Sunday, February 8, 2009

Temptation vs. the desire to believe

Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003, the year he won the MVP award and hit 47 homers -- that's the bombshell that went off on Sports Illustrated's web site yesterday. I heard the news and, in all honesty, didn't know what to think. I was all over the map.

I felt sense of glee -- Anything that makes the Yankees squirm has got to be a good thing and I've never been a fan of A-Rod, especially after the 2004 season and his various tabloid appearances. This was the icing on the cake following Joe Torre's book and I really didn't feel bad for Rodriguez -- he made a conscious decision to do it and expose himself to the risk of being, well, exposed.

I was surprised but only a little bit -- You see players like Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia who kill themselves playing the game and never in a million years would I believe that they were taking something extra. With Rodriguez, I might not like him but I always thought he was one hell of a ballplayer. If the Red Sox had managed to trade for him in the offseason following the 2003 ALCS collapse, I would have been pleased at least to start (just goes to show that fans cheer for the laundry, not the guys wearing the laundry, I guess). But A-Rod is a man with immense natural gifts for baseball who was on his way to being potentially the best or one of the best to ever play the game. Why did he do it? Was his drive to succeed so strong that he felt this was the only way to cement that reputation?

I felt a sense of resignation -- just one more player unmasked as a cheat and a liar. Are any of these guys clean? There was Mark McGwire who I cheered for as he broke the home run record. There was Barry Bonds, a supremely talented player whose bitterness at being overshadowed by McGwire and Sosa led him to become Barry Bloat and the poster child for steroids. The list goes on -- Rafael Palmeiro, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, the Giambi brothers, Chuck Knoblauch, Andy Pettitte, and more. Even someone like Nomar Garciapparra (who, to be fair, has never been linked to performance enhancers) certainly raised questions among many fans following the display of his ultra-built physique in Sports Illustrated and his repeated physical breakdowns in the years. It reached the point where people were surprised that he wasn't named in the Mitchell Report on performance enhancers in baseball.

Most of all, I felt another twinge of disappointment when it comes to a game I adore. Call me naive but I want to believe that baseball is a game, that what we're watching is fun and true and pure. Of course it isn't -- major league baseball is a multi-billion dollar business. Whether it's alcohol, greenies, coke, steroids and whatever designer drug comes next, this stuff has always been part of baseball since the start because baseball is played by humans and we are a competitive, driven species. Even the smallest edge is enough to turn a player from a minor leaguer to a major leaguer, a backup on the bench to a starter raking in tens of millions of dollars a year.

As Crash Davis so eloquently points out, the difference between a career .250 and a career .300 hitter is just 25 extra hit a week over the course of a season, "just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium." The temptation to seek that edge, to get those millions, must be enormous. If I was one of those guys, someone just on the cusp, would I be able to resist that temptation? I would hope so but when $10 million a year for 5 years is out there, just within reach, vs. $2,500 per month as a journeyman in AAA ball, who knows. But A-Rod? He was never just on the cusp. He was a great player with regard to his skills right from the start.

What's sad is that the question is even out there for players and that as a result, every time we watch a hitter slap one out of the park or throw some ungodly breaking stuff, we now wonder if what we're seeing is real.

I wrote about baseball and its cathedrals and country churches last year as I was really ramping up here on Walks in the Marsh. Yes, going to a big league park is an experience but more and more, I find myself drawn to the minor league and summer college ball games. I guess I'm a romantic, pining for the halcyon days of baseball that probably didn't really exist. However, we can still wish and hope for them, for a time when baseball was just a game and it was good and right. In the meantime, I won't be surprised anymore at the news coming out of major league baseball and other sports. Sad and disappointed maybe, but no longer surprised.

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