A-Rod controversy defines entire '09 season before it begins
This bombshell revelation could not have come at a worse time for the game
It's possible the mighty Yankees have already seen their season derailed
Even if the controversy does manage to die down, it will only be temporary
Baseball's new season has not yet begun, but it has already been defined: This will be the season of Alex Rodriguez.
As surely as 1998 belonged to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and 2007 to Barry Bonds, 2009 will be all about A-Rod. It will be about steroid questions, explanations and controversy, about being suspicious of a ballplayer's achievements instead of a celebration of them.
The report by Sports Illustrated that Rodriguez, heir apparent to the home run record and the game's highest-paid and most talented player on its most glamorous and marketable team, tested positive for steroids in 2003 could not have come at a worse time for the game. It came just as spring training camps are set to open, bringing with them the hope for a new season and the promise, rather than the fear, of the unknown. Instead of wondering what glories lie ahead in the coming year, there are concerns that there is still more dark news ahead, and no one knows when or where it might come from.
One general manager contacted for this story was asked what impact the Rodriguez story will have on the game this year. He begged off the topic, saying he just wanted to focus on spring training. That will be easier said than done for a sport that now has a single story to dominate its season, similar to the story that has dominated others in recent years.
Indeed, of all the reactions that have been expressed in the aftermath of the news about A-Rod, the most disappointing of all is this: The Steroid Era lives on. This is not the first salvo of a new battle but rather the latest one in an old battle that everyone had hoped was finally over. Part of the appeal of sports is its ability to inspire and surprise in equal measure. Baseball will need plenty of unexpected good news on the field in the coming months, because there are few known events forthcoming that will be sufficient enough to divert the attention from the Rodriguez saga.
The World Baseball Classic in March will be entertaining and under different circumstances might have provided a temporary refuge from the A-Rod news. But Rodriguez's presence on the Dominican team will only serve as a giant distraction, this time with the worldwide media on hand to chronicle and inflame it.
Last season witnessed two of the best feel-good stories in recent memory: the unexpected rise of the Tampa Bay Rays and the redemption of Josh Hamilton. It will be nearly impossible for stories of similar ilk to measure up to those two.
The game's most hallowed career milestones -- 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 300 wins -- will welcome some new members this year, but they will not offer the respite that had been hoped for. Randy Johnson of the Giants is five wins away from 300, but given his balky back and advanced age, there's no telling when, or if, he'll reach that number. Gary Sheffield needs just one home run for 500, but he too has been ensnared in the steroid controversy going back to his connection to BALCO.
The Yankees are always good for several storylines that can distract from any controversy at hand, but this year the Yankees are the controversy. Tampa was already shaping up to be the epicenter of spring training, with the storm surrounding Joe Torre's recently released book The Yankee Years and three expensive newcomers -- CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett -- all likely to command their share of headlines. Drop the Molotov cocktail that is the A-Rod story into that mix and it's possible the Yankees, a popular World Series pick, have already seen their season derailed.
The World Series is often a saving grace from such drama, but this year's Fall Classic is already fighting a potential image problem. Because of the WBC, the Series could potentially end on Nov. 5, the latest finish ever, and if recent history is any indication, it will have to contend with dropping TV ratings and wintry weather that mars the quality of play.
The only thing worse than having '09 be overshadowed by this tsunami of negative attention is the knowledge that it may only grow worse in the years to come. Rodriguez's was the only one of the 104 names on the list of players who tested positive for steroids in 2003 to be revealed. The rest of the list is out there somewhere and it seems to be only a matter of time before other names surface, bringing with them new stories and new controversy all over again.
Even if the controversy does manage to die down, it will only be temporary. As Rodriguez inches closer to the all-time home run record this story will explode all over again, a most unwanted sequel to the drama that played out just two years ago: the game's best player chasing its most hallowed record with the twin labels of "cheater" and "drug user" riding shotgun on his pursuit of history. With 553 home runs, Rodriguez currently trails Bonds by 209, and if he maintains his pace of just over 42 home runs a year over the past 13 seasons, he would surpass Bonds' mark of 762 at the end of the 2013 season, meaning five more years of questions about asterisks.
When Bonds overtook Hank Aaron's mark of 755 home runs in the summer of 2007, it should have been one of the greatest moments in the game's history. Instead it was one of the most controversial. The saving grace was supposed to be that there was another who would be along shortly to do it the right way, restoring the authenticity of the record and with it, the game's honor. But now that too seems impossible. Home runs used to come with exclamation points, but more often than not lately they've come with question marks. The list of players who have elbowed their way onto the home run leaderboard reads like a who's who of the Steroid Era: Bonds (762), Sosa (609), McGwire (583), Rafael Palmeiro (569), Rodriguez (553). Only Ken Griffey Jr. (611), once a teammate of A-Rod's and the only player who could compare with Bonds in his prime, remains untainted, yet injuries have robbed him of any shot at the record many thought would be his alone by now.
Bonds' name currently sits atop the record book as a mocking reminder of baseball's inability and perhaps unwillingness to do anything about the Steroid Era before it robbed the game of its most cherished connection: its unbreakable bond with its past as a measure of its present. A-Rod was to be the one who could do more than any other to fix the problem. Instead he has made it worse, now and for the foreseeable future. Just as baseball readied itself to rise from its winter slumber with the dawn of a new season, it has found that its long, national nightmare is still far from over.
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