Let’s try something daring. Let’s take Alex Rodriguez at his word.
You don’t have to really believe everything the Yankees slugger told Peter Gammons last night on ESPN (read the full transcript here). But just as a hypothetical, as an exercise, let’s pretend you do. Then ask yourself this question: Is what Alex Rodriguez admitted to worse than anything we know about Mark McGwire?
For an interview where Rodriguez was clearly making an effort to keep the conversation in general terms, he actually claims a great deal. He claims that he took “a banned substance” (the famed Sports Illustrated story says he took two different ones, and Rodriguez refused to get specific) for 3 years, from 2001-2003. He claims that he didn’t know what he was taking, that he was naive and negligent. He claims that he stopped in 2003, conveniently right before Major League Baseball began testing for banned substances. He claims he believed he was in the clear, and may not even have taken anything afoul of the MLB policy, all the way until the weekend’s Sports Illustrated report based on a government leak from the 2003 tests confiscated from the players union as part of the investigation of BALCO.
Yet Rodriguez is playing some games with context, here. He isn’t talking about decade-old bad decisions. He’s talking about substances that he obtained and took, taking him at his word, well after their illegality was well-established, and after the federal investigation began making headlines in 2002. He can’t even use the tried-and-occasionally-true GNC excuse (which some players in the NFL and MLB have actually used successfully, given that many drugs categorized as over the counter nutrition products aren’t required to fully describe their ingredients) in this case – he reportedly used Primobolan, which is something no real doctor would ever prescribe for him. Search around and you’ll find reviews saying it’s not even that great of a steroid choice, but I can’t give you guidance on that score, as my ripped fuel equivalent is a sack of sliders and a bottle of bourbon.
Let’s put Mark McGwire in context, too. Big Mac has been, along with Barry Bonds, one of the most unpopular symbols of the performance enhancing drugs scandal that has battered baseball over the past seven years. Ever since his non-denial denial in his 2005 Congressional testimony which angered so many fans, McGwire has retreated from the public eye. But it’s worth reconsidering the less-hidden performance-boosting activities of this amazing hitter and one-time single season home run king as they stand in recent history.
Lost in much of this discussion is the fact that baseball did not formally ban any specific steroids until 2002, and that McGwire has never tested positive for any banned or illegal substance. Always a massive consumer of supplements, particularly Creatine, McGwire famously announced he had stopped taking Androstenedione prior to the 1998 season. But in 1998, he didn’t have to: andro was perfectly kosher in Major League Baseball and the NBA, but banned in the NFL, the NCAA, and the Olympics. McGwire violated no law or regulation by using it. He could buy it in any vitamin store or through the mail. The oddity of the story in Sports Illustrated at the time, with 20/20 hindsight, is that it demonstrated more of an arms-length fascination with how these sluggers built their massive physiques than any legal ramifications for what they took. The hitters were brutally honest about their willingness to push everything to the edge of what was allowed:
“Anything illegal is definitely wrong,” Vaughn said. “But if you get something over the counter and legal, guys in that power-hitter position are going to use them. Strength is the key to maintaining and gaining endurance for 162 games. The pitchers keep getting bigger and stronger.”
In all likelihood, if McGwire had wanted to go before Congress and, like Rafael Palmiero, swear to high heaven that he was innocent, he may well have gotten away with it. In the tried and true tradition of the modern sports age, fans would defend, radio hosts would mock those fans, but without hard proof, nothing would change – and McGwire might have gotten closer to the Hall of Fame than his poor showing, which is only getting poorer still. He received ten fewer votes for the Hall of Fame than in 2008 and 2007, dropping down to 21.9% support (75% is the required vote), an astounding result for one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game.
McGwire has been rejected. Bonds will almost certainly experience the same treatment. Roger Clemens has more debate around him, since his use is reportedly more limited, but he may very well end up at the same point. It’s hard to imagine a Hall of Fame without Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and so many other greats in the steroid era. But the baseball writers might have been willing to make it exactly that – until A-Rod happened.
A-Rod calls his mistake one of naivete. But by the time he claims he stopped taking PEDs, andro was no longer an innocent supplement, but one banned by the MLB. In 2004, in fact, its sale was banned nationwide by the federal government. A lack of knowledge and a different time may be fine excuses for a player in a sport taking such substances in the late 80s and most of the 90s, but by the time of A-Rod’s infraction, anyone with a level of honesty would know they were doing something wrong. The baseball writers know this, and since they tend to be cynical creatures anyway, they’re unlikely to give A-Rod the benefit of the doubt – in their minds, he’s done nothing to earn it.
As I said, we’ve agreed to assume Rodriguez is telling the whole truth. But even if he is, even giving him the full benefit of trustworthiness, his interview with ESPN’s Gammons raises more questions than answers. Other than his initial admission of using a banned substance in 2001-2003, almost every answer to every question had A-Rod speaking in vague, general terms – we didn’t even come out of that interview with a clear idea of where or how he got the PEDs, which ones he experimented with, who it was who introduced him to them. A-Rod only got specific when he attacked the lead Sports Illustrated writer who wrote the piece against him:
I mean, I know this lady from Sports Illustrated, Selena Roberts, is trying to throw things out there that in high school I tried steroids. I mean, that’s the biggest bunch of baloney I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, what makes me upset is that Sports Illustrated pays this lady, Selena Roberts, to stalk me. This lady has been thrown out of my apartment in New York City. This lady has five days ago just been thrown out of the University of Miami police for trespassing. And four days ago she tried to break into my house where my girls are up there sleeping, and got cited by the Miami Beach police. I have the paper here. This lady is coming out with all these allegations, all these lies because she’s writing an article for Sports Illustrated and she’s coming out with a book in May.
Selena Roberts penned the article with young global warming reporter David Epstein – she’s formerly of The New York Times, where she wasn’t a stranger to controversy herself. If you recognize her name, it may be as one of the leading voices of extremism crying “guilty, guilty, guilty” in the Duke lacrosse case, which was bad enough that the AJR included her in its critical piece bashing the bevy of journalists who overstepped their bounds on that story – or for the minor incident where she wrote an extended piece about a hockey game she didn’t bother to attend. But neither of these incidents change the fact that in this case, her reporting appears more than sound. SI has already released a statement where she denies Rodriguez’ allegations outright, and it’s hard to believe even a reporter with a penchant for overreacting would engage in this kind of activity. We’ll have to see where that goes.
When it comes to the press, McGwire’s retreat from public life is astoundingly complete. For a man who’s only 45 and presumably has a long life ahead of him, the lack of any interviews or even acknowledgement of the media in recent years denotes a figure no longer interested in fighting with the media over his legacy. Rodriguez, on the other hand, speaks specifically about spending nine more years in New York City, surrounded by the harshest sports media in the country. He won’t be able to retreat in the same fashion, and his interview last night ultimately raises more questions about what he did, when he did it, and whether he ought to be placed not in the one-time-use category of Andy Pettitte, but the serial user category of a Barry Bonds.
McGwire’s PR failing was massive. In choosing to deliver his statement not before the grandfatherly face of Peter Gammons, but the bright lights of Congress, and his decision not to admit or deny steroid use that may have singled him out for particular mockery, he ensured that he would always be a symbol of controversy and frustration with the whole doping trend. But in retrospect, his clumsy, much-maligned tear-stained statement seems far more believable, more genuine than Rodriguez’s:
“Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem. If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations … My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself. I will say, however, that it remains a fact in this country that a man, any man, should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty.”
A-Rod may well be the bridge too far for the Hall of Fame; it’s impossible to keep out one of the greatest all-around players in the history of baseball, a three time MVP who did some of his best work after testing began. But ultimately, whether Commissioner Bud Selig decides to make a decision here or not (given his penchant for wussiness, I’d suspect not), if Alex Rodriguez gets in, McGwire and the other steroid users deserve to be in as well. Even if it takes building a darkened room with a giant asterisk permanently displayed on the ceiling, baseball must recognize the true nature of this era – that it wasn’t just a few bad apples hooked on roids or amphetamines, but a long list of some of the most competitive and impressive players the game has ever known.
It’s time for a reconsideration.