Sad road to Alex Rodriguez's 211-game ban, placement on MLB's Mount Rushmore of steroids
"The only thing I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward." – Alex Rodriguez, Feb. 17, 2009
Typical Alex. Of all the things to do, of course he tried to sound presidential on the day he was admitting to taking steroids. The American people? Seriously, the American people? For 30 minutes, he had fumbled through his prepared statement and clumsily answered questions about his performance-enhancement drug use from 2001-03, and there he was, trying to end the charade and euthanize the awkwardness, and the best he could come up with was a plea to the American freaking people.
By then, the delusions of grandeur had overwhelmed Alex Rodriguez to the point where the people by his side, the army of by-the-hour fix-it flacks with the sorts of fancy degrees he always wanted, understood they needed to feed his fallacies lest they find themselves unemployed. So he would talk to America, even if America already had judged him.
To America, A-Rod was a cheater, a liar, a clown, a waste of talent, a crook, maybe one of the above, maybe all of the above. He was supposed to be the greatest ballplayer any of us ever had seen, and at times he was, this amalgamation of size, speed, strength, athleticism and know-how, robotic in his excellence. Underneath that avatar was a fragility that simultaneously drove him and hindered him. Nobody cared that A-Rod still was processing his father abandoning him at nine years old, even if it helped define him far more than his swing or his glove. It was easy to ignore that, and if America does one thing, it's take the easy way out with A-Rod.
Look at today. Even if America is tired of the steroid blather, the Schadenfrod is overwhelming. After fruitless negotiations, Rodriguez and Major League Baseball couldn't settle on a mutually acceptable punishment for his alleged years of PED use, lies about it and feeble attempt at a coverup, and we're left with the mess of today: an unprecedented 211-game suspension, an immediate appeal by Rodriguez and his return to the field for the New York Yankees on Monday night in Chicago. The documents from the Biogenesis clinic first came to light in January, and along with testimony from founder Anthony Bosch, it left Rodriguez cornered and with a choice: accept a long ban, longer than any in history short of those expelled from the game, or fight via arbitration.
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He will fight like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Ryan Braun and the other indignant ballplayers who raged against the machine before him. And yet more than them, A-Rod has resigned himself to being nothing more than nouveau Jose Canseco. Came out of Miami. Best thing in baseball. Went 40/40. People adored his talent. Drove Ferraris. Dated Madonna. Left behind a legacy in which all of that is secondary, tertiary, even inconsequential. America remembers Canseco for his biceps, his book called "Juiced" and his bonkers drug conspiracy theories with seeds of truth. And more than the home runs and baseball brilliance, it will remember Rodriguez for his needle-pocked fall.
The severity of the punishment is the closest baseball will come to the death penalty, reserved for a face big enough to make the steroid Mount Rushmore. Rodriguez earned that spot alongside Canseco, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. A-Rod has spent more than half his life in this game, so abiding by his wish and judging him from that February day forward is not an option. He devoted his life to this sport, a life with seminal moments that barreled toward this conclusion, and this is the ultimate nadir. Just because he's playing tonight doesn't take away the truth about the man who once was supposed to be the clean home run king. Baseball no longer wants him.
It's July 8, 1994. Makes sense to go back only because Rodriguez couldn't stop talking about it at his press conference, how young and stupid he was. Here, he is 18 years old and about to debut in the major leagues. The last time an 18-year-old played at this level was 1978. Nobody has done it since. That's once in 35 years. That's how good A-Rod is.
He later prattled on about this moment because he wants to convey how he grew up in baseball, and how destructive that can be to someone, and he's not exactly wrong. The celebrity, crowds, responsibilities, temptations and craven need for success. It's like being a child actor, and it can poison. The same fame-industrial complex that leaves Justin Bieber thinking it's OK to spit on people and Amanda Bynes thinking it's OK to light driveways on fire helped turn Alex Rodriguez into the sort of megalomaniac who speaks to entire countries and thinks they listen.
It's Dec. 11, 2000. America listens today because of the money. Maybe that's how people will remember him. All the money. Until now, the biggest contract in professional sports belonged to the NBA's Kevin Garnett: $126 million. The Texas Rangers doubled that for A-Rod. Two years earlier, the team's owner, Tom Hicks, had bought the Texas Rangers for $250 million, and now he owes one person $2 million more than that.
The enormity of it still stupefies. Ten years, $252 million. That was 13 years ago, and it's still the second-biggest contract ever. Adjusted for inflation, that's $342 million in 2013. The Rangers eventually filed for bankruptcy and A-Rod kept cashing $2 million-plus biweekly checks, hitting home runs, producing at a historic level.
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His life also turned into a cliché here. His friends know how it sounds: Money changed Alex. He wasn't the same after that contract. Couldn't it just be that his money changed how they thought of him? Yeah. There's probably that. But it was something more, they say, something fundamental. Until then, Alex was still a kid, just 25 years old, single, and frighteningly myopic toward baseball.
Soon enough, when he found that money could buy him people who would say yes and the missing attention that never was his – all of these things that come with no price tag but are inherent benefits of the uber-rich – he got high off that. These were his gateway drugs to the ones getting him crucified today.
It's Feb. 15, 2004. The Rangers are done with A-Rod. The fit was never right anyway. He chased the money, and everyone in Texas knew that, and with baseball and money there's this weird guilt foisted on those who make the most. Nobody harps on how much quarterbacks make or how LeBron brings a 24/7 DJ on vacation. A-Rod's scarlet letter is a dollar sign. He isn't a failure. On the contrary, during his three years with the Rangers he has hit 156 home runs, leading the league each season, driven in almost 400 runs and won an MVP award. He is the best player in baseball. There's not much of an argument to the contrary.
And still, whether it's because they knew he was using steroids – nobody in Texas has admitted as much, and even Alex, five years later, would dance around what kind he used and in what quantities and pretty much any detail that might lead you to believe he was telling the truth – or because of the team's failure despite his wondrous play, he was gone. They tried to trade him to Boston. When that deal fell through, the New York Yankees stepped in, offered Alfonso Soriano and a kid named Joaquin Arias, and so began baseball's equivalent of the worst high school relationship imaginable.
Much of this falls on A-Rod. Among the money and hangers-on and desire for something more he fell into a vortex. If it wasn't for bad decisions, he wouldn't have no decisions at all. He got married when he was still on the prowl, showing up on cover after tabloid cover with muscled-up bottle blondes. He kissed his own image in the mirror for a magazine photo shoot. One conquest alleged that a picture of a centaur hung above his bed – and it featured A-Rod's torso and head. And that doesn't begin to cover the on-field foibles, from slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove to yelling at an infielder on a popup to finding himself doghoused by Joe Torre, shuttled to the No. 8 spot in the lineup during a playoff game, an embarrassment that would linger.
For 10 years now, A-Rod has worn pinstripes. It seems like more. And, paradoxically, it also seems like less, because as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and others have grown older, it's almost as if Rodriguez is frozen in time, forever that kid he talked about at his press conference in 2009, the one who majors in ill-conceived choices.
It's Oct. 28, 2007. This is one of those choices. In the middle of the World Series between Boston and Colorado, Rodriguez informs the Yankees he is opting out of his $252 million contract. Across the sport, how-could-he-do-this-in-the-middle-of-a-(expletive)-World Series-game shouts and other such grievances reverberate. Rodriguez is immune by now. There is no antidote to villainy.
Once the anger from the Yankees subsided, this moment birthed another mega-contract, one even bigger than the first, 10 years and $275 million, plus another $30 million in potential home run-record bonuses, all because Rodriguez genuflected before George Steinbrenner's sons, apologized for the embarrassment of the opt-outs and promised he would be the sort of Yankee that would've made their dad proud. Somehow the b.s. meter didn't go off like a Geiger counter on Three Mile Island.
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In truth, A-Rod hadn't changed. It took only a cursory knowledge of the goings-on in the organization Hank and Hal Steinbrenner owned to understand this. All season long, Rodriguez had traveled with his cousin, Yuri Sucart, and a personal trainer named Angel Presinal, who six years earlier had been banned from baseball clubhouses because he was caught with a bag full of steroids. As great of a conversationalist as Presinal may have been, and as much as he would've contributed to the sorts of sociocultural debates in which Rodriguez loved to participate, Occam's razor says that if you're paying for a steroid peddler to go with you everywhere, it's probably not for the company.
The Yankees ignored that and every warning sign – A-Rod's predilection for providing the sort of headaches Advil cannot alone defeat, the dreadful history of players performing past their 40th birthday – ponied up the cash A-Rod wanted and are left staring now at a best-case scenario that includes three more years and nearly $65 million due an old, broken-down, serial PED user.
It's Nov. 4, 2009. A-Rod just won the World Series. He's gotten on base 50 percent of the time this postseason and slugged .808 and hit timely home runs and cast aside this wrongheaded idea that there wasn't any clutch or champion in him. There always was. He was too good not to have it – so good that scouts feared filing reports to their bosses when Rodriguez was in high school because it all sounded like hyperbole, this man among boys.
It's funny. He always wanted to project himself as that man, to sound erudite and worldly and educated, to be the boss of those advanced-degree gofers, to take his millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions and turn them into more, to be a real-estate mogul, to own properties on bodies of water because that's where all the rich kids lived when he and his brother and sister needed to subsist on his mom's hard work after his dad left – to be the best at everything he did, because to be anything else might as well constitute failure.
He wanted to be that man. He still wants to be. And so he does it the same way he got to this point: by fighting for it.
It's Jan. 31, 2013. There's a story on the Miami New Times website accusing Alex Rodriguez of receiving ludicrous amounts of PEDs from a quack in South Florida named Anthony Bosch. In his logbooks, Bosch refers to Rodriguez as "Cacique." It means boss.
None of this should've been a surprise. Rodriguez admitted to taking Primobolan from 2001-03 and also tested positive for testosterone. He worked with Presinal in 2007. A month after the February 2009 press conference, Rodriguez needed hip surgery, and during this time he sought treatment from Anthony Galea, a Canadian doctor who later was caught with PEDs and pleaded guilty to criminal charges. In December 2011, A-Rod traveled to Germany to undergo a treatment on his knee called Orthokine, in which doctors took his blood, spun it with protein factors and reinjected it into arthritic areas. No matter how untrue it was, Rodriguez felt like he needed more, and it guided his choices.
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The last year, even by A-Rod's standards, has been trying. His game collapsed in October, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi pinch hit for him late in games and even benched in the playoffs. Late in one close game, he started flirting with women in the stands, who ratted him out to the tabloids. He had another hip surgery, and his aborted return from it, compounded by the Biogenesis cloud, has led to a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up month of sniping between player and club.
Rodriguez sent an Instagram photo of himself and his hip surgeon declaring he was ready to play. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told him to "shut the [expletive] up." A-Rod went out on a rehab assignment and the day before he was due back allegedly pulled a quad. He said he was fine to go and sent a doctor he had never met – one who recently had been fined $40,000 for allowing a staffer to illegally distribute steroids – to call the local media and inform them as much. Surely Cashman wanted to tell the doctor to shut the (expletive) up, too.
These were the brainchildren of Rodriguez's newest set of flunkies, who will prove themselves as disposable as the old ones. The sadness of one person leaving gave way to life of others doing the same. Plenty of those who considered themselves the nuclei that kept the electron that is Rodriguez from straying too far were either pushed away or left Rodriguez. There's really only one person left, his friend Pepe Gomez. All the rest are gone. He's divorced. Almost all of his closest friends tired of the crap. Sucart, his cousin, sued him. It's A-Rod, a girlfriend, one friend, a real-estate guy, his mom, his employees and an ocean of sadness saturating his world of defiance.
It's Aug. 5, 2013. Baseball gave Alex Rodriguez the longest non-lifetime suspension in history today. It was about twice as long as Steve Howe's 119-day ban for drug use and more than three times many games as any of the other 13 players the league suspended for their involvement with Biogenesis. The penalty dwarfs the 65-game suspension given to Ryan Braun almost two weeks ago.
The unsightliness of this fight is just beginning. Both sides are preparing for simultaneous wars waged privately and publicly. Rodriguez wants to salvage as much of his salary as possible. The Yankees want to garnish it, a silly conceit considering they signed him to the ridiculous deal in the first place. Rodriguez wants to save his reputation by prevailing inside an arbitrator's chambers. MLB wants to bury him for good. Amid all of baseball's bullying, the Yankees' matching Rodriguez's passive-aggressiveness, the media's haranguing, the public's cries for a ban, he has not broken. Give Alex Rodriguez that much: He has enemies everywhere, and on he marches, oblivious perhaps but unwilling to let his own misdeeds stand as a reason for others to commit them, too.
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At some point, Rodriguez will talk about this all – the mountain of evidence and the years of alleged doping and Bosch personally injecting him during the 2012 playoffs and everything else of import to this odd, incredible case. And it will be fascinating to see if he learned anything from the last time he tried to explain himself. He asked us to judge him that day. It was an idle offer, for anybody who truly wants to be judged amends his behavior, and, if anything, A-Rod's has worsened. He is a walking mistake, even if four years ago he said he would approach his errors accordingly: "The only way I know how to handle them is to learn from them and move forward." And, similar to what he has done recently in interviews, he reiterated back then a familiar talking point – his love of the game – and said: "I miss playing baseball, and I miss simply being a baseball player." Most important were what seemed like throwaway words toward the end: "Baseball is a lot bigger than Alex Rodriguez."
He is challenging that notion today. He is taking on baseball with his fancy lawyer who beat the league once, taking it on headfirst in an arbitration room with his money and reputation and career on the line. He spent the last eight months as one man trying to take on a monolith, and history often renders windmill tilters as fools. Sometime within the next month, he will do it in a more formal setting, where a man named Fredric Horowitz will decide the fate of one of the greatest players and one of the greatest cheaters in the sport's history. He will do what Alex Rodriguez asked of us more than four years ago: judge him from that day forward, just one American person.
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