Junior, A-Rod caught in the bubble

jrEach is the highest-paid player in their sport and works for the most recognizable team in their game. Both have had epic accomplishments in their careers, but neither has performed well in recent seasons. Today, they struggle to stay relevant, perhaps saving their careers and reputations in the process.

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., meet Major League Baseball player Alex Rodriguez.

While Earnhardt and Rodriguez are about as different as two sports icons can get, their situations have a commonality to them. Born just nine months apart, each broke into their sport as gifted teenagers – Earnhardt with his father’s racing team, Rodriquez with the Seattle Mariners.

Both quickly established themselves as Earnhardt won back-to-back NASCAR Busch Series (now Nationwide) championships in 1998-1999. Rodriguez, meanwhile, was instantly one of the best shortstops in the game winning a batting title and making his first all-star appearance as a 20-year-old in 1996.

Those performances – along with engaging personalities – made them media and fan darlings. Neither group could get enough of them and their star power eventually eclipsed that of their peers and their respective sports.

So did their bank accounts.

Despite never winning a title at NASCAR’s top level, Earnhardt has long been the champion in the sport’s earnings race. His estimated net worth is in the $300 million range and this year, he will reportedly bank approximately $29 million – equal parts race winnings and outside promotional income.

Rodriguez also found his way to the bank signing the largest contract in MLB history – not once – but three times. First, ‘A-Rod’ tilted for a $179 million contract with the Texas Rangers before following it up with a $252 million deal with the New York Yankees in 2004. In 2007, Rodriguez elected to stay with the Yankees inking a 10-year, $275 million deal.

Unfortunately, when it comes to performance, the music has been anything but sweet for either Earnhardt or Rodriguez in recent years.

Earnhardt has never lived up to expectations as he’s scored just two wins in 205 races since joining the Hendrick Motorsports ‘superteam’ in 2008. Despite the dismal statistical performance, his popularity has continued to hold fast although these days it clearly hinges more on his name than his accomplishments.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, produced an MVP season for the Yankees in 2007 (his third such award). After another solid season in 2008, Rodriguez won his first championship with an MVP performance against the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series in 2009.

Rodriguez continued to play well and rack up giant numbers until 2011 when he was  limited by injuries. He has contributed little the last two seasons, often times completely ineffective or off the field entirely in crucial game situations.

Today, both are caught in the glare of media and fan scrutiny – Earnhardt for his lack of winning NASCAR races and championships, Rodriguez as Major League Baseball’s poster boy for abuse of performance enhancing drugs (PED’s).

Both situations are sports soap opera of epic proportions – all played out continuously by the 24-7-365 sports media networks.

How it will all end for either athlete remains to be seen.

To say there’s a lot on the line – more than just money – is an understatement.

Earnhardt’s reputation is up for grabs. He needs to win now – and win a lot – over the next couple of years to legitimize his career. If not, he will most likely be remembered by many as a driver who rode his Hall of Fame father’s memory and legacy to great riches and transparent popularity.

Perhaps more importantly, he’ll also be connected to the recent drop in popularity of NASCAR itself. While there have been many factors that have contributed to the sport’s swoon, NASCAR has unashamedly embraced and manipulated Earnhardt’s family legacy for more than a decade after the death of its progenitor – much of it at the expense of introducing new, more successful drivers in the sport to it’s fan base.

After all, hyping someone who rarely wins – think a .200 hitter or the Houston Astros in baseball if you will – as the face of your sport is probably isn’t the best marketing strategy if you want to attract new fans and build your brand.

On the other hand, there seems to be little Rodriguez can do to rescue his career and reputation. Unlike Earnhardt, there is no road to recovering past glory for him. Regardless of what he does on the ball diamond, Rodriguez has been made to be the face of the drug and supplement abuse frenzy in sports today – all despite the fact that he has never failed an MLB instituted drug test.

After decades of looking the other way as players ‘juiced’ their way to monumental statistical achievements, it’s an interesting strategy as MLB leaders hope that by exposing the warts of the game, it will become more popular in the long run.

We’ll see.

In the meantime, don’t expect much of anything else as NASCAR and its media will continue to endlessly amplify Earnhardt’s latest mediocrity. If he should win again – and he probably will at some point – expect it to be worse than it already is.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball and it’s so-called ‘protectors of the game’ – greedy owners and house-boy media – will continue it’s lead story crusade to oust yet to be proven cheaters like Rodriguez and clean up the sport all for the benefit of you, the fan.

Truthfully, there’s a part of me that feels badly for both Earnhardt and Rodriguez. Neither can be happy where they are now, caught up in performance droughts and hounded by spirit-crushing media attention.

It has to be brutal to be in that kind of bubble.

In the end, it’s unlikely that Earnhardt and Rodriguez have ever met. On the surface, there’s little similarity between the ‘good ole’ boy’ stock car driver from North Carolina and the Domincan baseball player born in New York City.

That said, it’s their ‘connection’ and problems that currently define their sports – NASCAR and Major League Baseball – now and for years to come.

About John Close

John Close covered his first NASCAR race as a professional media member in 1986 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Since then, Close – a former Associated Press newspaper sports editor – has written countless articles for numerous motorsports magazines, trade publications and Internet sites.

His Close Calls column appears each week on www.CloseFinishes.com,www.MotorsportsAmerica.com and www.RacingNation.com.

Close has also authored two books – Tony Stewart – From Indy Phenom To NASCAR Superstar and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – From Desert Dust To Superspeedways.

Close also spotted more than 150 NASCAR Cup, Nationwide and Truck events from 1995-2008. His third book – On The Spot – a volume about the history of NASCAR race spotting, will be published later this year.

You can direct comments/inquiries to Close at closefinishes@carolina.rr.com.

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