 1998-2007, we crowned him the future home run king -- the one who would play by the rules, the clean champion.

A-Rod turned out not to be that clean champion, and so as great as he was, his every accomplishment will be held up to scrutiny.

Every fan -- especially those in Seattle who watched him those first seven seasons -- can come up with a context for what A-Rod's numbers mean.

Rodriguez's post-baseball life will be interesting. He has an array of business interests and drew rave reviews for his on-air work on FOX during the 2015 postseason.

A-Rod is unlikely to find anything he loves as much as what he has done for the past 22 seasons. His career won't be simple to explain, but his gifts were unmistakable. Few players ever had more.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.