On Steroids, A-Rod And Bud Selig

From time immemorial, baseball players have tried to get an "edge" on their opponents.

Actually, doing that isn't just limited to baseball. If you think about it, everyone does this in their own daily lives. Don't you? Don't you try to get yourself every possible advantage that you can in getting ahead? Even if, occasionally, you might skirt the "rules", whatever rules those are?

I'm not advocating doing illegal things, of course, and if you do illegal things you run the risk of being caught and punished.

That's essentially what happened to Alex Rodriguez when his 2003 positive PED test result was revealed last week by two Sports Illustrated reporters. You will tell me, correctly, that the results of that test were supposed to be private, anonymous and confidential, and you'd be right. And the various forms of outrage (or not caring, depending on your point of view) about A-Rod's steroid use are probably being voiced because he's Alex Rodriguez, the best player in baseball. Seriously -- if it had been revealed that Joe DePastino, someone who had two at-bats for the 95-loss 2003 Mets, had tested positive that year, would you have even cared? (Note: this is not an accusation. I picked this player because he played little, and not at all after the year in question.)

Why do we care so much about who did and who didn't do steroids? Part of it is because we have a romanticized vision of what baseball, sports and life was years ago. Were the players of our youth (or before that, if you're in your 20's and 30's) pristine paragons of American health and sport, doing absolutely nothing wrong?

Of course not. They wanted that "edge", too. If steroids had been around in the 1960's, some players probably would have used them. I would argue that fewer players would have done so, because the stakes weren't as high, and the gap between what the top earners make and the rest wasn't as large. Rodriguez himself, I think, stated the answer quite well in his confession to Peter Gammons:

"When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure," the Bombers third baseman said in the riveting TV interview. "I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day."

Whether or not you agree with that, I think you can understand -- I certainly can -- the pressure on a 25-year-old player, held up to the standards and adulation that A-Rod was, and the huge contract he had just signed, and him thinking, "How on Earth am I going to live up to this?" Whether you think he should or shouldn't use PED's, or whether they're right or wrong, I can see how he might think, "I have to do something, or I'll let myself and everyone else down."

Barry Bonds, according to the book "Game of Shadows" (which is a must-read, again, no matter what your position on PED use), went through a similar, though not identical, thought process. Supposedly, Bonds was jealous of the attention that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire got during the home run race of 1998. Bonds felt he was the best all-around player in baseball at the time (and I agree -- he certainly was) and wanted to get the same adulation that was being heaped on Sammy and Mark.

Again, whether you agree with what Bonds allegedly did or not, I'm sure you can see the reasoning behind this thought process.

The real shame of people like Bonds or A-Rod doing steroids is this: the two of them are probably the best players of their generations. They were (and in the case of A-Rod, he still could be) first-ballot Hall of Famers before they did a single PED, presuming the timetable given for both of them is accurate (Bonds, after 1998; A-Rod, from 2001-2003). All they have done is tarnish their images -- not that Bonds had a great image to begin with; despite his great play, he is perhaps the least-liked superstar ever, due to his surly dealings with fans and the media.

This is all made worse by the feckless reactions of the commissioner of baseball over the latest revelation. My jaw dropped when I heard that King Bud's idea is to suspend A-Rod and "reinstate" Hank Aaron as home run champion. Never mind the fact that there were no penalties in place for the time period that Rodriguez says he did steroids, what exactly were you thinking of suspending him for, Bud? If you do that, don't you have to suspend the other 103 players who tested positive in 2003? How many of those players are no longer active? And should those names even be revealed? There are good arguments on both sides of that question; on the one hand, players were assured of privacy and confidentiality. On the other hand, why should A-Rod be the only one tarred by this brush? Bud would have been better off just saying this (a quote from the above link:)

"I am saddened by the revelations," Selig said. "What Alex did was wrong, and he will have to live with the damage he has done to his name and reputation."

He added that Rodriguez has "shamed the game."

And that's exactly right. A-Rod, who, despite being arguably the best player in the game for the last decade has had to endure taunts both at home and away for his huge contracts and a perceived attitude issue, now will have to listen to shouts of "A-Roid" (or worse) no matter where he plays. He made his choice, and now he must live with the consequences.

Even worse was Selig's knee-jerk reaction to "reinstall" his old Milwaukee buddy Hank Aaron as home run champion. Excuse me? Much as Aaron is an admirable figure, the fact remains: he hit 755 home runs, Barry Bonds hit 762. Were many of Bonds' hit with the aid of chemical enhancements? It seems so, though there is yet no proof. Those who acknowledge that "edges" were sought by players decades ago will say, "Well, did Aaron do greenies? What kind of enhancements did he use?" (Note: I am NOT accusing Aaron of doing anything wrong.) The bottom line is: the numbers are what they are. You can't take home runs away and say "this guy's the leader", because that would involve taking away the results of the games in which any "tainted" home runs were hit. Do you then take away the postseason appearances of the Giants while Bonds was hitting all those "tainted" home runs? Obviously, you can't do that. The very idea put forth by Selig was, and is, ridiculous.

Alex Rodriguez is 210 home runs away from surpassing Bonds' home run total, and will turn 34 in July. Depending on how he reacts to the pressure now put on him by the recent revelations, he's about six or seven years away from his 763rd homer. Unlike Bonds, you would presume that he'd have a normal career progression and decline somewhat as he approaches his 40th birthday. When he does pass this mark, celebrations will be held; perhaps Aaron, who will be about 80 years old, will attend -- I wouldn't expect Bonds to. And those of us around to note the occasion will know the history behind both Bonds' and Rodriguez' passing of Aaron's mark. No "asterisk" is necessary. We'll know.

Now, about revealing past names, and cleaning up the future: I go back and forth. It's not really fair for A-Rod to be the only one of 104 who was outed. On the other hand, what purpose does it serve to reveal the other 103 names? A large number of them, six years later, probably aren't even active players any more. What's the point? Revenge? Gossip? At this point, I think a stronger policy has to be in place and enforced, so that from here forward, both management (represented by Selig) and the players (Don Fehr and Gene Orza, in particular) need to be on the same side. Fehr and Orza's behavior throughout the attempts to get testing and penalties in place has been to stonewall and paint the owners as villains.

There aren't any villains here, only victims. And I won't pretend that bans or penalties are going to stop players from trying to get the next edge, to try to find the undetectable drug that's going to make them the next Bonds or A-Rod in terms of performance. It'll happen. It's human nature. Clearly, A-Rod's huge contract, much larger than anyone else had at the time, gave him the impetus to put pressure on himself to perform up to what he felt were the expectations created by the huge dollars. Here's where the risk comes in for the future generation of players, because under the current economic conditions, who's to say what might happen to major league baseball franchises? There are some, perhaps the Cubs included, that might be considered "recession-proof", but what of teams like the Pirates, Royals, Marlins? Are their fans going to continue to purchase tickets when they're losing their jobs?

I don't have much faith in Bud Selig to recognize and fix this problem; the man can't even lead enough to get his underlings to allow people to watch his product unencumbered on television rather than protect a three-decade-old blackout policy, so how can anyone believe he'll have the proper reaction to a much more serious issue?

In a way, it's our fault. We loved the 1998 home run race, which helped bring baseball back from the depths of the 1994-95 strike/lockout, but which cannot now be seen as untainted. When players discovered this, you can understand why they'd have wanted to do whatever they could to participate in it. Again, that's human nature. And yet, when it's discovered that players enhance in order to give us what we want, we turn on them. So, I'm not sure I have an answer. The bottom line is, players began doing this as a reaction to an age-old issue: "How do I become better than my competition?" Presumably, they are doing it for more than simple personal financial gain; they are also doing it to help their teams win. That's the hope, anyway, although I have my doubts. Sports reflect society, and we have seen people in other fields do the same sorts of things to get ahead (not drugs, specifically, but any "edge" they can get, legal or not). What we don't need is Bud Selig threatening a suspension he doesn't have the authority to give, or threatening to remove numbers from the record book that you can't change.

The bottom line is, we all love this game, for various and sundry reasons, and we all want our team to win. We just hope it's done on the level, honestly, just as we hope the rest of our lives are conducted that way. Go Cubs. Play ball.

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