These should be sun-filled days for America’s national, if now somewhat beleaguered, sport. The spectacle of opening day—in which every stadium in America is filled to capacity—has come and gone in all its glory. The season has sprung, and, with it, all the clichés of spring and rebirth and childhood. At this point, most baseball fans still keep hope alive of a competitive summer and triumphant fall for the teams they love and hold dear. Off the field, the biopic 42 that portrays the game’s great groundbreaker, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the first black man to play in the major leagues, has hit theaters, accompanied by a rush of nostalgic, sentimental stories about a time and place in America when one man stood alone to change the course of the world.
But here in New York, Alex Rodriguez is casting a pall. When the star, whose luster has dimmed thanks to outstanding reporting by journalists at the Miami New Times, ESPN, and The New York Times, comes up in conversation, his name is often followed by disgusted dismissal even though, because of an injury, he’s yet to play a single game this season.
That’s because A-Rod once again owns the back pages of the city’s tabloids. For the second time in his career, the third baseman for the New York Yankees is suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. Yet this time Rodriguez, who admitted using steroids during his brief, tumultuous, and unsuccessful tenure with the Texas Rangers, has allegedly gone further and put his considerable resources toward destroying records of his involvement with a now-shuttered “anti-aging” center linked to helping several Major League players gain a competitive advantage, according to several reports, which he denies. But the shadow that A-Rod casts on the game’s inherent beauty and capacity to thrill is even darker. He reminds us of an all-too-familiar dark narrative: the downward spiral of the man who wanted everything and may have been willing to take the fast, easy path.
Once, unblemished, he represented baseball’s future. To an enamored America, he was the would-be king who had shone on the field at home in Seattle before setting out on a national career—a young, spotless star, handsome and eloquent, a beautiful man whose play inspired paeans.
Yet since coming to New York, to baseball’s most storied team, his persona has grown harsh and confused, despite the fact that he still possesses those same Hollywood looks and dates the pool of actual Hollywood glamour. Yes, he became the man who held Kate Hudson close; who ate popcorn with Cameron Diaz at the Super Bowl; who walked without fuss, among the very, very rich and the very best athletes in the world, in Coral Gables, Florida. And he was the player who was supposed to erase the tainted era of overly muscular men whose blatant misdeeds we were willing to ignore as long as they continued to pitch with great, uncanny efficiency and hit balls into the outer reaches of the known world.
However, while A-Rod still carries himself with an ease and lack of self-doubt (masking the reported insecurities he has about his lack of adoration, of the constant, unrelenting ridicule that follows him every time he steps from his palatial home), he is unable to be the man—as Joe DiMaggio once was—who rose to reverence without saying a word.
His downfall bookends a period that many fans would rather forget; the period that began with the 2005 inquiry when revered players, including Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, stood before a congressional hearing convened to investigate the purity of our national sport and appeared foolish—brought-down men scrambling to save what little remained of their reputations. Sosa pretended not to know English. McGwire took the Fifth.
That different generations of fans might look at steroid use differently was brought home to me by our most treasured baseball writer, Roger Angell, as we sat in his office at The New Yorker a couple of years ago. Recalling an event at the University of Pennsylvania where he had spent time as a visiting writer in 2005, Angell remembered the varied reactions in the crowd of about 90 people of younger and older students who had come to hear him talk: “I began to talk about steroids, and I said, ‘I want to take a poll. Let’s say, first of all, that you were a dentist or an accountant or an architect and suddenly you hear about this substance that you could take. It may be illegal but it’s not detectable, and it’s probably going to make you a better accountant and architect, maybe the best one ever,” Angell continued. “How many of you would take it?’ And all the older guys put their hands up. I said, ‘How many would never take it?’ and all the young guys said, ‘Never!’”
Angell had another point about the controversy, then playing out in Congress and the press. “During the steroids thing, people really seemed to forget that the point of baseball is to find a winner, a winning team,” he said. “That’s why they play, to find a winning team, and the records are just a spinoff, just a light line for us fans.” He added that “all this stuff about records,” well, it’s “not the main event.”
Yet it is this drive for ever faster, ever higher, ever more that spurs the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDS).
Since Sen. George Mitchell produced a damning 400-page report on the use of steroids and PEDs, it seems Major League Baseball (MLB) officials have been in relentless pursuit of those who still seek that very advantage when it’s clear that most players shy away from such methods, fearful of repercussions. They have tried and failed—through a technicality—to suspend Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun following the 2011 season, one in which he won a Most Valuable Player award.
One would think MLB would do its best to quietly move on. But since his admission of steroid use following the allegations of sportswriter Selena Roberts in her biography of A-Rod in 2009, A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez, it seems that, instead of ignoring him, MLB has set its sights on him, hoping to find some evidence that might drive him from baseball. With that, perhaps they think, he might stand as the last of his kind, a man whose retirement would come as a great blessing, allowing the game to awake finally from a shameful nightmare that seems without end.
In this sport, who else has achieved his status, his recognition? Sure, there’s A-Rod’s teammate Derek Jeter, himself aching into the twilight of his own stellar career. But, despite Jeter’s own romantic dalliances and outward charm, at times the Yankees’ shortstop can come off as robotic, unable or unwilling to take the game on his shoulders and carry it forth, to restore it as this country’s most popular, most followed sport.
And A-Rod’s statistics, however he achieved them, still rank among the best in the game’s history. Even in injury, and even with further allegations of misdeeds, A-Rod could possibly still break the all-time home-run record, itself a mark tainted by the man who currently holds it, the mercurial Barry Bonds, who, by many accounts, turned to steroids to break the record. Had Bonds not been sullied with allegations of drug use, his memory would stand as perhaps the greatest left fielder ever to play the game. But it seems that, like A-Rod, he could not resist temptation.
For those of us who still care, this latest controversy comes at a time when the game has never been better, when, in spite of the ghastly amounts of money that teams from Los Angeles and New York have shoveled into the wallets of aging stars, teams from places like Cincinnati and St. Louis and Baltimore showcase some of the best overall teams in baseball. Or consider Washington, D.C.’s Nationals, a perennial doormat since they moved their franchise from Montreal. The team now stands as a source of great pride for our capital as perhaps the very best in the league.
But such stories—the smaller team, the less flashy stars—aren’t as compelling in a world of outsize celebrity and endorsements spanning millions of dollars, where the figures of our sporting life have risen high above us, a world in which David Beckham and Kobe Bryant stare down upon us from billboards like omnipotent Greek gods, their flaws ignored, forgotten, or forgiven.
It is this world that A-Rod sought; this place in the pantheon. And, at 37, he has made the choice not to go quietly but to stand defiant, seemingly believing that everything is salvageable, that he can still win over not only New York but also the world. In a sport where we most revere those who seem to strive the hardest, he desperately holds on for one more chance—a chance to reignite the “A-Rod fever” that many felt before his reported misdeeds came to light, a time when most in New York believed he would play his best when his best was needed the most.
But he is Lex Luthor in our Metropolis, not Superman; a pariah to most fans of a sport that seems to have lost its ability to summon up real heroes. He is the man-child who simply won’t go away, the man who came to New York in hopes of being that someone to make the billboard, his eyes alight, with us staring up at him with awe and envy.