A-Rod didn't need to do it (cont.)
Greatest ever seasons for 20-year-olds:
Ty Cobb, .350/.380/.468 with 49 stolen bases and 168 OPS+
You could argue that A-Rod was the greatest 20-year-old ever, but no matter what you argue, he was in the company of legends.
Two years later, he had that 40-40 season -- 42 homers, 46 stolen bases. Isn't it interesting that three players who have hit 40-40 are Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and A-Rod? Alfonso Soriano is the fourth. That's a tough room right now.
A-Rod hit 52 homers in 2001 and 57 the next year -- absurd, unheard of numbers for a shortstop (and he won the Gold Glove the second of those years). He hit 47 homers and put up a 147 OPS+ in that now infamous 2003; he won another Gold Glove, he won the MVP award. It was remarkable stuff. But we didn't have to squint to believe. A-Rod had that sort of talent. He was young and coming into his own. He was born for this.
So, those are two differences with this A-Rod story. The story just seems more tangible (even if the source of the story does build around a test that was supposed to be kept anonymous -- someone from the player's' union people has to get fired over this, no?). And the story may seem somewhat more shocking because A-Rod seemed to have it all.
But there's a third thing at work here too: A-Rod didn't need to do it.
I mean, some people might not have any forgiveness in their hearts for Mark McGwire, but I can't imagine anyone failing to understand why he would have used steroids (assuming he did): He was a workout fiend who relied on hitting home runs to play big league ball. He got hurt, and he turned 30, and his career was in jeopardy. Maybe he was using long before. Maybe not. But I don't think anyone could fail to see his motive.
Barry Bonds ... same thing. His case is not as sympathetic as McGwire's, but you could see why the man who was the best player of his generation might have gotten sick to his stomach watching the nation fall over Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. It's not hard at all to imagine him muttering to himself, "They want a show, dammit, I'll give them a show they'll never forget." We've all seen enough gangster movies to understand what drove him.
Ditto Roger Clemens. He was written off at 33 and then he had his second pitching life, the back-to-back Cy Young Awards, the sick split-fingered fastball, the best strikeout numbers of his career. Sure, he wanted to keep it going. He got into his late 30s, his 40s, he wanted to keep it going. You can bet he STILL wants to keep it going. Nobody would question the competitive will of Roger Clemens.
But A-Rod? Why? I thought he gave a compelling answer when Katie Couric asked him on 60 Minutes if he was ever even tempted to take steroids. He said no, and followed it with this: "I've never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I've always been in the strong, dominant position." That answer made sense, a lot of sense, why would A-Rod -- with gifts from the baseball gods -- need something from a syringe?
Of course, that's the sad part of all this. There is no why. As one baseball person wrote to me on Saturday: "We have to accept that people will do ANYTHING to succeed." And they will. It was never enough for A-Rod to be good, and it was never enough for him to be great, and it was never even enough for him to be the best. He had to be looked up to by children, and loved by women and admired by men. He had to be the guy who could do everything and look good doing it. He had to be the guy who came up with the big hit (and his failure to do so in the playoffs in New York probably tore at his soul and led to more failure and more). He had to be entirely unlike everyone else. He had to be A-Rod. And, when you think of it that way, it might seem a whole lot easier to understand.
I know lots of people are now tearing at Alex Rodriguez; he's raw meat in the lion's cage. A-Roid. A-Fraud. A-Lout. A-Jerk. A-Facade. I understand. I do have to say, I just don't feel that sort of anger toward him. I don't feel sorry for him either. I just feel like he's the emblem of his age.*
* By the way ... I haven't really seen this addressed, but I'm really confused by some steroid math.
It seems to be common knowledge that 104 players tested positive for steroid use in 2003. Right?
OK, to backtrack, it was said that more than 5 percent of players tested positive in 2003 -- that's why mandatory drug testing kicked in. It was reported then, and many times since, that between 5 and 7 percent of players tested positive. Those are the numbers you see again and again: 5-7 percent. I recall numerous stories at the time spinning the number, pointing out that "ONLY" 5 to 7 percent tested positive, and this proved that drug use was probably not nearly as common as people had assumed.
OK, to the point:
If 104 people tested positive, and it was 5% -- that means they tested 2,080 baseball players.
If 104 people tested positive, and it was 6% -- that means they tested 1,733 baseball players.
If 104 people tested positive, and it was 7% -- that means they tested 1,485 baseball players.
OK, in 2003 there were 1,300 baseball players who got at least 1 at-bat in the big leagues or pitched 1/3 of an inning.
There were fewer than 1,000 baseball players who got at last 50 at-bats or pitched 25 innings.
There were roughly 432 players who qualified for the batting title, the ERA title or pitched 50 innings of relief.
In other words ... I don't get the 5-7 pwercent thing. I guess they might have tested a whole bunch of minor leaguers and minor players. I guess that 103 of the 104 positive tests might point to insignificant players just trying to bust through. But it sure seems like 104 failed tests is A LOT, and it's also A LOT MORE THAN THEY LED US TO BELIEVE. Maybe 104 is legitimately 5-7 percent of the tests, but depending on who those 104 are, it might have represented a monstrous problem. Once you take everything into account (the difficulty of tracking designer drugs; the potential complicity of the union; the incentives to not get caught) the 104 might represent something closer to Ken Caminiti's famous "50 percent" statement in the 1990s.
For a long time, it was wrong, but it was also good odds to use performance-enhancing drugs. I don't know what effect steroids really can have on a player's production or his long-term health -- and frankly, from what I've read, it's possible nobody else does either. I do know that throughout the 1990s, steroids in baseball were illegal the same way that driving 60 in a 55 mph zone was illegal. Baseball wasn't testing. Teams were generally winking. Players were pushing limits. Money was flying. Home runs were flying. Fastballs were popping. Many fans were enthralled. Many media members too. It felt good to get caught up in baseball again.
And the longer this goes on, the less interesting the whole era becomes. A-Rod reportedly tested positive for steroids. Barry Bonds seems to be heading to his day in court. The Roger Clemens story keeps getting sadder. Mark McGwire's brother peddles a book about steroids, and nobody's especially interested. How interesting is human frailty anyway?
I'll tell you what story I'd love to break: I'd love to the find the clean player of that era. And I don't just mean a player who didn't use steroids -- I'm sure, even now, that there were a number of those -- no, I'd love to the find the player who WANTED to use steroids. The player who understood what was happening out there, the player who didn't close his eyes to the realities, the player who was offered chances to use steroids and who understood just how much more money and playing time and even fame might have come with that choice.
Still, he said no. Why? In my dream scenario, he might not be able to tell you exactly why. Maybe it was because he wanted to prove to himself he could do it without cheating. Maybe he was scared of what might happen. Maybe he grew up around the game and he loved it and, while he would not judge others or go squealing about it, he could not bring himself to do it. Maybe there was something else, something few people ever considered.
That's the guy I'd like to talk with. I remember years ago being in a high school accounting class, and we had this teacher who let anyone cheat (and by cheat I mean you could walk up to the front and copy right out of the teacher's book -- nothing subtle here). I never knew for sure if she let people cheat because she was semi-senile or if she was simply so tired of teaching high school accounting, so beaten down, she didn't want to mess with grading. Pretty much everybody got a good grade in that class (which may have led to my own delusions of becoming an accountant). And the others just didn't show up.
Here's what I remember: It was so clear that she WANTED us to cheat -- or at the very least she did not care -- that it didn't even feel like cheating. Guys were shouting out the answers. It frankly felt STUPID to do the work, especially with graduation day so close and the sun out. Still, I remember one guy who simply refused to cheat. I mean, he would not even listen to the answers when they were shouted out. This guy wasn't brilliant, and as I recall he wasn't holier than thou or anything like that. A-Rod -- well, whether he's innocent or guilty, lots of us have at least a little A-Rod in us. The whole sad story is probably not much more complicated than that. Human nature. But I used to watch this guy sometimes, the guy who didn't cheat, and I'd wonder what was going on in his head. I never quite figured it out. That's the guy I'd love to talk to now.
SI Exclusive: A-Rod tested positive for steroids in 2003