The Dumbest Article in the History of Stupid, and other A-Roid Tales

The Alex Rodriguez story took a new turn on Monday evening, as A-Rod submitted to an exclusive interview by ESPN’s Peter Gammons in which he admitted to using steroids from 2001 to 2003 while a member of the Texas Rangers. While the interview was relatively softball — the hand-picked Gammons is about as threatening as Barbara Walters — Rodriguez admitted to wrongdoing, repeatedly using words like stupid, selfish, arrogant and naive to describe his actions, which he claimed were a reaction to the pressure of living up to the 10-year, $252 million contract which brought him to Texas.

It was a reasonably solid performance, though Rodriguez’s obvious lack of facility in the glare of the spotlight has left no shortage of wags taking issue with his lack of uncontrollable sobbing and occasionally vague descriptions of his usage, parsing his every word and feigning outrage that he didn’t give them the beeper number of his dealer or the name of each substance and its page number in the Physician’s Desk Reference. Even the delay between the story’s break and Rodriguz’s interview pissed some pundits off, as if they expected an athlete with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts and endorsement at stake to do something besides consult a lawyer under the circumstances. If it wasn’t baseball’s finest hour, it was hardly sports journalism’s finest hour either. NBC Sports’ Mike Celizic was the rare exception (hat tip to Cory Schwartz for the link):

To A-Rod’s credit, his response to ESPN after being caught sounded pretty honest. He said he was young and naïve and he wanted to prove he was worth the biggest contract in baseball history. ‘Roids were part of the culture of the game then, so he took whatever the other guys were taking that helped them play better.

It might sound shallow, but the guy’s a jock. What do you expect?

I know Rodriguez lied a couple of years back when Katie Couric asked him if he had ever used the juice, but I’m not going to hold that against him. That was the same as asking him if he had ever cheated on his wife. Or asking elected officials if they’re atheists. People don’t answer those questions honestly unless they are under oath or confronted with the evidence against them. Even then, they try to wriggle out of it because if you admit it, you’re dead.

No matter how sincere, one single apology isn’t going to win over Rodriguez’s toughest critics, but the fact is that he has already done more than Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire put together in response to the allegations. Instead of blanket denials and legal threats, he took responsibility, showed accountability, brought water to the raging bonfire instead of gasoline. It’s not the end of the story, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Making the rounds on the radio this morning, I was struck by the lack of outrage my Fox News Radio hosts showed relative to our previous discussions about Bonds, Clemens and the topic in general. Perhaps there’s a selection bias at work; I’ve made the rounds on this circuit often enough and shown enough resistance to pandering to turn off extremists like the particular female host in a New England state who clearly had a pitchfork stuck in her derrière over Clemens. All of which reminds me that it was Jose Canseco’s allegations regarding Rodriguez which essentially bumped me off of my tabloid TV debut for Inside Edition back in December 2007. The producer kept pressing me for a two-second soundbite like “A-Rod is the last hope,” but I knew I could never face myself or my colleagues if I fed the beast on their terms. I said words to the effect that the game is more than resilient enough to withstand the wrongdoings of its biggest stars, and that it’s a mistake to invest too much hope in any single player but that Rodriguez, if clean, certainly had the chops to pass Bonds. That deliberately wordy answer left me on the cutting room floor, but I never regretted the outcome.

Only a small handful of what I’ve read on the subject over the past couple days is worth sharing, but before passing on a few links, I’d like to point out the article that inspired this title. With the absolutism of a four-year-old, the New York Daily News‘ Bill Madden called upon the Yankees to eat the $270 million remaining on Rodriguez’s contract. You read that right. They’re supposed cut off their noses to spite their faces by taking the financial hit on behalf of the entire industry over something which (if Rodriguez is to be believed) took place on another team’s watch. Seriously, the guy’s brainpan has to be dripping to pen an article that insults the intelligence of its readers so blatantly that it’s not out of line to suggest that the Daily News should eat HIS contract. You may not be dumber after reading Madden’s piece, but you’ll certainly be angrier.

Among the responses to the whole imbroglio worth mentioning, Newsday‘s Ken Davidoff was quick to point out the trampling of the Fourth Amendment that’s brought this whole scandal to light:

No matter how much you despise him, A-Rod is as much victim as wrongdoer in this ugly saga, unveiled yesterday by’s Selena Roberts and David Epstein. Whatever level of embarrassment A-Rod feels today, the United States government should be 20 times more ashamed…

For A-Rod’s name to get out is a journalistic triumph for Roberts, an established, terrific reporter, and Epstein. And it’s a disgrace for our government, which couldn’t protect this very sensitive information.

While it’s too late for A-Rod, it’s not too late for our government to be reprimanded some more. We saw it this past week, as Judge Susan Illston indicated that she would not permit some of the crucial evidence that the feds had compiled in their perjury case against Bonds.

Back in 2004, when IRS agent Jeff Novitzky first acquired the testing records, Illston questioned Novitzky’s tactics and honesty, as reported by Jonathan Littman of Yahoo!

“I think the government has displayed . . . a callous disregard for constitutional rights,” Illston said in open court, according to Littman. “I think it’s a seizure beyond what was authorized by the search warrant; therefore, it violates the Fourth Amendment.”

BP colleague Derek Jacques, a lawyer by trade, succinctly explained the story arc of the samples relative to the subpoenas and search warrants:

The authorities’ seizure of the non-BALCO 2003 tests was a little more than “serendipitous.” A search warrant is supposed to be very specific, limiting the authorities to only searching for and/or seizing specific items they have probable cause to believe may be evidence of a crime. The IRS search warrant related to baseball players connected to BALCO, and since BALCO was allegedly dealing in PEDs, they had probable cause to think that MLB’s survey testing of the players in question would turn up evidence that the players in question were using steroids, possibly sold to them by BALCO. The Feds should have only grabbed the results of those ten players, but they instead wound up seizing the test results for all the more than 1,000 players tested. This was convenient, since they’d requested all the results in a subpoena that the two laboratories were fighting at the time the IRS raided their offices. It’s a long story that’s still pending appeal.

Rodriguez’s former teammate Doug Glanville, who writes the occasional Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, was able to looked beyond A-Rod’s transgressions, echoing Davidoff’s unease with the violation of rights:

I’m not surprised by baseball’s extensive drug culture. It’s part of the game’s history and has as much to do with insecurity as greed. Players have to capitalize on opportunity, and at the hypercompetitive major-league level that’s like threading a needle — no wonder they will do just about anything to get ahead. Not that this justifies taking performance-enhancing drugs.

But before we get self-righteous, we should look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether exposing A-Rod, or any player for that matter, is worth stepping all over rights, privacy, confidentiality and anonymity.

There is a lot of outrage out there about Alex. Not surprising. But what really surprises me is the lack of outrage about how a confidential and anonymous test could be made public. We seem to gloss over the fact that these players voted to re-open a collectively bargained agreement in a preliminary effort to address the drug problem. When privileged information is shared it effectively hurts anyone who has expected privacy in any circumstance, just as when someone made Brittany Spears’s medical records public.

The 2003 test was only supposed to assess whether the number of players using performance-enhancing drugs exceeded a certain threshold. If it did, as part of the agreement, a full drug policy would be instituted in the following testing year. One that was more comprehensive with penalties. This was at least a step in the right direction.

So: if Alex tested positive then, but he hasn’t since (and Monday he stated that he’s played clean since joining the Yankees), maybe that program served its purpose as a deterrent. If we take the higher ground and talk about the greater good of the game, then why create trust issues between owners and players by allowing an agreement to be breached this way? It undermines any sense of cooperation.

The Daily News‘ John Harper suggested that the heads of the Major League Baseball Players Association, executive director Donald Fehr and chief operating officer Gene Orza, should roll

So now it’s likely to get messy again, and scary for players whose names are on that list with, allegedly, A-Rod. You’d think that this might stir up the union’s rank-and-file, but players have long been intimidated by the clout Fehr and Orza have held as leaders of the most powerful union in sports, clout earned over decades of tough negotiating that made their membership incredibly wealthy.

As such, players have rarely challenged Fehr and Orza in public, or even in meetings behind closed doors. And one former player last night said that even after all the embarrassment brought on by the various steroids incidents, he can’t imagine current players overthrowing the union leadership.

It would take an organized movement,” the former player said. “And players aren’t going to want to get involved with something like that. Players won’t do anything that might mess with their careers or their money, and there has always been a feeling that you don’t want those guys (Fehr and Orza) mad at you.”

In fact, the former player said he preferred not to use his name because even in retirement, he feared the possibility of ramifications for speaking out against Fehr and Orza.

Orza stood accused of tipping off Rodriguez to a 2004 test, according to Selena Roberts and David Epstein’s report, a similar allegation to one voiced in the Mitchell Report that was later attributed to David Segui. In a press release, the union denied any wrongdoing (surprise) and laid out a timeline regarding the federal governemnt’s conveniently-timed subpoenas which prevented the relevant samples from being destroyed. Plausible, perhaps, but the union hasn’t exactly basked in glory by failing to clarify this until now. And if there’s more than a sliver of truth to Harper’s description of a union in thrall to a thuggish, unresponsive leadership, now would be a good opportunity for a change of direction.

Also rising to the occasion was colleague Joe Sheehan, who pointed a finger at the most hysterical of the chattering classes:

Knowing Alex Rodriguez used PEDs, in the context of those names, isn’t information that changes anything. A great baseball player did bad things with the implicit approval — hell, arguably explicit approval—of his peers and his employers. It’s cheating, yes, which would be a problem if we hadn’t been celebrating cheating in baseball since the days when guys would go first to third over the pitcher’s mound. You can argue that it’s different in degree, though the widely accepted use of PEDs by peers and superiors, and the use of amphetamines before them, is a strong point against that case. What is clear is that it’s not different enough, in degree, to warrant the kind of histrionics we’re reading and hearing over this. It’s not different enough to turn Alex Rodriguez into a piñata.

Of course, the screaming is about the screamers. The loudest voices on the evils of steroids in baseball are in the media, and there’s probably a dissertation in that notion, because for all that we have to hear about how greedy, evil players have ruined baseball by taking these substances (and then playing well, according to this selective interpretation; no one’s ripping Chris Donnels these days), the reason we’re talking about this in 2009 is that so many “reporters” — scare quotes earned — went ostrich in 1999. We hear every year around awards time that the people closest to the game know the game better than anyone, because they’re in the clubhouse every day, and they talk to everyone, and they have a perspective that outsiders can’t possibly understand. For those same people to do a collective Captain Renault, which they’ve been doing since beating up players for this transgression became acceptable, is shameful. Take your pick: they missed the story, or they were too chicken-shit to report it. In either case, the piling-on now is disgusting.

In the same way that the reporters who vote for the Hall of Fame are going to take their embarrassment out on Mark McGwire, and probably Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro behind him, and god knows who to follow, they should punish themselves as well. I propose that for as long as a clearly qualified Hall of Famer remains on the ballot solely because of steroid allegations—or for that matter, proven use—there should be no J.G. Taylor Spink Award given out to writers. If we’re going to allow failures during the “Steroid Era” to affect eligibility for honors, let’s make sure we catch everyone who acted shamefully.

Colleague Steven Goldman, writing over at YES, offered not one but 11 reactions to the news:

3. Most of the players caught taking steroids have been of the most fringe-y types. These fellows did not turn into Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. It’s hard to see that they received any benefit at all. When we turn to a Bonds or an A-Rod and say that they received a great benefit from using, not only are we automatically in the realm of conjecture about the basic effects, we’re also positing that they received a benefit beyond what other users received. While it is known that certain medications will affect various individuals differently (the impact of side effects varies, for example), it is something of a stretch to say that one guy gets nothing and the next guy gets 50 home runs, or even 10 extra home runs. If you’ve had radiation administered to your eyes, as I have, you will find out that some people have their vision reduced, and some go completely blind (as I have). One guy in a hundred does not turn into Cyclops of the X-Men and go about shooting bad guys with his optic force beams. That kind of result just isn’t on the menu of possibilities.

…5. Rodriguez had the best offensive season of his career in 2007. His 2008 offensive output wasn’t too different, when adjusted for context, than his now-tainted 2003 performance. How do we reconcile these things, assuming Rodriguez was clean after 2003 or 2004? Wouldn’t it be naïve of us to believe that 2003 was the only time A-Rod was using?

6. Clearly, using PEDs does not help you come up with the big hit in a postseason game.

Goldman hits on a great point, one that I made several times in the course of my radio rounds. For every A-Rod or Bonds whose numbers fit into our stereotype of what performance-enhancing drugs do to the statistics of the game, there are dozens of obscure players from the ranks of the BALCO files or the Mitchell Report who saw no discernible improvement. Trying to weed such players out of PECOTA, as some Baseball Prospectus readers have suggested, is a pointless exercise, not only because we have no basis to accurately determine what was used and when, but because the bottom line is that in the grand scheme it makes little difference to our ability to measure performance in retrospect or to forecast it going forward. And trying to wish the numbers away by expunging the record books — a common theme on the talk radio circuit — isn’t going to happen. If the stats from the 1919 World Series are still on the books, the ones compiled by A-Rod, Clemens, Bonds et al ain’t going anywhere.

Anyway, that’s some of the good stuff, which beats the hell out of reading tripe like this. I still think it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, but for one day, at least, Alex Rodriguez made progress towards putting this story behind us.

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