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Posted: Sunday February 8, 2009 6:40PM; Updated: Monday February 9, 2009 10:37PM
Lee Jenkins Lee Jenkins >
INSIDE BASEBALL

A-Rod goes from avidly supporting Bonds to joining him in misery

Story Highlights

A-Rod in '07: "Barry's such a great and unique talent. He should be celebrated."

Rodriguez could always relate to Bonds both on and off the field

Bonds is not off the hook, but Rodriguez will carry the heaviest burden

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Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez has a great rapport with Barry Bonds and fervently backed the tainted slugger while he faced public persecution.
Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Outside of Curt Schilling and Cory Lidle, very few Major League Baseball players ever dared criticize Barry Bonds, at least on the record. Either they were afraid of Bonds, afraid of the Players Association, or afraid of the possibility that their own lives would become subject to the same scrutiny as his. It was a kind of tradition when teams swung through San Francisco to play the Giants that opposing players would form a small receiving line before batting practice to greet Bonds and lavish him with praise.

But no player was more vociferous in his support than Alex Rodriguez. Because Rodriguez has spent his entire career in the American League, and Bonds his entire career in the National League, they did not share the field often. But in June 2007, with Bonds less than two months from the all-time home-run record, the Yankees rolled into San Francisco for a three-game interleague series that Rodriguez turned into a love fest.

Before the first game, Rodriguez called Bonds "arguably the best player to put on a uniform," a standard line. But Rodriguez went farther: "I'm a big fan of his work. He's one of a kind. Studying him is like studying Picasso." When it was suggested that alleged steroid use had changed the perception of Bonds, Rodriguez looked startled. "That's too bad," he said, "because Barry's such a great and unique talent. He should be celebrated."

In light of the SI report that Rodriguez also used steroids, those words take on greater significance. Rodriguez could always relate to Bonds. Unlike steroid creations such as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, Bonds and Rodriguez were all-around players, prodigies long before the so-called Steroid Era. But they were both easily embroiled in controversy and had a hard time gaining affection. They presumably took steroids to hit home runs, but no matter how many they hit, they could never sustain any goodwill.

On that day in June '07, as Rodriguez vehemently defended Bonds, it sounded as though he was also defending himself. He didn't understand why the public could not appreciate Bonds, just as he didn't understand why the public could not appreciate him.

At the time, Rodriguez's lack of popularity had nothing to do with steroids, and everything to do with his burdensome contract, his poor performance in the clutch and all of his Page Six mentions and photos. Yankees fans, sensing that Rodriguez was constantly striking a pose, liked to call him fake. They did not know how right they were.

Bonds and Rodriguez became friends in 1996, when they were part of a major-league all-star team that traveled to Japan. In '97, they played their first regular-season game against each other, and Rodriguez hit a home run. A mutual admiration society was born. In 17 games against Bonds' Giants, Rodriguez batted .478 with an .855 slugging percentage. In '07, when Rodriguez started out on pace to break Bonds's single-season home run record, Bonds gushed: "I'm so happy for him. I hope he hits a hundred." But when it was mentioned later to Rodriguez that he might somehow overshadow Bonds' pursuit of the career homer record, he said: "This is Barry's time. It's not my time."

Assuming Rodriguez stays anywhere near his current pace, he will eventually break Bonds' career record. If Major League Baseball was uncomfortable when Bonds eclipsed Hank Aaron, how will it feel when Rodriguez passes Bonds, one suspected steroid user handing off to another? Unlike Aaron, who stayed away from Bonds when he was approaching the record, Bonds will be cheering for Rodriguez from the front row.

There are now two faces to baseball's steroids scandal. Bonds is not off the hook by any means, but Rodriguez will carry the heaviest burden, since he is the one who still has to take the field every day and hear the crowd. In fact, he has nine more years left on his contract, nine more years of boos, nine more years of stories about steroids. If at any time Rodriguez requires the consult of a man who has walked this plank before -- the only man who has walked it -- he knows who to call. Chances are, he even has the number.

Jenkins: A-Rod's admission shows he's smarter than Bonds
SI Exclusive:
A-Rod tested positive for steroids in 2003
Keith: A-Rod controversy spoils entire 2009 campaign
Verducci: How SI's report affects A-Rod, Yanks and MLB
Roberts: Q&A on breaking A-Rod story
Heyman: Rodriguez tainted by players union's mistake
Ballard: A-Rod becomes latest superhero unmasked
McCann: Rodriguez unlikely to face criminal charges
React: How does this news impact your opinion of A-Rod?
Gallery: A-Rod through the years
60 Minutes: A-Rod denies ever using PED's

 
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