When Sports Illustrated broke the news that Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, by most reckoning the greatest active player in baseball today, had tested positive in 2003 for use of Primobolan and testosterone, I shrugged.
But then the story got real interesting.
My initial disinterest lay not in the story’s importance but in its tone. The abuse of performance enhancing drugs and how such matters are policed are among the most pivotal issues in sports today. Particularly with baseball, the integrity of the game and the sanctity of the hallowed records are at stake. But sport is as much about screaming and yelling as it is about calm, factual analysis. On this story, the loud constituencies have driven off the cliff so many times in the past that I had given up any hope of finding a reasonable approach. But the A-Rod story, particularly his admissions of guilt in a Monday interview with ESPN’s Peter Gammons, may open a window of opportunity.
First of all, with his admission, Rodriguez separated himself from other greats of this era. Others such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire have turned themselves from athletic icons to comic figures with their resolute denials of abuse. In the case of many great athletes, we may never know if and when they took performance enhancers, but we know a good liar when we see one. And the lack of candor will serve as evidence enough for a conviction in the court of public opinion.
A-Rod is getting more than his share of chin music in the wake of the revelations. Part of it is his lack of professional integrity (and perhaps there are two or three people who are genuinely perturbed that he lied to Katie Couric in a 2007 interview). But more dismaying is that A-Rod was “the clean guy” who would soon erase the career home run mark held by Bonds, a player whose name is virtually synonymous with the performance-enhancing-drug scandal. So much of the criticism is entirely logical.
Where the reaction goes off the rails is all the talk that A-Rod might still be taking steroids today. However, the reason we know A-Rod took steroids is not because he admitted it, but because he tested positive and the results were leaked to a media outlet. So if he was still doing steroids, he’d be testing positive now.
Loud whispers of baseball players using performance enhancing drugs began in the mid- to late ‘90s, but the people who govern the game, both the owners’ and the players’ union, ignored the problem. After the public outcry grew too loud to ignore, rigorous testing was instituted. That’s why only the most cynical folks—those who believe every game is fixed—will scoff if San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum or Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder break some single-season marks in 2009. Lincecum is a slight 5’11’’ and 160 pounds, and Fielder is a vegetarian, and both have been subject to testing for PEDs for their entire careers.
The leak of the test results has the potential to create the most lasting damage. The testing is supposed to be confidential, and the leaking of the results does have the civil libertarian wing of MLB up in arms. It’s not that future players won’t submit to testing, but rather that Rodriguez was one of the 104 players who tested positive between 2001 and 2003. That may seem like a large number, but consider this: During that time, there were 800-900 active players on MLB rosters. However, until a bigger story comes along, there will be a witch hunt to determine the other 103.
Don’t assume that the list will reveal many more top stars. Most of the players who have been punished during the current phase of testing are marginal, typically relief pitchers without a sure role and players looking for better footing on a major league roster.
The impact of this scandal on A-Rod’s career is also hard to determine. His numbers spiked during the phase of his career when he admitted he was taking steroids, but he was also playing in the most hitter-friendly park in the American League, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. His numbers would have spiked even without the Primobolan. The questions concerning A-Rod and the Hall of Fame electorate will be resolved by the time his candidacy comes up, which isn’t likely to be until the early 2020s. If the writers continue to ignore players who were involved in the performance-enhancing-drug scandal, then it’s highly likely that the Veterans Committee will enshrine the likes of McGwire, Clemens, Bonds, et al.
The scandal’s real impact is probably to reveal what is important about sport. During a time of rampant cheating in baseball, the game’s best player cheated for a brief time. The impact on the game will be slight (baseball has endured far worse situations than this); the effect on Rodriguez’s career may be marginal, but the screaming tabloid headlines will go on for days. It’s a classic story (good guy becomes goat), but the emotional investment in the story reflects the lack of competition. People love to get their hackles up, and A-Rod is as good a reason as any until the next good story comes along.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.