The End of an Era?

The End of an Era?

Alex Rodriguez's fall tells us all we need to know about the steroid years
Alex Rodriguez's fall tells us all we need to know about the steroid years
February 16, 2009

Alex Rodriguez felt pressure to be A-Rod. That was the motive for his steroid use, which he says came between 2001 and '03 (page 28). Well, at least it's a new story. And now, maybe, finally, we have heard the last explanation, the last excuse, the last rationale for baseball's Steroid Era.

Well, A-Rod had to be different. He could not have had the same motivation as any of the other big names who have been caught up in baseball's steroid storm. It was easy to understand why Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds might use steroids, assuming they did. McGwire got hurt, turned 30, and his career was in jeopardy. He had to hit home runs to stay in the big leagues. He ended up hitting a lot of them.

The obvious motivation for Clemens is that he refused to give up the stage. He was written off at 33, and he could not stand that. The guy is all competitive rage. You can bet that he would still love to buzz a hitter with inside heat.

And Bonds, in the sunset years of one of the great careers ever, apparently felt underappreciated and unloved. It's not hard to imagine Bonds watching the nation fall over a pumped-up McGwire and Sammy Sosa in that home run summer of 1998 and mutter to himself, "They want a show, dammit, I'll give them a show they'll never forget."

Anyway, those were the officially licensed steroid explanations for Major League Baseball: 1) I used to overcome an injury; 2) I used to fight off old age; 3) I used because everybody else was using.

But none of those quite fit A-Rod. He wasn't hurt. He wasn't old. And he was already much better than everyone else. He was the Natural, a phenom from the start. Red Sox assistant to the general manager Allard Baird tells a great story about scouting A-Rod at Westminster Christian High in Miami. Baird wrote a report so glowing—he gave the young shortstop grades of 80, meaning "Hall of Fame tools"—that he was shaking with nerves when he sent it in.

That's how it was for A-Rod. First pick in the draft by the Mariners in 1993. In his first full year, he had one of the most impressive seasons a 20-year-old ever had: .358 average, 36 homers, 123 RBIs, 141 runs scored, 54 doubles. Two years later, in that fateful summer of '98, Rodriguez had a 40-40 season, with 42 homers, 46 steals. (Interesting group, that 40-40 club: Bonds, Rodriguez, Jose Canseco and Alfonso Soriano, the only one not to be linked to steroid use.) What was possible? Hell, with A-Rod, what wasn't possible?

He was only 25 when he signed the monumental contract with the Rangers before the 2001 season, the year he says he began using steroids. He was in the prime of his baseball life. He was coming off his best year. He was moving into a hitters' park. There seemed nothing he couldn't do. "Have you ever been tempted to use any of those things?" Katie Couric asked him in '07 on 60 Minutes, talking about steroids and human growth hormone.

"No," Rodriguez said. Later he added, "I've never felt overmatched on the baseball field."

But he did feel overmatched. He felt intense pressure to live up to the contract, to his reputation, to the expectations that were now even greater than before. And that's what drove him to juice.

A lot of people are tearing at Rodriguez now, raw meat in the lion's cage, but I don't feel anger toward him. I don't feel sorry for him either. I just feel that he's the emblem of his age. Players can give reasons, but I suspect that there is a two-word explanation for the steroid era: human nature. There was no testing. Authority figures winked. Money was flowing, home runs were flying. Many fans were enthralled; media, too.

More names will come out, of course. In a bizarre irony, the players' union—Don Fehr and Gene Orza and the lot—which had fought ferociously against drug testing, failed to ensure that the results from a 2003 survey test remained anonymous. So now there are 103 more names from '03 that, no doubt, will leak out over time. Those players might as well admit they used. Rodriguez has given them cover. There won't be a bigger name on the list than A-Rod.

Now, there's one guy I'd love to find: the clean player of the steroid era. I don't just mean a player who didn't use—I'm sure there were plenty of those. No, I'd love to find the player who was offered chances to use, the player who understood how much more money and playing time and fame he was giving up. And he still said no.

I remember years ago being in a high school accounting class. We had this teacher who let everyone cheat. Nothing subtle about it. Kids would walk up to her desk, copy answers, shout them out for all to hear. She wanted us to cheat—or at the very least did not care—and so it didn't feel like cheating. It felt like what you were supposed to do.

Still, I remember one guy who refused. He kept his head down and worked out the numbers. The guy wasn't brilliant or holier than thou. I used to watch him sometimes and wonder what was going on inside his head. I never asked him. I wish I could now. Because, at the end of the sad day, the fall of A-Rod just shows that the real question isn't why some players cheated. The question is why some others didn't.

In his youth A-Rod was the Natural. What was possible? HELL, WHAT WASN'T POSSIBLE?

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)