Should we pity Alex Rodriguez? The three-time MVP, owed $275 million over the next nine years, has been exposed as a steroid user, the latest in Major League Baseball’s endless series of anabolic agonists. The creative minds at the New York Post summed up the mood of the moment with one blaring headline: “A-Fraud.” ESPN senior writer Jayson Stark was no less overwrought; his headline proclaimed, “A- Rod Has Destroyed Game’s History.”
However, the list of frauds and history defamers extends far beyond the Yankee third baseman. Before we gather the torches and pitchforks, let us round up some of the real villains. When it comes to steroids, no one, as A-Rod’s alleged paramour Madonna might say, is like a virgin. For instance, there’s league commissioner Bud Selig, who touted A-Rod as the man who would replace the “unclean” Barry Bonds as the all-time leader in home runs. Then there is the Major League Baseball Players Association. Once arguably the most powerful union in the United States, the MLBPA has in its possession the infamous list of 104 players tested in 2003. That year a deal between the owners and the union was supposed to be based on anonymity and trust. If more than 5 percent of the players tested positive, more testing with suspensions would ensue. The union promised its members that it would destroy the list. Instead it inexplicably held onto the list long enough for the government to seize it for the BALCO investigations.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Steinbrenner family also have anabolic egg on their faces. They were depending on A-Rod to be the cherry atop the sundae of the new billion-dollar Yankee Stadium expected to open this year. Hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars have gone into this public works project, with specious promises of economic renewal. Now it may just set the stage for a season-long, agonizing fall from grace.
Finally, there are the owners-at-large, who have yet to have to face any kind of Congressional subcommittee, grand jury or operatic media melodrama for their role in cheapening the sport. Stark, in his piece blaming A-Rod for shredding the very fabric of baseball history, writes:
In baseball, we love our numbers. And we love our heroes. And that brings us to Alex Rodriguez, a man who has committed a crime he doesn’t even understand: a crime against the once-proud history of his sport.
What Stark and his misguided minions ignore is that if we are upset about the way numbers and hallowed records have become cheapened over the past fifteen years, ownership is the problem–and it extends far beyond steroids.
Owners actually had a multifaceted strategy to try to make baseball more like beer-league softball–and it was about as subtle as a tabloid’s back page. As legendary baseball writer Bob Klapisch said, “Somewhere someone decided that baseball needed more runs. It was made at a very fundamental level. And little by little, step by step, this became the new reality. There has been too much to write it off as coincidence.”
The reasons for the home run boom extend far beyond the steroid dealer. The boom reverberates in every urban budget, every underfunded school and every library that closes early. In the past twenty years, more than fifteen publicly funded baseball parks have been built in the United States. They are supposed to be fan-friendly–that is, unless your child happens to go to a school whose shrinking budgets were paying the tab. The shorter fences at these parks are engineered to yield more home runs.
Then there are the balls and bats. Countless baseball insiders believe that the ball is now wound tighter than it was twenty years ago. As for the bats, as recently as fifteen years ago, players used untreated ash bats. Now the bats are maple and lacquered. That means the ball goes farther.
Then there is the strike zone. The area where a pitched ball can be called a strike has shrunk, in the words of retired pitcher Greg Maddux, to “the size of a postage stamp.” The owners consciously engineered this trend toward the microscopic strike zone. When umpires refused to agree to a uniform strike zone, Major League Baseball crushed their union and instituted a machine to monitor their abilities. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said, “The loss of the high strike has changed the game more than any pill.”
But an equally big reason home run numbers are up is that the game finally shed its nineteenth-century view of strength conditioning. The training standard until the 1990s was that if Joe “Ducky” Medwick didn’t do it in the ’30s, then it shouldn’t be done. For example, it has been the conventional wisdom for most of baseball’s history that weightlifting would destroy your swing. Many teams even fined or suspended players if they were caught pumping iron. Weightlifting is now as much a part of every team’s regimen as shagging fly balls.
Alex Rodriguez is set to be the next former slugger torn to pieces by columnists, fans and the sports radio blabbocracy. They all need to crack open some Michael Phelps medicinal magic and relax. Rodriguez may not deserve your pity, but he hardly deserves your scorn. Reserve that for the owners, political leaders and Bud the commissioner–who robbed our cities blind and distracted us with dingers so we wouldn’t notice.