The emoji weren’t the point, or at least they weren’t supposed to be.
In late January, singer, actress, and World of Dance judge Jennifer Lopez posted a thirst trap on Instagram. Like many famous person ’grams, it was screengrabbed by Comments by Celebs, an Instagram account that tracks celebrities’ online activity. In the photo, Lopez wears a rose-colored bikini top and high-waisted leggings, and has six visible abs. As one of her 90 million followers, I knew that she was on some kind of crash carb-cut with her then-boyfriend (now fiancé), former Yankee Alex Rodriguez, and it showed.
Comments by Celebs’ post featured replies from two notables: “OMG [heart eyes]” Lopez’s ex, P. Diddy, had written, spawning headlines like “P. Diddy left a Thirsty Comment on Jennifer Lopez’s Instagram.” The tension of J. Lo’s old love commenting on how good she looked was too much for the internet. But right below Diddy’s reply was something much more confusing: A-Rod’s comment.
“Lucky me [red heart] [baseball] [green checkmark].”
“Why,” I thought immediately, “would you comment on the very sexy photo your girlfriend posted with the ball from a sport that 1) you played and 2) was not even in season at the time and 3) had nothing to do with the photo? What does a baseball have to do with J. Lo’s abs?”
We all use emoji in specific, strangely private, and often deeply boring ways. Psychological studies about emoji use are still in their infancy but are already finding that the use of emoji has a direct correlation to our self-esteem and our awareness of how we present online. Like verbal tics or writing tendencies, we have habits in when and how we use an emoji. DJ Khaled, for example, has taken ownership of the key emoji. Taylor Swift reclaimed the snake emoji during her “Reputation” tour. But no one’s emoji usage has ever confused me as much as Alex Rodriguez’s.
Rodriguez played 22 seasons of Major League Baseball with the Seattle Mariners, the Texas Rangers, and the New York Yankees. He is now a sports broadcaster and works Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN. So it makes sense that the baseball emoji would be a common one for him to use, but the way he uses it — only in comments, never to talk about baseball — is seemingly illogical.
Here is an incomplete list of times A-Rod has used the baseball emoji: He commented, “coconuts [red heart] [baseball],” on a photo Lopez posted of her snuggling two of her children. He commented, “blockbuster! [baseball] [fire],” on a promo post for her movie Second Act. He commented, “Way to go Honda [sic]! [red heart] [baseball] [green checkmark] [thumbs-up] [fire],” on J. Lo’s Instagram of Hoda Kotb. He regularly responds, “Thanks man [baseball],” to comments on his own Instagrams. All of these are from the past six months.
Sometimes he just responds to comments on his own Instagram with a single baseball emoji.
Other athletes frequently use sports ball emoji, but usually to signify that a given post is about a given sport. This makes sense! Jessica Mendoza, for example, captioned her Opening Day post on March 28 with a baseball emoji. A-Rod did not. In fact, since January 13 (when he posted a photo of him wearing his 2009 World Series ring), A-Rod has not used a baseball emoji to caption one of his own photos. This is despite posting several photos of him playing baseball and one particularly cute video of him signing a ball for a kid in a New York park. This week, Lopez posted a photo of the couple with kids at the Yankees game. Rodriguez commented, “fun [red heart],” but no baseball emoji? For Alex Rodriguez, the baseball emoji is more than just a literal indication that some baseball is happening. The baseball emoji is, well … honestly, I have no idea.
(Neither Rodriguez nor Lopez responded to multiple requests for comment.)
I tried to get a good answer. When A-Rod offered to answer questions on his Instagram, I jumped at the opportunity. He did not respond, and sadly, since then, he’s used fewer baseballs. I emailed everyone’s press representatives and did not even get a response. No one wanted to explain the baseballs.
After weeks of trying to divine the meaning of this completely irrelevant and absolutely absurd commenting tic, I came to my last resort: the fans. I took my folder of screenshots to Opening Day at the Washington Nationals stadium on March 28. The Nats were, notably, playing the Mets (A-Rod’s Yankee rivals). I attended the game alone and began asking people around me what they thought this could mean. With their input, I have come up with three theories of A-Rod’s baseball emoji usage for you:
Theory one: A-Rod just really likes baseball and doesn’t understand emoji
“Oh, my god, this is exactly how my dad uses emojis,” said baseball fan Brian S. as he stood next to me in the hot dog line. “Isn’t it?” He handed my many screenshots of A-Rod’s baseball emoji to his father, who looked confused. “This isn’t how I use emojis,” Brian’s father said. But Brian was adamant. Upon reviewing his father’s comments on his own Instagrams (many thumbs-up and quite a few briefcases to talk about work), Brian had a point.
Brian’s dad, upon being shown his own comments, conceded. “I think it’s just like how we all use certain words more than other words, though,” he said. “Like, my parents said words so I say them and maybe no one else does.”
It is possible that the baseball emoji, sadly, mean nothing. It is possible that A-Rod has simply used them enough that they now appear on his frequently used emoji screen, and so (like Brian’s dad) he just punches them in at the end of whatever he is commenting on. For Brian’s dad, a frequently used emoji, confusingly, was a green heart. “Why do you use the green heart?” I asked. “I don’t know. I like green,” he said. Which brings us to our next theory.
Theory two: the baseball is a symbol of love to A-Rod
A-Rod’s entire life is baseball. He announces. He played. He thinks about baseball constantly, and he seems to genuinely love the game. Maybe he loves the game so much that the baseball actually symbolizes love to him. “I baseball you,” I imagine A-Rod saying accidentally to J. Lo.
I posited this theory to the people sitting around me sometime during the seventh inning. A man sitting a couple of rows ahead of me who was clearly eavesdropping turned around and smirked at me. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Dude, don’t you send your girlfriend that flower emoji in, like, every other text?” his friend asked, and he hit him on the shoulder. I did not ever get a clear answer on what the flower was supposed to mean.
None of the men liked this theory as much as I did, but then I showed them an Instagram of J. Lo’s from January 1 where the pop star is snuggled up with two of her children in a cozy chair, all of them asleep. “Coconuts [red heart] [baseball],” A-Rod commented. They relented that this was a plausible theory.
Theory three: the baseball is a code for when the commenter is actually A-Rod
Many celebrities use social media managers or assistants to run their accounts for them. In fact, many of A-Rod’s Instagram captions use the kind of scripted copy that seems likely to have come from a social media expert trying to optimize engagement. “What’s your handicap?” he asks after a video of him swinging a golf club.
Maybe, just maybe, the baseballs are a code for the real A-Rod, a kind of signature in a sea of comments. “Here, it is the real me,” the baseballs might say. “This is not just a ‘like’ from a random person; this is me, the baseball, and I love this.”
A young woman named Katy pointed out to me a couple of A-Rod’s comments on J. Lo’s February 10 Oscars post. The first reads, “Gorgeous!!! Next year – I will be wearing a hat too!! [red heart] [Dominican flag] [sunglasses] [green checkmark] [baseball] [thumbs-up] [fire explosion].” The second reads, “Why are you so gorgeous macha? You killed it tonight. Hurry up and come to bed [green checkmark] [baseball] [sunglasses] [red heart] [Dominican flag] [fire explosion].”
“These read like every drunk comment I’ve ever posted,” she said.
Before noticing A-Rod’s tic, I never used the baseball emoji. Though I’m a serious baseball fan and often text about games, my text use doesn’t usually include emoji. I rarely reach for them when writing a caption or a comment on someone else’s post. But since noticing A-Rod’s habit and realizing how much joy it’s brought me, I’ve started using them more. Recently, a friend (knowing this obsession) commented “[baseball] [heart] [fire]” on a selfie I had posted. It was a joke, but it was a kind of sweet transference of love. “I noticed you find this funny and like it,” the comment seemed to say. “I’ll use it here to make you laugh.”
A few weeks ago, Jennifer Lopez posted a photo on Instagram taken from over her shoulder. It was posted two days before she and A-Rod co-announced their engagement with ’grams posted at the exact same time. The pair are on a boat, it seems, the sky all blue and clear ahead of them. “Down time [blue heart] [baseball] [film camera],” she wrote.
Maybe the baseball stood for A-Rod and the movie camera for her, the blue heart for both of them. Or maybe, I like to think, she was using emoji the way he uses them: playfully, kidding, and radiating adoration.
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