The one occasion on which I chatted with Alex Rodriguez, privately and at length, was six years ago, with the superstar headed to the New York Yankees following his MVP season in Texas. I was struck by his politeness—he called me Mr. Starr—and impressed by his extensive knowledge of the game and his professed reverence for its history and traditions.
Now, of course, it turns out that A-Rod has been partaking of a less charming baseball tradition of recent vintage: performance-enhancing drugs. According to a report in Sports Illustrated, Rodriguez was one of 104 players who in 2003 tested positive—in his case for two different anabolic steroids—in Major League Baseball's trial-testing program. Thus A-Rod, the game's most illustrious star and the man cast as baseball's white knight in pursuit of Barry Bonds' tarnished record for career home runs, has been revealed as just another drug cheat.
You might even call him A-Fraud. Oh yeah, you were doing that already.
Bonds was, mostly, unlucky. The Feds just happened to target the drug lab he favored. A-Rod got screwed. The 2003 test was a practice run to determine whether Major League Baseball actually required a full-fledged testing program. (That was back when MLB and the players union were still denying the game had a serious problem.) Players were promised anonymity and assured that no punishments would be meted out. But in the Feds' pursuit of Bonds on perjury charges relating to performance-enhancing drugs, they extracted the list of those who had flunked the first MLB drug test. A-Rod has simply become collateral damage of that investigation.
While the ethics of the leak are certainly questionable, the information can hardly be ignored. We will never look at A-Rod in quite the same way. Indeed this "outing" on the heels of former Yankee manager Joe Torre’s recent reflections on Rodriguez’s emotional inadequacies has accelerated a stunning fall from grace for someone who once seemed the most charmed of all baseball talents. Now the label "most talented player in the game" that we so readily conceded him is suspect.
Major League Baseball had hoped that the 2007 Mitchell Report would allow the game to move beyond a drug-riddled past to the promise of a cleaner future ahead. The game certainly appeared to get cleaner—at least judging by the smaller bodies and lower home-run totals. Still, it's hard to move on when the greatest slugger in history, Bonds, is about to go on trial; when the greatest pitcher of this era, Roger Clemens, is being investigated for possible perjury about drug use; when the eighth-leading home-run hitter in baseball history, Mark McGwire, whiffs annually in the Hall-of-Fame vote; when one of just four players ever to total 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, Rafael Palmeiro, is a baseball pariah—and now A-Rod has spilled into this unsavory mix.
Rodriguez seized what was really his only option and fessed up quickly. The Yankees slugger told ESPN's Peter Gammons that after signing what at that time was the biggest sports contract in history—$252 million—to join the Texas Rangers in 2001—he "felt all the weight of the world on top of me to perform, and perform at a high level every day." He said he began using performance-enhancing drugs that same year and stopped in 2003, three years in which he averaged 52 home runs and 132 RBIs. "I was young, I was stupid, I was naïve," he told Gammons. "I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players. I did take a banned substance. For that I am very sorry and deeply regretful."
Given A-Rod's willingness to conceal the truth about his drug use in the past, there is no particular reason to believe what he says now. His drug use could have spanned a much longer period, dragging his current team into the mix. He could still be using. BALCO couldn't have been the only lab around manufacturing designer steroids that are undetectable. Who would be shocked? Who was truly shocked this time? After all, Jose Canseco, America's preeminent guide to baseball's Who's Who of drug cheats, linked A-Rod to steroids in his last book.
If you want to read what was truly a shocking revelation from Sports Illustrated on the same subject, go back to its 2002 cover story about Ken Caminiti. That year, the same year a juiced Rodriguez blasted his career-high 57 homers, Caminiti confessed to using steroids and detailed how his life had spiraled downward into drug addiction. The former National League Most Valuable Player, who would die two years later of drug overdose, insisted to SI that at least 50 percent of Major League ballplayers were using steroids. There seemed little reason to doubt him back then. And even less to do so now.
A-Rod is already burdened with the reputation of a player whose emotional baggage keeps him from succeeding—and, thus, his team from winning—at crucial moments. Now he has taken on a huge, extra load. He will endure taunts of "A-Fraud" and "A-Roid" from the fans, a bit of rough justice (as well as more ugliness for the game he claims to cherish). Sure Rodriguez deserves plenty of heat. He just doesn't deserve to take all that heat alone.