The Summer of Hate Begins

It’s a dark day for baseball, the revelation that Alex Rodriguez was among the 104 players who failed a drug test in 2003. Never mind the fact that the test was supposedly anonymous and carried no punitive consequences but was being conducted as a survey to establish whether Major League Baseball should implement more stringent testing for performance-enhancing drugs. The soapboxes have already been mounted, and it’s clear that this news will bypass the thaw promised by the impending arrival of pitchers and catchers. For those looking to further vilify the game’s highest-paid, least media-savvy superstar, the Summer of Hate has begun.

A-Roid Scandal… Yankees Stuck with A-Fraud… Alex a Total Bust… Tarnished Forever… Roid-riguez in Hall of Shame… that’s just a small selection of one day’s headlines. Those of us who live in the Big Apple get to read stuff like this for the next nine years, if Rodriguez plays through the end of his contract. Oh, joy.

Like a foot-long shit sandwich, this story stinks seven ways to Sunday. It stinks for those of us who’ve stood by the Hammerin’ Hamlet with the frosted tips as we’ve witnessed him performing some of the most remarkable feats on the diamond that we’ve ever seen (three home runs in one game, two homers in one inning) as well as the most bone-headed (the glove slap) — and that’s before touching his infamous opt-out. It stinks for those who supported him when he was thrown under the bus by Joe Torre not once or twice but thrice, most recently over the manager’s own laundry-airing “autobiography” in conjunction with Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci. It stinks for those who wanted to believe that Jose Canseco was off base when he pointed the finger at A-Rod. It stinks for those who bore hope that Rodriguez might eventually restore some dignity to the all-time home run record after it had been sullied by Barry Bonds’ joyless quest.

The stench is hardly alleviated once we move beyond whatever faith was misguidedly placed in Rodriguez; by now we should have known better. This stinks for fans of due process, the right to privacy, and collective bargaining. That the confidentiality of the 2003 testing, the product of a collectively bargained agreement, was not safeguarded is a black eye for both the players’ union and Major League Baseball, who have federal investigators up in their business because they didn’t destroy the samples as they had agreed to do. Said samples and the key to match them up to the identities of individual players were then seized in a raid that was part of the BALCO investigation, with the union failing to negotiate to limit the subpoena to the records of 10 BALCO-related players, as Howard Bryant notes.

Further allegations that the Players Association’s chief operating officer, Gene Orza, tipped Rodriguez off regarding an impending test in 2004 and that he was charged with finding enough false positives among the 104 players to drive the percentage below the threshold needed to trigger testing discredit the union even more, call into question its sincerity on the matter once it agreed to crack open the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement in the first place. From here the allegations surrounding Orza look like grounds to haul everybody in front of Congress again for another dog and pony show.

That the federal investigators in turn leaked information to the press regarding the identities of the players — and if you believe Rodriguez was the only one whose name leaked, I’ve got a bridge to sell you — is just as disturbing. That’s been business as usual ever since the BALCO investigation began, and it’s not surprising that this information is coming to light at a time when the prosecution is fighting an uphill battle to admit all of its evidence against Bonds into his perjury trial. Despite the conviction of BALCO leaker Troy Ellerman, it’s clear that there are others willing to do an end run around due process to out people no matter the stakes. It’s also clear that most of the chattering classes don’t care at all how this information made its way to daylight. They just want to manufacture outrage and admit the ill-procured evidence into the court of public opinion. A high-profile ballplayer doing steroids six years ago, before MLB began enforcing any type of ban? I’m shocked. SHOCKED!

At the risk of playing Kill the Messenger, it’s only appropriate to point out that Roberts, who shared the byline on this break, has a book on Rodriguez coming out this summer. Funny how she broke this news just as the “A-Fraud” buzz from Torre’s book was dying down, isn’t it? While some regard her as a solid reporter, her days at the New York Times were marked by one of the most grating styles ever to, uh, grace its sports page. Rife with agendas, laden with innuendo, she was living proof that the world of hackneyed sportswriting wasn’t restricted to those with a Y chromosome (or two). Check the sheer ineptitude of her late-to-the-party dissing of Billy Beane and Moneyball. Check her premature burial of Bonds. Check her smear of Rodriguez regarding the rental properties he owns in Miami and his alleged lack of generosity with regards to charities. Clearly, she’s well equipped for whatever literary takedown she’s preparing on the slugger.

None of which is to exonerate Rodriguez for any of this, of course; he screwed up. And while that should only make him yet another screw-up in an era full of them — Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, the BALCO boys (and girls), the players in the Mitchell Report, et al — being the highest-paid and perhaps most talented one, he becomes the newest poster boy for the era. Barring a remarkable turnaround in his ability to deal with the harsh glare of the spotlight, he’ll be carrying this baggage with him for a long time.

Which makes me miss the departed Jason Giambi all the more. As much as he was pilloried for his lack of specificity when he came forward and apologized for his PED usage, his candor — to the extent he could be candid while avoiding saying anything explicit enough to void his contract — and contrition stand in marked contrast to the players who have taken the lady-doth-protest-too-much route like Clemens and Palmeiro. Here was a player ensnared by the BALCO investigation, one whose career nearly crashed onto the rocks in its aftermath, one who drew skepticism even in his home ballpark once he began hitting again. Yet Giambi never complained publicly about the bind he’d gotten himself into, never put the blame upon anyone but himself. He simply kept his head down and played ball, outlasting the abuse he took by discovering a way to reconnect with fans via his own sense of humor, as signified by a cheesy mustache.

Giambi pulled off a pretty neat trick, and for the sake of whatever rooting interest I maintain in the Yankees, I wish he was around to beat some of that advice into A-Rod’s thick skull. That’s not going to happen; it’s unclear what tack Rodriguez will take once he opens his mouth, but the bet here is that he’ll find a way to make the problem worse.

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