Before he filed his Friday column contrasting Alex Rodriguez’s character (quite unfavorably) with that of legendary first baseman Lou Gehrig, Rich Lowry and I took part in a good-natured e-mail exchange on the subject. Before the colloquy ended, Rich rightly noticed that I had “not once defended the character of A-Rod” and kidded that the slugger’s decision to date Madonna was by itself enough to justify an eviction from the sport.
I hesitate to say too much about the recent foibles of the Yankees’ third baseman until the arbitrator rules on A-Rod’s appeal sometime after the World Series and the evidence that Major League Baseball collected from the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic becomes available for public inspection.
However, we need to recall that some of Rodriguez’s most noteworthy baseball-related actions suggest that he has his selfless moments. Before the 2004 season, he offered to take a hefty pay cut to facilitate a trade from the Rangers to the Red Sox, only to have the Major League Baseball Players Association reject the deal. On being sent to the Bronx days later, he offered to move from shortstop to third base in deference to incumbent Derek Jeter, never mind that the newest Yankee was clearly the better fielder.
While it is probable that A-Rod “has been caught cheating a second time,” I am fairly certain that the “most storied franchise in sports,” as Rich describes his beloved team, will cope with the Rodriguez legacy at least as well as it dealt with the late George Steinbrenner. The plaque of the blustering bully of an owner may be found among the greats in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, even though he was banished from the game twice — first for being convicted of making illegal corporate contributions to President Nixon’s campaign and years later for conspiring with a known gambler to smear the reputation of his club’s best player, Dave Winfield.
(Just as the Democratic National Committee owes George Stephanopoulos big-time for conjuring up an inane contraception question for Mitt Romney during a Republican presidential debate in late 2011, Yankee fans should send really nice gifts to then-commissioner Fay Vincent every Christmas. His action against Steinbrenner in 1990 enabled serious baseball people to run the club’s baseball operations during King George’s prolonged absence, and they drafted and developed the talent that would eventually lead the team to six World Series appearances in eight seasons, including four rings.)
Even if the 211-game suspension MLB dished out to A-Rod isn’t substantially shortened, how would his distasteful actions be even remotely in the same ballpark as those of the team owners who repeatedly colluded in the 1980s to suppress players’ salaries in violation of the collective-bargaining agreement and then several years later provoked the 1994–95 strike that resulted in every fan’s worst nightmare coming true, the cancelation of an entire postseason, including the World Series?
I appreciate the desire to romanticize Lou Gehrig or the game that he played so well. Every portrayal of the Iron Horse’s life portrays him as a well-liked ballplayer and outstanding citizen, although one may wonder how he would have handled a TMZ or Deadspin raising questions about his overbearing mother or wife’s earlier interactions with the wife of mob boss Johnny Torrio, mentor to Al Capone, at Chicago’s poker tables. If anyone who ever donned a big-league uniform should be a role model, let it be Gehrig.
But to insist that other ballplayers be held to that standard is unfair. They are merely entertainers, playing a sport they love. These young athletes are not to be confused with the men and women who run for public office on promises of “social justice” or “family values” only to ditch those supposedly cherished beliefs for a few kickbacks or a trophy wife.
While Rich adds an important caveat toward the end of the column, admitting that no era is perfect and that today’s game features some decent characters, many fans, particularly among the altecocker set, who yearn for a time long before TMI got posted on a player’s Twitter account and a Yankee first baseman who hasn’t posted even a 1 WAR (Fangraphs) season since 2010 earns $1.25 million.
We know that professional athletes from yesteryear were “scamps and frauds,” as Rich describes them. Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Mike Schmidt suggested that they would have consumed steroids had they been available in the clubhouse at the time, but many of their contemporaries, stars and scrubs alike, did pop and deal amphetamines and cocaine. Although the players who took money to throw the 1919 World Series were punished with lifetime bans, no one seriously believes that gambling in that era was confined to a single postseason.
Let’s not omit the age-old practice of on-the-field shenanigans. Why do some among us laugh off the use of the outlawed spitball by hurlers Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, and the Niekro brothers, who, like steroid users, were merely looking for an edge? And is it honorable for parents to encourage their prepubescent children in Little League to imitate Derek Jeter and Dewayne Wise and fake getting hit by a pitch when up at the plate or to try to sell a dropped ball?
And we would be remiss not to comment on the powerful men who bought the clubs. Since the 1990s, many MLB owners have jacked up ticket prices to the point where the ballpark experience is out of reach for middle-class American families. Their forerunners conspired to keep African Americans and darker-skinned Hispanics out of the game during the 20th century until after the Second World War, and through the use of the now-defunct reserve clause, which prevented a player from shopping his services to other teams after his contract expired, they were able to suppress player salaries until the 1970s.
(Not only was Gehrig forced to take a pay cut after winning the Triple Crown in 1934, but owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert, whose Monument Park statue may be found next to that of the greatest first baseman of all time, famously refused in early 1937 to raise Gehrig’s salary of $31,000, the amount he had earned the year before. Never mind that his 1936 performance — a major-league-leading .696 slugging percentage, 49 home runs, and a .478 on-base percentage — won him his second MVP award. Eventually, Ruppert relented and gave the future Hall of Famer a $5,000 raise plus $750 signing bonus.)
Once upon a time, I was outraged that whenever a player was linked to performance-enhancing drugs, neither Commissioner Bud Selig nor MLBPA head Donald Fehr appeared to care. Today, it is encouraging to see that the game has instituted a comprehensive testing regime and is willing to investigate a rejuvenation facility reportedly engaged in illicit prescriptions of human growth hormone.
If the arbitrator ultimately sides with MLB, Rodriguez won’t be allowed back on the diamond until 2015. And even if the appeal goes his way, A-Rod has only himself to blame for being so incredibly tone-deaf about how to safeguard his image.
Nonetheless, he didn’t drive drunk, beat his wife, go on an anti-Semitic tirade, or use the N word, let alone commit baseball’s greatest sin: betting on baseball. The man deserves ample criticism for his repeated connections to PEDs — and, yes, perhaps his dating choices — but ought not get treated like one of history’s greatest monsters.
Meanwhile, Yankee fans, including Rich and his fellow Bleacher Creatures, ought to be happy to have a healthy A-Rod back at third base for the remainder of 2013, if only to breathe life into an anemic lineup. And if they must give Rodriguez the “Bronx cheer,” they should do it if and when he strikes out with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning of a nail-biter.
— Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to NRO’s Right Field blog.