The summer of 1998 was the summer I, among millions of others, became obsessed with baseball.
Steroids fueled the home run title chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The New York Yankees were in the peak of their dynasty, and the young guns like Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were generating eye-opening highlights on ESPN on a daily basis.
A time that was considered “the darkest days of Major League Baseball” was its best days from a spectator's point of view. It was a promising time for baseball, where most sports fans could turn on a random game on the television and recognize at least one big-name player on any given team.
It was when MLB licensed video games like All-Star Baseball and Ken Griffey, Jr. Slugfest embarrassed other sports games, like the notorious Madden video game franchise.
There were ball players with such unique batting stances, you could find little leaguers across America imitating the bat sway of guys like Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds.
After Jeter retired last season, it hit the baseball world drastically. Major League Baseball had lost its golden boy. Jeter was what Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL; what Michael Jordan was to the NBA.
But, baseball does not have a face to replace the great Derek Jeter. They don’t have guys like LeBron James or Sydney Crosby, who can serve as public figures for the league.
The days of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig being the biggest names in sports are long gone, as other professional sports have caught up to match the success of Major League Baseball’s popularity. Baseball ratings appear to be sinking lower season after season.
This is why baseball still needs A-Rod, the fallen hero of baseball, who we all love to hate.
A-Rod is the last remaining big-name player in Major League Baseball, who played in an era that created so much excitement each summer in the 90s.
We all read the children's autobiography on A-Rod, “On the Field with...Alex Rodriguez” by Matt Christopher, a popular children's author in the 90s who wrote biographies on famous athletes at a child’s reading level.
We all wore those same shiny sunglasses A-Rod used to wear when he took the field, making each little leaguer drip with nothing but swag.
We loved A-rod as one of the big faces in Major League Baseball growing up. But we also loved growing up to watch him become the villain he is today.
When I turned on the TV to watch the Yankees opening day game in the Bronx last week, I was surprised with the names that made up their batting lineup.
It reminded me what baseball has become a decade after Major League Baseball had begun to enforce its strict anti-doping regulations onto its players. The New York Yankees are the best team money can buy, and that image hasn’t changed for generations.
I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a painful season as a New York Mets fan, without knowing every single big-name superstar who made up the Bronx Bombers roster.
But, after looking at their roster last week, I could only recognize the name of one player they had batting seventh on opening day: Alex Rodriguez.
It felt so weird reading that lineup. It was the first time in my life I’ve seen a Yankees lineup that didn’t have Jeter’s name leading off opening day. No Jorge Posada, no Bernie Williams, no one who demonstrated the characteristics of what it means to be a “Yankee.”
Sure, I’ve heard of current Yankees like Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury, who are considered to be current superstars. But, those aren’t names every New Yorker could point out walking down the streets of Manhattan.
There was a time when every player in the Yankee lineup was good enough to make it look like the All-Star game was being played every summer night in the Bronx. Those memories were put to rest when they knocked down the house Babe Ruth built back in 2009.
After seeing that Yankee lineup, it made me want to cheer for a comeback of the Alex Rodriguez we once loved. I couldn’t help but root for the old guy who has produced so many memories for me as a child growing up in New York.
One minute we all loved him; the next minute we all hated him. A love/hate relationship cycle repeated season after season, with stories varying from constant steroid use to hollywood gossip dating celebrities like Madonna and Cameron Diaz.
Despite everything that justifies our hatred for A-Rod, the one thing you have to admire is his dedication to the game of baseball. For a player who is coming off a season-long suspension, he is still found in that Yankees lineup.
He could easily walk away from baseball today with all the money he’s made in his career.
He isn’t trying to torture Yankee fans by playing with his annual $20 million contract; he’s out there simply trying to prove himself to Yankee fans that he deserves to be known as a "Yankee great," even if the fans find that to be extremely farfetched.
A-Rod already knows a shot at the baseball Hall of Fame is very unlikely. He’s already received a world series ring, on top of countless MVP trophies.
He's made his mark on the record books, filling it with his name that has an asterisk right beside it. So what keeps A-Rod playing?
He’s playing in hopes of earning the love and support from a fan base that has never respected him since arriving in New York 11 years ago.
A-rod could easily defend his decision to continue to use steroids, in order to put up statistics that correlate with his Yankees contract, to shut up the Yankee fans who heckle him every time he steps into the batter’s box.
Being a professional athlete isn’t something that's easy to do in New York; just ask Mark Sanchez.
But, A-Rod has done some good things in his tenure as a Yankee, as he was a primary contributor to the World Series Yankee team that turned the last game ever played at the old Yankee Stadium into a World Series parade.
He deserves something that tells him his time with the Yankees wasn’t all that meaningless... because it wasn’t.
He happened to be a promising baseball player in his early years playing in Seattle, before he realizing that in order to thrive in the Major Leagues during his prime years, he had to juice up with steroids to keep up with the rest of the players who were all doing it at that time.
He wouldn’t have been the first Yankee to do it, but it might be a while until he is no longer labeled as the last Yankee to do it.
He was doing what most professional baseball players were doing in those “dark days of baseball’s history;” those dark days that got us to become baseball fans as kids growing up.
There once was a time when we all tuned in to watch the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby simply because it was exciting to watch.
A-Rod represents that skeleton of the dark days or Major League Baseball, where I can only find myself rooting for the guy who once made nine innings of baseball bearable to watch. He is what remains from the ashes of Major League Baseball.
Even though he won’t be producing numbers he's used to this season, A-Rod is a name everyone is still intrigued to hear about and interested to watch get up at bat.
His performance on the field without the use of steroids might not be as exciting as the old A-Rod we used to worship.
But, I can tell you Alex Rodriguez is more eye-catching than any baseball highlight that makes SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays this season, which is why baseball still needs him.
He’s the only player in baseball who reminds us the league is still relevant.
I'm not saying baseball will only get exciting if the MLB permits players to dope again, but what I am saying is baseball needs a change to revitalize the league that used to flourish when I was a kid growing up in the 90s.
It needs to become exciting enough where everyone in America is watching every game of the World Series again, and not just being watched by the cities of the teams playing in it. Major League Baseball needs to be saved.
Until then, we can only hope for another A-Rod scandal before he retires to remind fans that Major League Baseball is still America’s pastime.