Sympathy for a ‘Devil’

Internally Displaced Person

Frank Deford was right about one thing: Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez was blessed. As good a prospect as Josh Hamilton was, A-Rod was better. In fact, some consider him to have been the best prospect of the draft era (1966-present).

He confirmed that judgment when just three years after being drafted number one out of Miami’s Westminster Christian High School, he hit .358, the highest batting average for an American League right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939, with 36 home runs and 123 runs batted in at 20 years of age. (The only two players to have comparable age 20 seasons were Ty Cobb and Mike Trout.)

Then there were his looks. His café-con-leche skin, green eyes, and athletic skills brought to mind a genetic experiment a la “Dark Angel.” Then, there was the cool nickname, A-Rod, “with the capital letter and the first syllable last name—like J-Lo—before they became imitated and clichéd for dime-a-dozen mortals.”

Yet—and you knew there was a “yet” or “but” coming—Deford is also right when, in an homage to the great Jimmy Cannon, he writes “Your name is Alex Rodriguez, and nobody likes you.”

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. ESPN Magazine was closer to the mark when it said that “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.”

Why they hate him, or, more precisely, why they hate him so much more than other players who have also been caught using performance-enhancing drugs and then lied about it, is not clear. I’m inclined to think that the hatred and vitriol has more than a little bit to do with envy, which Dante defined as “love of one’s own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs,” and its evil cousin, schadenfreude, rejoicing in the misfortune of others.

Reading the ESPN article and hearing people gleefully rip into A-Rod, my response is to pity him. Now, pity gets a bad rap for two reasons: ignorance and pride. Pity comes from the Latin word “pietas,” from which we also get the word “piety.” Indeed, in classical Latin, “pietas” most often referred to the faithful performance of one’s familial/civic/religious (the Roman world didn’t distinguish between these in the way we moderns do) duties.

With the rise and triumph of Christianity, “pietas” was how the Hebrew word “chesed” and the Greek word “eleos,” which both contained the ideas of mercy, compassion, and lovingkindness, were rendered into Latin and eventually into English as “pity.”

Missing from the Christian understanding of pity was any sense that the one doing the pitying, with the obvious exception of God, is somehow superior, morally or otherwise, to the one being pitied. We pity because God first pitied us and shared our suffering, while, as St. Paul wrote, we were yet sinners.

Nietzsche understood this when in “The Antichrist,” he wrote that “Christianity is called the religion of pity.” He complained that Christian pity “has a depressing effect” because “we are deprived of strength when we feel pity.” He noted that the German word for “pity,” “Mitleid,” literally means to “suffer with.” Thus all Christian pity accomplishes is to make “suffering contagious.”

That pretty much exhausts my knowledge of German (and Nietzsche). Somewhere, in a development that appears to have been unique to English—like the German “Mitleid,” the Spanish “piedad” and the Italian “pietà” are synonyms for “compassion”—pity became associated with condescension. Hence, the proud response “spare me your pity,” a phrase that makes no sense in, say, Spanish.

I pity Alex Rodriguez. It doesn’t matter that by the seventh-inning stretch on Opening Day he will have made a lot more money than I will make all year. It doesn’t matter than he’s tall, handsome, and talented and I’m, well, not. It doesn’t even matter that his current predicament is one of his own making. I pity him because I’m no stranger to making a mess of my own life. I pity him because I’m all-too-acquainted with the insecurity that leads one to make bad and seemingly senseless choices.

I pity him because, as ESPN put it, “A-Rod murdered Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod brutally kidnapped and replaced the virginal, bilingual, biracial boy wonder, the chubby-cheeked phenom with nothing but upside. A-Rod killed the radio star, and his fall from grace disrupted the whole symbology and mythopoesis of what it means to be a superhero athlete in modern America.”

It’s hard enough keeping what Brennan Manning called “the Impostor” at bay. Imagine what it’s like to be tasked with preserving “the whole symbology and mythopoesis of what it means to be a superhero athlete in modern America.” Thus, I pity Rodriguez because I’m not convinced I could have done any better under the same conditions. I like to think I could, but I know all-too-well that I can be an insecure jerk and I’m “nobody.”

Finally, I pity him because everyone passing him on the road to his Jerusalem isn’t content to leave him for dead on the side of the road—they insist on kicking the corpse.

The ESPN article describes a man who is desperate to make sense out of what has happened and how to fix what has broken. Out of pity, I pray that he visits his high school website, clicks on “About Us,” and reads the second paragraph under “Our Mission.”

In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

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