In Defense of Alex Rodriguez

imagesby Matthew DeCapua

The initial punishment handed down to Alex Rodriguez by Major League Baseball in the wake of the Bosch Anti-Aging Clinic scandal, an unprecedented 211-game suspension for the fallen superstar, seemed somehow not right.

To wit: why was Rodriguez’s suspension more than four times as severe as those of other players who were guilty of the same infraction?

The cynical answer is, of course, money. As the game’s highest-paid player it stands to reason (for some) that should Rodriguez ever be caught cheating the punishment should be commensurate with the enormous wealth he has amassed playing baseball.

A more vengeful answer might be that Alex Rodriguez is, to use the vernacular, a complete wanker. By all accounts he is a pretentious, egomaniacal, spoiled man-child, who is universally disliked even by fans of his own team(s). At best, he comes across as arrogant. At worst, he can act and sound like an unequivocal asshole.

However.

If justice and fair play are the penultimate goals of Major League Baseball, then obviously these two reasons carry no weight. The rules are supposed to be the same whether a player makes league minimum or the biggest salary ever inked into a contract. Likewise, as there are no dispensations for being an otherwise nice guy, neither can there be additional penalties for being a prick.

Perhaps, then,  justice and fair play are not the primary aim.

There can be no doubt that Major League Baseball has endured a decades-long systemic league-wide era of rampant performance-enhancing drug use. This epidemic infected all 31 of the 31 clubhouses. To various degrees, nearly everyone involved in baseball during this era is in some way, shape or form, complicit. The players, untold numbers of them, who used the drugs. The other players, an embarrassingly small fraction of them, who did not use PEDs but saw others dope up and chose to remain silent about it. The coaches and trainers who helped administer the drugs, privately advocated their use, and/or willingly turned a blind eye. The press, who had suspicions, but chose not to investigate because stories about players accomplishing impossible on-field feats sold newspapers and sports books. And the owners, the networks, and the entity of Major League Baseball itself, all of whom sit at the top of the pyramid and profit obscenely from all of it.

Every single one of these complicit entities — players, coaches, scouts, reporters, networks, commentators, front offices, owners, and the league itself — were making a living, and in many cases a killing, by protecting the status quo. The pursuit of money was paramount in all of their minds, and the singular driving force behind all of the complicity.

A good financial world parallel would be the housing market bubble. All of the major players knew something serious was wrong. Many of them were actively cheating the system. Everyone was profiting from it. The only question was how long until the bubble burst.

In both instances, of course, everyone now knows that the emperor was wearing no clothes.

But this isn’t the story that’s playing out in the press — the same press that is undeniably part of the profiteering of the steroid era. This should be an age of humble mea culpas from essentially every single person connected to Major League Baseball, including the league itself, over the last twenty years. There should be a broad, transparent, and very public discussion about not only how to emphatically end the steroid era, but also how to prevent future similar scandals. This discussion should include a great many people, from the commissioner on down to the bat boys, from network executives on down to beat reporters, standing up and saying “I was wrong.”

But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, there is a race to see who can point the biggest finger at the player most likely to successfully be framed not so much as emblematic of a broad, pervasive, all-inclusive, institutional problem, but rather as the problem, individually and independent of everyone and everything else.

The first such player to be saddled with this burden was Barry Bonds. The second was Roger Clemens. And now the third in the trifecta is Alex Rodriguez. The common elements of the three are that they all doped, they all became rich and famous thanks to baseball, and they’re all jerks with terrible personal reputations, bad press relationships, and few friends in places that matter.

Like nearly every fan, I would like to see Major League Baseball and the press that covers the game rigorously work to get performance enhancing drugs off the field and out of the clubhouses, and to deliver the message, especially to the game’s younger fans, that cheaters never prosper. But I am concerned that the public prosecution and disproportionate punishment of a player like Rodriguez represents an institution not so much interested in reform or making admission of an environment in which all parties were culpable, so much as an institution primarily concerned with its money.

The prosecution of Rodriguez and the zeal with which the press has covered it suggests that the fundamental flaw that permitted the steroid era in the first place has not yet even begun to be addressed. All of the pieces are therefore in place for future scandals that will threaten the integrity of the game.

You can’t pin that on Alex Rodriguez.

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