Monday, February 16, 2009

The Tragedy of Alex, King of Ballparks

Next month, I’ll teach Hamlet to my seniors, as I always do this time of year. We’ll start by talking about Shakespeare, and what made him so profound a writer. Some of the kids will groan at the mention of his name, but then I’ll catch their attention by comparing Shakespeare to P. Diddy – both of them artists who figured out ways to make money several times over through their own work. I’ll also tell them that Shakespeare, like P. Diddy or any rapper, knew how to sample – in Will’s case, he used allusions to other works of literature and history to make his points clearer.

As we start reading, we’ll talk about the ways in which Shakespeare took well-known stories and turned them into masterpieces. We’ll watch him tap into the essence of human nature like no one else has ever done. We’ll read Hamlet and the kids will realize that the young man in this play is, in many ways, just like them – he’s struggling with adult figures, with love, with family, with future plans and, most of all, with himself. They’ll work through the difficult words and find a reason to remember the themes of this play for a long time.

At some point, I’ll ask them to tell me what Shakespeare would be doing were he alive today. Some will place him in L.A., others in Greenwich Village. Some will have him writing screenplays, and others will see him as a quiet poet. When it’s my chance to share, I’ll talk about the people I think he’d be writing about today. I’ll tell them that I don’t think Shakespeare would be pulling his material from the royalty of years gone by. No, not in 2009. There is simply too much complexity and drama within the life of the modern-day celebrity. Shakespeare would get his inspiration simply by reading the tabloids.

And nowhere else is there a riper Shakespearean drama right now than in the Bronx, N.Y., right around 161st Street, somewhere in the immediate vicinity of third base. Were the Bard alive and well in 2009, he would turn his attention to one Alex Rodriguez.

Glorious gifts are bestowed upon a young man. His early success is astounding, with overwhelming talk of unmatched potential. Fabulous riches are handed to him. The world is at his feet. And yet …

And yet, deep inside, he feels a need to soar even higher. To ensure that no one surpasses him. To protect his legacy from all others. So he turns, quietly, to Macbeth’s witches. They offer him a potion that will make his muscles stronger, without adding bulk. He thinks about it, and decides to seize the opportunity.

He dominates his game even more, smashing hundreds of home runs and earning even greater fame and wealth. And yet, when the tempest of postseason play swirls around him, he tenses up, and hits small ground balls to the pitcher. He hears the boos. Many question his ability to focus under pressure, and to excel in the chill of October. Like Hamlet, the gifted man is unable to get out of his own head.

He vows to improve. But those who watch him speak of his envy toward the young Romeo at shortstop, whom everyone adores for his clutch hitting, classy demeanor and dashing looks. The slugger strives to gain the level of acceptance that Romeo has found, but many see his desire for appreciation as yet another accomplishment, rather than as a genuine desire to be liked. His green eyes are filled with jealousy for that Romeo, and like Othello he comes to feel insecure far too easily for a man of his stature.

Alex Rodriguez, a man of Shakespearean complexity. The tabloids do their best to document the drama, with headlines like “A-Roid” and “A-Hole.” The columnists shine the spotlight on Rodriguez’s moments of hypocrisy and cast their piercing judgment. But in the end, they just scratch the surface. This story needs a Bard to pull its pieces together and help us see the true human story embedded within those pinstripes.

Shakespeare’s gift was in taking a tale whose plot looked like something out of Jerry Springer, then turning it into a multi-layered mirror. As we peer into that mirror, we find ourselves looking deeply at our own flaws, and perpending our own human nature. As Alex Rodriguez prepares to meet the bevy of reporters tomorrow in Tampa, and as we all prepare to pass our own judgment, we pine for a writer who can put the pieces together in a deeply human manner. Were he there, creating his own version of the Alex Rodriguez story, Shakespeare would, no doubt, lead us to think about the complex flaws we hold in common with Number 13, and just what we want to do about it.