They're hard to credit or believe, but they're out there: stories of Willie Mays and Duke Snider playing stickball with neighborhood kids, during some long lost era of straitjacketed propriety and starchy Eisenhowerian prosperity. That such stories are more or less impossible to imagine today -- Chase Utley joining some say-hey pickup game in North Philadelphia; Matt Kemp crashing an Echo Park mess-around and crushing some dingers onto the 110 before work -- perhaps says more about today than it does about those stories. Baseball was different when Mays and Snider either did or didn't jump in those neighborhood games; the culture and the place baseball had in that culture were different; lord knows those neighborhoods were different. It was a long time and a great deal of turbulence ago.
But while we might struggle to imagine a time in which baseball players were as real and as present in the neighborhoods that supported them as those heartwarming bits of baseball apocrypha suggest, a player -- a person -- like Alex Rodriguez would be equally unimaginable to fans of that age. His greatness would've been recognizable, of course. Goof all you like on A-Rod's supreme narcissism and all the preening uglinesses, big and small, that flow from it, but his actual and inarguable baseball greatness is impossible to miss. There's a case to be made that A-Rod is the greatest player of his and our generation, and arguably many others -- it's not a difficult case to make, actually, given that A-Rod has already been worth more Wins Above Replacement over his career than Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and all but 16 other players in big league history. But despite his place in the game's history, A-Rod, for better and worse, belongs to this uneasy time.