Why Alex Rodriguez’s Milestone Moments Drew Yawns
New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez recently had his 3,000th base hit and the historic moment drew a collective yawn.
A sign of how unpopular baseball is? Hardly. Look at the television ratings the game is drawing at a local level. The national pastime is doing just fine, thank you.
So, why was this milestone given the notoriety in the press of a WNBA game? Rodriguez is a cheater. As a society, we do not like cheaters. Tom Brady can tell you about this first hand and the evidence around his alleged misdeed is sketchy at best.
Understand this about Rodriguez’s achievements and others outed for steroid use during the late 1990s and 2000s, more players than we are comfortable to admit used performance-enhancing drugs. Megastars such as Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens did along with career minor leaguers looking for an edge to break and stay on big-league rosters.
By 2000, runs-per-game averaged 5.14. You have to go back to 1936 to find a season averaging higher. This was about survival. Add two rounds of expansion and what that does to pitching quality, a new generation of smaller ballparks and a ball designed to fly further to the chemical mix and the sport transformed from the balance of the 1980s to proverbial beer-league softball.
Are we proud of the era? Are you proud of the Pet Rock and bell-bottom pants you found cleaning out the attic in March? Has your daughter posted a high school yearbook picture of you in a John Travolta outfit? We survived it, learned that guzzling beer by the 24-pack never led to good decisions and pitchers need love too.
Yet, like that leisure suit even Goodwill refuses to take, they happened and we need to learn from it.
Baseball has fought substance abuse for years. Stories of amphetamine-laced coffee in clubhouses mixed with stars arrested for and testifying in cocaine trafficking cases are all on the record. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were not known for their prodigious milk drinking and you can be sure Ty Cobb did not relax after the game with a steaming cup of herbal tea and a California Roll.
One would have to seriously argue, however, players of these eras gained an unfair advantage from using speed, coke and booze. Offenses stalled so much by the late-60s that pitching mounds were lowered and pitchers hitting in the American League became abolished. Mind you, by the 1970s a series of cookie-cutter stadiums with equal wall heights and dimensions dominated the game giving no inherent advantage to hitters.
How does this all tie into Rodriguez and the ambivalence around his milestones?
Once players started to understand they could change the scoreboard and bring a few extra zero’s to their paycheck, they used. Hit 10 more homers a year and get paid a million more? Let me unzip these jeans.
Like any good bender though, the party ends. By 2004, Major League Baseball and the equally reluctant Players Association understood something had to be done and a testing program with consequences came into place. Offense plummeted and now, without being naïve enough to think the game is clean, we have entered another era of dominant pitching. Unlike the 90s, a better understanding of how deep statistics affect how teams are constructed mixed with bigger ballparks and a stable amount of teams are factors. Still, testing and suspensions has reduced the dependence on better baseball through illicit chemistry.
Which leaves us with Rodriguez, a player forced twice to admit his use.
With McGwire and his infamous bottle of Andro in his Shea Stadium locker, one can understand his, and any player for that matter, trying to grab any advantage to stay on top. For Mark, however, it was more than a bottle of protein powder that turned him into a home run champion.
Bonds and Clemens tried to defeat Father Time with their use. Sure, they produced gaudy numbers, but so does the 13 year-old playing Madden on his Xbox on the easy setting with a created player with maxed out ratings. In 10 years, no one will care whether the boy passed for 700 yards against the Seattle Seahawks for the championship downing Mountain Dew. With Clemens and Bonds, they did the real-life version of emulating the little boy.
So did Rodriguez. Not to extend his career such as Bonds and Clemens, but because he never learned to trust his natural talent. Ok, if you want to say he learned to use PED’s in an era when not using may have cost you money or a roster spot that is a valid reason. He broke into the big leagues around the strike of 1994-95 at 19. A golden child from day one, much was expected.
When baseball started to show a decade later it was serious about cleaning up this mess? Another story.
How can someone who graced with athletic gifts as Rodriguez have so little confidence in their ability they need to cheat?
The collective yawn for him passing Willie Mays on the home run list and reaching the 3000 hit club comes from that. Like with Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmerio, Rodriguez put together a monumental career by hitting the reset box on the game console when things did not go their way.
The harsh lesson, however, will not be their lack of Hall-of-Fame inductions or the mountain of columns by grumpy old men demonizing them as the writers looked the other way years ago. Nor the teammates played with over the years who played clean and were let down by suspensions during playoff drives and whole seasons. The fans, angered by high ticket and beer prices, will eventually move on to the new hero.
Nope. The 13 year-old boy learned as he grew how to achieve and succeed by doing and practice.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, cheated himself. If we do not celebrate the boy cheating at Madden, why should we marvel at the man doing the same?