Eternal A-Rod

Illustration by Andy Friedman

At the current rate of technological change, it is nearly impossible to imagine what life is going to be like in the year 2017. But there are a few certainties: We will have a new president, Vin Diesel and Pamela Anderson will turn 50, and Alex Rodriguez will still be a member of the New York Yankees.

This fact is important to remember, considering that last month, Rodriguez was hit with the (rough estimate) 47,392nd performance-enhancement-drug scandal of his career, when MLB strategically leaked plans to suspend him—along with Ryan Braun and eighteen others—for up to 100 games based on their connection to a Miami “wellness clinic” and supposed PED ped­dler called Bio­genesis. (Or, more correctly, the appearance of their names, or what might be their names, in some very sketchy documents provided by Biogenesis’s very sketchy ringleader, Anthony Bosch.) Rodriguez may be the most unpopular player in baseball—he might be the most unpopular Yankee of all time—but he is not going anywhere, whatever the commissioner’s office does with that supposed evidence (and it’s not entirely clear it’ll be able to pull off suspensions). He is signed by the Yankees for another four years plus this season, at a heady price of roughly $105 ­million, and this is where he’s going to stay.

Of course, the Yankees are going to do everything in their power to get rid of him, as any prudent team would. They’ll use the Biogenesis scandal as an excuse, try to pull out some “conduct unbecoming” clause, try to convince A-Rod that his injuries are just so overwhelming that he’d be doing himself a favor by retiring and, oh, by the way, allowing the ­Yankees to collect insurance money on the rest of his deal. But none of that is going to happen—the notion of a “guaranteed contract” is the central tenet of the whole players-union plank, and the Yankees won’t be able to trade Rodriguez either. His was the worst contract in baseball even before the hip injury and Biogenesis. Prudent? Any team that was being all that prudent wouldn’t have given him the contract in the first place.

Which means Alex Rodriguez—A-Rod the ­mirror kisser, A-Rod the juicer, A-Rod the ­centaur—is going to outlast Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and all the rest of them. Come 2017, he will have been a member of the Yankees for fourteen seasons—one of the truest True Yankees of all time and an integral aspect of the franchise’s personality for one of its most representative stretches, no matter how much fans and management would love to wish him away. And I can’t help but wonder how much differently we’ll all feel about him then—about him and his PED use.

When Mark McGwire was serving as the hitting coach for the St. Louis ­Cardinals the past three seasons, there was a running joke that at some point, manager Tony LaRussa was going to sneak him in to pinch-hit.

The purpose of this would not have been to win the game; McGwire has been retired for twelve years and is considerably less … oh, let’s say husky than he was in his playing days. No, the idea was to restart ­McGwire’s Hall of Fame clock. The way the rules currently work, you enter the ballot five years after you retire, and remain on it for fifteen years, so if Mc­Gwire were to show up one more time in a game, he would essentially lengthen the number of years he could be on the ballot by fifteen. Which would probably double, at least, his chances of making it into the Hall.

That’s because, when it comes to steroids, we’re not living in the late nineties anymore. For the last fifteen years, baseball has been gripped by a kind of steroid fever, in which the league has led a moralistic but self-destructive crusade against those damned dirty drugs and those damned dirty users. No other sport has this sort of PED ­hysteria—particularly the NFL, which is widely assumed to be rife with abuse no one cares about. And the commissioner’s crusade is anomalous in baseball history, too—ballplayers gobbled up PEDs called ­amphetamines since the days of Ty Cobb and are still routinely helped through injuries with ­regular injections of cortisone, which is an actual steroid. It’s not clear what harmful effect the drugs have had on the health of players who’ve used them, and it’s even less clear what effect they’ve had on baseball ­players under their influence: Despite the conventional wisdom that steroids gave rise to the power-hitting nineties, more pitchers than hitters seem to have taken them, and there are plausible theories that the home-run boom of those years was the result of juiced baseballs, not players.

But commissioner Bud Selig, who has done so much to grow the game, certainly seems to think his legacy is on the line. He is operating possibly with good intentions but in ways that create the illusion of a battle for the soul of baseball. Selig couldn’t even get the players union to agree to testing until 2003, but ever since he’s been chasing scalps so aggressively he’s making it look like his sport still has a serious PED problem, when it doesn’t anymore—if it does, it is one that the future of its fan base is tired of hearing about already. By almost every measure, the younger you are, the less you are bothered by PED use; a New York Times study as far back as 2003 showed that young ­people are “much less troubled by drug use in sports and believe it to be more widespread than do Americans age 30 and above.” As a general rule, fans are angry when players they dislike (e.g., A-Rod, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds) use PEDs, and they don’t really care when players they like (e.g., Ryan Braun, Andy Pettitte, ­David Ortiz) do. Pettitte, in particular, has escaped any PED backlash even though he has actually admitted to PED use (something Clemens or Bonds never did).

Which is part of the reason it’s so noteworthy that the collective fan reaction to the Biogenesis story has been more of a shrug than a rush to pitchforks (followed by worrying about how it might affect your fantasy-baseball team). The investigation is a pretty clear example of old generals still fighting the last war and fighting it poorly; MLB buying out the frantic Bosch before A-Rod or any player could purchase his records first, and planning to treat association with the clinic as a double offense (one strike for alleged PED use, one for “lying” about it), in a way that suggests it is more interested in making a show of public shaming than in enforcing the rules. (MLB has the power to punish drug offenders if there is “proof” they took PEDs, even if they haven’t failed a league-mandated test, which might help explain the Biogenesis aggression: MLB could be a little embarrassed that none of these guys has ever failed a test, save Ryan Braun, who got off on an infuriating-to-it technicality.) Never mind the fact that applying this sort of frontier justice in such an indiscriminate manner could arguably warp the game’s equal playing field more than PEDs ever did. If you use Biogenesis as your PED provider, you could be out 100 games. If you use anyone else, you’re clear! Congratulations on your random blind luck!

Which brings us back, yes, to A-Rod. Right now, A-Rod is the Yankee albatross, this $105 million anchor messing up everything. But that’s also what he was in 2009, before helping the Yankees win their first World Series in nine years. For all of baseball’s self-righteousness, performance tends to trump things like scribbled names in Miami ­“doctor” notebooks (Mickey Mantle, remember, got steroid injections from “Doctor” Max Jacobson before games). Right now, the Yankees are playing someone named David Adams at third base; you don’t think the Yanks will be ecstatic to have A-Rod back, at least in the short term?

And that’s just in the short term. Come 2017, A-Rod’s offenses, such as they are, may turn out not to be nearly as appalling as we might think them to be now. By then, Rodriguez will probably have hit his 700th homer and might even have passed Babe Ruth. And who knows? If he gets a burst of health, well, he only needs to average around 24 homers a year the rest of his time in the Bronx to pass Bonds as baseball’s all-time home-run champion. At this point that seems unlikely, but it is possible, even if he might have Biogenesis partly to thank for it.

Of course, piling on A-Rod isn’t just popular, it’s fun: A-Rod might be the most reliably mockable baseball player who has never played for the Mets. But the arc of history is a long one—sometimes tediously long, when it comes to sorting through baseball history with old-timers. The Yankees and their fans might be cheering for him to stay away right now, but let’s check back in five years. Attitudes in sports are changing, and the winds are blowing in A-Rod’s, and other PED users’, direction. The best thing he can do is just to keep playing, and, yes, getting paid.

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Eternal A-Rod