A-Rod didn't need to do it
A-Rod has always wanted to be liked; he's never known he was the cool kid
A-Rod's big numbers never seemed an aberration; he didn't have to cheat
A-Rod now just seems a sign of his era, which is becoming less interesting
Someone who knows Alex Rodriguez pretty well once told me that the key to understanding A-Rod is to simply remember, at all times, that the guy wants to be loved. Maybe that's obvious. Maybe that's the thing that drives most (all?) successful people. Maybe that's why Bruce Springsteen plays the Super Bowl. Maybe that's why Brett Favre comes back for one more year. There's that classic exchange from Citizen Kane between Mr. Thompson, the guy trying to chase down what Rosebud meant, and Jedediah Leland, Charlie Kane's old friend.
They are talking about Kane's first wife:
Thompson: "Was he ever in love with her?"
Leland: "He married for love. Love. That's why he did everything. That's why he went into politics. It seems we weren't enough. He wanted all the voters to love him too. All he really wanted out of life was love. That's Charlie's story ... how he lost it. You see, he just didn't have any to give."
Yeah, there's A-Rod. Over the years, countless people confirmed that theory -- that A-Rod's need for love and acceptance among teammates, among fans, among celebrities, among everybody trumped all. Here he was, the most talented player in baseball, one of the best ever, and in the clubhouse he could act like the third-grade kid who lets the cool kids play with his toys in the desperate hope that the cool kids will be his friends. It bordered on the pathetic. In this one odd way, A-Rod never fully realized that he WAS the cool kid.
In any case, I thought a lot about that on Saturday, when Sports Illustrated broke the explosive news that, according to four independent sources, A-Rod "anonymously" tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. There are numerous things that seem to make this story fundamentally different from the other steroid stories, from Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi. For one, we are talking about an actual positive test. As far as we know, McGwire and Clemens never flunked a steroid test, and Bonds -- if you believe the reports -- only flunked years later, when his urine sample was retested.
It could make you believe that NOBODY EVER tested positive on these Major League steroid tests, that the only way to test positive was to be (1) Dumb; (2) Too poor to afford the undetectable stuff or (3) Arrogant to the level of self destruction. To hear something this simple and concrete about a great player is pretty shocking. This charge is not from a shady trainer or part of a larger investigation. This charge is simply that A-Rod flunked a steroid test.
The second thing that makes this different is that A-Rod was talented enough to make you believe. Bonds, after all, was in his mid 30s when he went from incredible baseball player to supernatural. McGwire came off two seasons where he played a total of 74 games and suddenly he went from great home run hitter to incomparable*. Roger Clemens was 41 years old when he won his last Cy Young Award (actually he turned 42 before he picked up the award), and the next year he had 1.87 ERA.
* Babe Ruth held the single-season record for most home runs per at-bat for 75 years, 1920-1995. He hit one homer for every 8.5 at-bats in his preposterous 1920 season. Nobody had ever come particularly close ... Mickey Mantle hit a homer every 9.5 at-bats in 1961, and that was the closest. McGwire had led the league in homers per at-bat three times before 1995 -- he was, unquestionably, a great home run hitter -- but he had never even been in single digit at-bats per homer. His best performance before 1995 was one homer every 11.1 at-bats.
In 1995, he returned. He broke Ruth's record, hitting one homer every 8.1 at-bats. And you know what followed:
1995: 1 homer per 8.1 at-bats 1996: 1 homer per 8.1 at-bats. 1997: 1 homer per 10.8 at-bats (that was in the American League. He was traded to St. Louis somewhat late in the year, and in in just 174 at-bats he hit a homer per 7.3 at-bats. Preposterous! Nobody could do that for a whole season, right?). 1998: 1 homer per 7.3 at-bats (well, maybe someone could. A new record. It seemed unbreakable. Then Barry Bonds broke the record three years later -- one homer per 6.5 at-bats. And, it's quite likely that nobody will ever break that record.). 1999: 1 homer per 8.0 at-bats. 2000: 1 homer per 7.4 at-bats (but he was breaking down and didn't get enough at-bats to qualify) 2001: 1 homer per 10.3 at-bats (this was when McGwire was a shell of himself; he hit .187).
Point is there was every reason to believe that what we were seeing was, at the very least, odd. You might be able to stretch your mind and believe that Bonds simply dedicated himself to the weight room like never before, that McGwire was finally healthy and playing in a golden age for sluggers, that Clemens just worked ferociously hard to keep his edge. But, even so, even their biggest fans understood it was a stretch. These were mind-bending achievements.
But A-Rod ... he wasn't a stretch. He was a phenom from the day he was born. Red Sox special assistant Allard Baird always tells this great story about the day he scouted A-Rod in high school. He sent in a report so glowing -- he gave the young Alex scouting grades of 80 which, essentially, indicate "Hall of Fame tools" -- that he was literally shaking with nerves when he sent it in.
First pick in the draft. A few at-bats in the big leagues when he was 18. One hundred and seventy total games in the minors (he hit .326/.386/.600), and he could really run, and he played good defense at shortstop, and he had a preposterously strong arm. He got a few too many at-bats in 1995, or else his 1996 would have been one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history. As it was, few 20-year-olds have ever come close. He led the league in hitting (.358), he banged 36 homers, drove in 123 RBIs, scored 141 runs, stole 15 bases and crushed 54 doubles. What was possible? Hell, what WASN'T possible.