Strange Bedfellows in this News Cycle

So much going on and so little time for me to write. After more than seven months of waiting, my wife and I finally closed on our Brooklyn apartment and will be moving this weekend, thus ending my nearly 13 years in the East Village. The timing isn’t exactly great, coming in the middle of my winter deadlines, but with the closing having been postponed twice on the sponsor’s part and the situation exacerbated by the collapse of the mortgage market, the past two months have been protracted agony as I watched the move date creep into this territory. At one point I expected to be watching the postseason — or at least the World Series — on a new flat-screen TV, but… wait ’til next year, I guess.

Following the closing, my wife and I went for a celebratory drink even though it was only about 3:30 in the afternoon — how often does one get to buy a home? Afterwards, still a bit buzzed from the 20-ounce beers, we made a trip to Staples to pick up more boxes. We were schlepping them along 34th Street looking for a cab when my cell phone rang. It was the producer from Sports Radio 1470 in Toledo (WLQR), my weekly spot with Norm & Matt; I had forgotten to tell the show I’d be out this week. Thinking fast, my wife and I ducked into some random foyer on 34th Street so I could take the call, and they hit me with the news of Alex Rodriguez’s end-around.

My first reaction was that Rodriguez’s decision to engage the Yankees without Scott Boras was in fact a Boras ploy, designed to let the superstar play good cop to the nefarious agent’s bad cop in the hopes of winning the Yankees and the fans back. Otherwise, if Rodriguez was so disgruntled with the job Boras had done, why not fire him and prevent him from getting his commission on whatever bajillion dollar contract was coming his way?

Just over 24 hours later, the framework of a deal is in place for A-Rod to return to the team he supposedly scorned, calling for $275 million over 10 years, with incentives that could make it far more valuable if he does in fact chase the all-time home run record. Rodriguez still gets a record-breaking contract, but he falls far short of the $350 million Boras told the Yankees would be the starting point of any pre-opt-out negotiations. He falls short of the annual salaries he would have made via the old contract’s escalator provisions in 2009 and 2010, or via the eight-year, $230 million offer that the Yankees had planned as their opening gambit. It’s understood that somewhere in the new figures is a remedy for the $21 million subsidy from the Texas Rangers that was lost on the contract’s termination, a loss that had led Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner brothers to take a hard-line stance on not negotiating with Rodriguez after the opt-out.

For some reason I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode where Homer has to ask for his job back at the nuclear plant. Instead of being allowed to walk into Monty Burns’ office through the door marked “Applicants,” he’s forced to crawl through a doggie door marked “Supplicants.” “A-Rod Crawls Back,” read the cover of Thursday’s New York Post, and it’s clear that whether or not this is a Boras ploy, Rodriguez has been forced to swallow some pride in order to rekindle his pinstriped career.

In any event, despite the awkwardness of the reconciliation, this is a solid win for the Yankees, who were faced with a very difficult task of replacing Rodriguez’s monstrous production amid a poor free agent crop and a trade market where Miguel Cabrera could only be had for their brightest pitching prospects. The Yankees lost no face by accepting A-Rod’s olive branch because of the superstar’s acknowledgment that the lost subsidy would be factored into his new deal.

It’s less clear whether A-Rod himself won. While it’s tough to begrudge him the opportunity to exercise his contractual right, particularly in light of the rocky ride he had endured over the past three years, the timing of the announcement of his opt-out was horseshit, making him appear to try to upstage the World Series. That may have been a Boras move, but if it went against Rodriguez’s tastes that only raises the question of who’s wearing the pants in this relationship.

Furthermore, Rodriguez’s action almost certainly burned bridges with a segment of Yankees fans. Yes, it may have been the bandwagoneers who were happy to see him stay when he was bopping 54 homers and looking like the MVP, but another underwhelming postseason for him and for the team thinned that herd while frustrating just about everyone who follows the Yankees. For all of the pressure he put on himself in the previous three years, his Hamlet act has cranked the knob to 11 for the coming years. Until he chases his October demons away, he will be under an even hotter spotlight than before.

Speaking as a Yankee fan, I’m glad his production is back, and I certainly do enjoy watching Rodriguez play, at least from April through September. But I’ll be hard-pressed to muster the heights of enthusiasm that I’ve felt towards him before on those days when I knew I was watching Alex Rodriguez, Best Player on Earth. Things may be chilly for awhile. In addition to winning a championship, he’s gonna have to bake me and every other Yankee fan one big chocolate apology cake apiece before bygones are bygones.

What’s also clear is that whoever won, Boras lost, even if he does get to take home five percent of the $275 million deal. Many, including Fox’s Ken Rosenthal (who gets the scoops while Peter Gammons plays the house organ) surmised that a back-channel deal had already been worked out prior to the opt-out. But Boras’ timing angered those inside the game, and the mere threat of his outrageous demands quickly sent teams into retreat, or at least into the mode of reassessing their offseason priorities. Among the half-dozen or so teams equipped to make A-Rod an offer, all but the Angels and Dodgers had asserted at one point or another that it might be beyond their capability. Boras overreached, and while the new contract — incentives regarding his potential chase of the all-time home run record aside — sets a record by being $23 million more than the 10-year, $252 million deal Rodriguez signed for the 2001 season, the increase doesn’t even match the rate of inflation. That’s all ya got, Scott? Pfft. In the words of Nelson Muntz, “Ha-ha!”

Meanwhile, the man Rodriguez may someday be chasing for the all-time home run lead, Barry Bonds, was indicted on four counts of perjury and one of obstruction of justice in relation to his BALCO testimony. Again, I found out about it from somebody wanting to put my instant opinion on the radio; Fox News Radio interviewed me for some national soundbites about a half-hour after the story broke on Thursday, and I’m in the midst of nine affiliate hits on Friday morning as I post this.

Even as a decided non-fan of Barry Bonds, I’d say that the announcement feels anticlimactic. Bonds has the home run record, tainted though it may be, and as a 43-year-old free agent, he’s already low on most teams’ shopping lists. Bud Selig can’t suspend him without a conviction lest he set off a fight with the Players’ Association, but the owners and GMs now have one more excuse to shun Bonds like a leper in a nudist colony. That’s not to say that some team won’t sign him, but if you thought the market for A-Rod was tepid, the one for surly, indicted 43-year-olds with multiple knee surgeries is sure to be even moreso.

The announcement feels anticlimactic mainly because I doubt the charges can stick. From the old saw about how a good prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, the four-year timespan in which this indictment was put together, to the testimony leak, to the lack of a Bonds positive test for anabolic steroids under the auspices of Major League Baseball (though the indictment says the evidence includes a positive test, it was one apparently administered by BALCO, lacking a clear chain of custody), this may well wind up being a circus designed to do little more than hassle Bonds and prevent him from getting another job rather than actually generating a conviction. If they couldn’t nail O.J. Simpson…

Which isn’t to say that I think Bonds is innocent, not by any stretch of the imagination. As I wrote on the occasion of his 756th home run:

Even absent a positive test, the mountain of evidence that Bonds used performance enhancing drugs is enough to convince me that his accomplishment is tainted. We’ll never know the extent to which Bonds was aided, but the fact that his historically unprecedented late-career surge matches up with the well-documented timeline of his alleged usage is enough for me. However, Bonds certainly wasn’t the only player using during this sordid era, and the extent to which the drugs helped him achieve his record will forever remain uncertain. Furthermore, Major League Baseball’s failure to address in any meaningful way the pervasiveness of the steroid problem made them complicit in Bonds’ use…

This much we know: the three players who topped Roger Maris’ long-standing season record of 61 homers have varying degrees of evidence suggesting they had help in the matter, and it’s not unreasonable to eye their latter-day accomplishments with some degree of suspicion so long as that evidence remains. I’m not advocating an asterisk in the record books or the expungement of any stats; if the fabric of baseball history can withstand the variable impacts of the spitballers, scuffers, bat-corkers, sign-stealers, and greenie-poppers — to say nothing of the Black Sox and Pete Rose, rats of an entirely different color — it can withstand this. That doesn’t mean we have to worship the record or the man with the prickly persona who achieved it, nor does it diminish the accomplishments of the men who preceded him in holding that record.

Will a Barry Bonds conviction heal the wounds we feel from the cynical chase and toppling of Hank Aaron’s home run record? Suffice it to say that I’d be surprised if we ever get to find out.

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