Opinion

Don't Blame A-Rod; Blame Baseball, Blame Us

Amanda Orr wrote a piece about steroids in baseball, in light of the recent Alex Rodriguez issue. I decided to write a counter argument to hers, and it’s presented here in essay form:

***

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

Didn’t we think it was over? Didn’t we think the whole steroid era was finished, swept under the rug, locked away in the attic? But then came Alex Rodriguez, tesing positive, career shattering. Now the cameras roll, the playback runs, the talking heads ramble. The Steroid Era has returned, and its new poster boy is not the wide-headed Barry Bonds, not the baffled and bearded Mark McGwire, but the smooth-skinned tall dose of crass class, a Yankee, Mr. Rodriguez.

Of all people. He was the one who was supposed to rightfully reclaim the home run record for baseball purists. Once he bashed No. 763, all of America would sigh in unison, relieved that finally, baseball was once again pure, once again simple, once again in harmony with the world.

Instead, a report found Rodriguez took Primobolan, which increases strength and in turn, could increase the path of a baseball off a wooden bat. Instead of a sigh of unison, America is once again sighing with despair, angry and bitter that the game of baseball cannot shake this tainted image, and that the one man who could possibly lift baseball over its tainted ways is just as guilty as the rest.

Instead, the steroid era remains on the floor, scattered in sharp fragments that can cut a man to his core.

***

You’re seeing a whole team of psychiatrists, aren’t you?

Alex Rodriguez, born in New York City, idolized Keith Hernandez, Dale Murphy and Cal Ripken Jr. Unquestionably three of the best players of the early 1980s, they symbolized natural strength, exceptional effort and unmatched smarts. Of course, Ripken symbolized more than that — he was the epitome of the working man, the average-sized white guy who went to work every day and night, putting his body on the line, legging out every ground ball, shaking off sickness and pain to do his job. His lunch pail was a glove, his hammer was a Louisville Slugger that earned him two Most Valuable Players, unchallenged respect and idolization. Most children growing up in the 1980s looked with starry eyes at Baltimore’s No. 8.

Rodriguez was no different, taking Ripken’s natural position as he toiled endlessly to become the best baseball player ever created. From a pure hitter’s standpoint, Rodriguez was and is a natural. And he could turn it on at any time, as the 2007 season showed. In time, Rodriguez was not just on par with Ripken, but to almost everyone, he had surpassed his idol.

We have seen, however, that Rodriguez’s idolization for Ripken has turned into a somewhat unhealthy adulation for another shortstop, Derek Jeter. Though he has gained all the fortune and fame one baseball player could want, Rodriguez still didn’t have respect, the one thing Ripken carried in spades over him. And of course, nobody in baseball garners more respect than Jeter. Clearly, to live with and through Jeter is Rodriguez’s call for help — a call that aptly demonstrates his desire to have everything.

One can postualte that this stems from his father’s exit from his life at a young age, but for posterity sake, it’s better to acknowledge Rodriguez’s faults and notice that, yes, they stem from some desire to have something that was always missing. So it’s not too hard to believe that while an incredible baseball player, Rodriguez pined for more. In Seattle, Rodriguez was the emerging superstar, the safety net behind the shadows of Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. And when the Texas Rangers offered him a 10-year, $252 million contract in 2000, it must have made him salivate — now he could be the undisputed best player in baseball. The man with everything.

But to every great gain comes great challenge.

***

I wish I had your passion, Ray … Misdirected though it might be, it is still a passion. I used to feel that way about things, but …

There was only one Cal Ripken Jr. Just one. He was a little taller than six feet. He was a little heavier than 200 pounds. And he was lucky enough to never miss a game for more than 16 seasons. Sure, conditioning and talent played their part, but luck played just as large a role. That combination of conditioning, talent and luck made Ripken the perfect embodiment for American perfection.

On that September evening in 1995, Ripken helped revitalize baseball by trotting around Oriole Park at Camden Yards. His streak remained the one aspect of baseball that survived the 1994 players’ strike — the one string that kept past and present attached, holding some hope for the game’s future.

When the joys of that September evening faded into the horizon, a new sun rose, and it shined on towering men who regularly knocked balls out of stadiums, far toward the fans who slowly but surely returned, because Ripken had brought some scared swatch of glory back to the game. In Baltimore, Ripken was no longer the star; it was Brady Anderson, the little leadoff man who could, hitting an ungodly 50 home runs in 1996. Mark McGwire entered the 50-home-run club that season. And in Seattle, Rodriguez put together a season unheard of for a 20-year-old: 36 home runs, 123 runs batted in, a .358 batting average.

As the 1990s progressed, the numbers increased to Ruthian levels. McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the single-season mark during their friendly war of 1998, a war that returned baseball to its former glory. Fans cheered the monsters because of their smiles and parabolic blasts, completely unaware of the substances they were taking to improve their power. Almost nobody cared.

Why did they do it? Competition. The desire to be the best. And the desire to not only win baseball games, but win the hearts and minds of the people who came to watch them play. The desire to be like Ripken, who received the spotlight and thousands of flashbulbs, camera reels and microphones. ESPN stopped everything to show Ripken’s trot around Oriole Park. So Fox stopped everything when McGwire lasered No. 62 over the left field fence at Busch Stadium. For more than before, and more than ever, baseball meant everything — it was the tale of America, the morality play that reflected everything we wanted to be. Ripken, McGwire, Sosa: These men were not merely baseball players, but titans, legends, idols.

***

I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

When Rodriguez signed his mammoth contract with the Rangers, you could feel the weight descending onto his shoulders. Never before was a player so valued, and never before was a team do dependent on one man, at least in correlation to finances.

Allen Barra of Salon.com answered the burning questions concerning Rodriguez’s signing on Dec. 20, 2000, right after Rodriguez slipped on his blue Rangers uniform. And he revealed that weight instantly:

“But is Alex Rodriguez really worth it? I mean, who can really be worth $252 million?

That depends on what you mean by ‘worth.’ If you mean will he sell enough tickets and beers to pay for his contract, then the answer is no. But the 10-year, $250 million cable deal the Rangers made with Fox probably couldn’t have been made if the club wasn’t going to get Rodriguez, so you might argue that the Rangers got that money because of him, gave it all to him, and that any tickets he sells are just pure profit for the team.

But he can’t make the Rangers into winners all by himself, can he?

Well, who said he could? What he can do is put more games in the win column for them than any other player in baseball.”

Not only was Rodriguez supposed to win baseball games, but he had to put fans in the seats of the Ballpark in Arlington and — more than anything — justify an agreement between the Rangers and Fox to hand the team its own cable network. That’s one man responsible for turning a perenially losing franchise into winners while vindicating them as an elite national sports franchise, or, a top entertainment venue. Suddenly Rodriguez wasn’t fighting in the hall of Ripken. Now he was fighting something much larger, something beyond the simple game of baseball.

Rodriguez began taking Primobolan and Testosterone before the 2001 season. In 2001, at age 25, Rodriguez hit .318 with 52 home runs. His Rangers finished 73-89. In 2002, at age 26, Rodriguez hit .300 with 57 home runs. His Rangers finished 72-90. In 2003, at age 27, Rodriguez hit .298 with 47 home runs. His Rangers finished 71-91.

“I felt like I had all of the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform and perform at a high level every day.”

Can you blame him? Really?

***

There are rules here? No, there are no rules here.

Sometime between Ripken’s infamous trot and Rodriguez’s first injection, baseball became more than a pastime. When Sosa lifted McGwire at home plate in 1998, the world watch eagerly. Ratings jumped. Merchandise flew off shelves. Revenues poured in. Owners collected paychecks. Payrolls ballooned. The streak continued into 2001, when a nation used baseball as its elixir. A game so simple held enormous power. And ratings jumped. Merchandise flew off shelves. Revenues poured in. Owners collected paychecks. Payrolls ballooned.

With each home run and each new record, the system grew fatter and happier. The fans grew more appreciative and excited. The game grew more powerful, and to the point where it was no longer a game. No longer a pastime.

Alex Rodriguez is merely a product of that system, and simpler yet, a lost young man who held the weight of the world on his impressive shoulders. His entire baseball career has progressed like it was supposed to — a fat contract with a team craving a global imprint, a fatter contract to be the game’s most elite star on its most elite name-brand franchise. It’s laughably ironic that his downfall comes as a country and a sport trudge through uncertain, darker times.

But what’s more laughable is the sad reaction by fans — people who ran back to the stadiums in the 1990s because home runs were flying into the seats — who are trying to uphold the integrity of baseball. Like anything else in America, baseball is an imperfect game. It’s filled with human beings — greedy mammals who desire everything bigger and better. It was filled with humans during the 1919 World Series. It was filled with humans during the mound-raising days of the 1960s. And it was filled with humans who found that science can help make them bigger, powerful, better and more successful at their jobs. And isn’t that the American way? To be successful?

Just as there is one Cal Ripken Jr., there is one guilt-free worker. Baseball — like America — is filled with leaches, and as much as we try to secure our vision of what the game should be, what the game really is — and has always been — is a complicated system built on and relied upon its success.

When the game started being about ratings, merchandise, revenues, paychecks and ballooning payrolls, the idea of the game changed. It’s not just a pastime, it’s entertainment. The people in charge of the game are just as greedy as the players injecting drugs into their bodies. And the people paying to watch the players are just as human as the players themselves. Now everyone wants to tear down the records, add asterisks, claim blasphemy. It’s a practice as sad as the progression of baseball itself. “Let’s make the game bigger than life, then throw everyone under the bus.” Please.

Face it: Baseball is America, and Alex Rodriguez is just another human claimed by the system, striving for an edge, hoping to become complete as he makes his journey through life. So as the cameras roll, the playback runs, the talking heads ramble and the country sighs about the game’s continued loss of innocence, remember that at its most simplistic state, baseball is just a game. It is not so “good,” never will be “good,” but should be accepted for what it is: A game.

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