Aided by his bat and an astute apology, Alex Rodriguez is ending the baseball season not as a former steroids user but as a home run hero. In the process, he may be clearing a path forward for himself and his much-maligned sport.
This may go down as the season that the fans forgave baseball — or perhaps just grew tired of worrying about performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte, two high-profile Yankees stars who were exposed as past users, are shining in the 2009 World Series.
The St. Louis Cardinals recently announced they were hiring Mark McGwire, who went into seclusion for much of this decade after refusing to answer questions about steroids, as their hitting coach. And although neither has shown much repentance, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers continued to play to adoring crowds even after both were implicated this summer as past or present users.
Until recently, players accused of cheating selected from two popular options: vehemently deny, as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have chosen, or remain silent, as McGwire has. But beginning with the admission last season by Pettitte that he had used human growth hormone, a third option has emerged: quickly apologize and move on.
“Obviously, success on the field has helped, but isn’t it something how they beautifully and effectively transcended their humiliation?” said Richard Emery, one of the lawyers representing Brian McNamee, the physical trainer who cited Pettitte and Clemens in George J. Mitchell’s investigation into steroids for Major League Baseball.
Emery added: “Watching the way all this has unfolded makes me believe that it was the stark juxtaposition of Clemens and Pettitte that changed the game. Alex had an easy road because Pettitte showed you exactly what you do when you’re caught.”
Will others who made a less judicious choice when they came to a fork in the road learn from Rodriguez?
“There has always been a tremendous compulsion in the American DNA to cover up, and lie, going all the way up to the White House,” the former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said. “McGwire got terrible advice, and I think coming back almost certainly leads to him handling this better. But with this issue, it’s so obvious what to do now that maybe it even leads to Bonds and Clemens waking up, too.”
Partisanship often plays a role in the steroid discussion, one city’s hero being another city’s target of abuse. But across a fairly wide spectrum, Rodriguez has already drawn, beyond leniency, a standing ovation from the court of public opinion.
“I never thought Alex Rodriguez was very interesting, but when a sports hero is forced into this admission of wrongdoing, it humanizes him,” said Orin Starn, the cultural anthropology department chairman at Duke University. “We want these athletes to astonish us, but we also want to imagine them as someone like us.”
Flawed and accountable is what he meant. And although Starn said he was not sure Rodriguez’s remorse and confessional version of drug consumption were as sincere and thorough as they might have been, “he made the gesture.”
In other words, he did not squander his iconic moment, as McGwire did in 2005 before Congress when he stonewalled upon being asked if he had taken anything beyond over-the-counter supplements. Rodriguez did not go the Clemens-Bonds route by summoning the defiance and machismo that serves so many great athletes between the lines but blinds them to consequences in civilian life.
“Because of their immense egos, Clemens and Bonds couldn’t get down on their knees, do a little mea culpa,” said Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus of health policy and kinesiology at Penn State University.
Clemens did not learn from the mistakes of Bonds, who failed to grasp the fundamental lesson of Pete Rose’s continued ban from baseball for betting on games while the Cincinnati Reds’ manager and being unable to come clean about it for years.
Different offense, same stubbornness: instead of using his head, Rose lowered his shoulder, as if running through catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game.
“I think in some cases, it just comes down to intelligence, and Rodriguez is significantly more intelligent than Clemens and Rose,” Vincent said.
In Rodriguez’s case, his personality was always more acquiescent, wanting to please to the point of extremes and creating expectations he could not meet.
This season, Rodriguez finally found the answer, seemingly by looking over his left shoulder to his partner on the left side of the infield. Like Derek Jeter, he sought the security of simplicity. He lost the public-relations entourage. He lowered his news media profile. He separated himself from Madonna and took up with Kate Hudson, a more circumspect Hollywood star. He followed through on his spring training pledge to work with Don Hooton, an antisteroid activist whose program is aimed at high-school-age athletes.
As part of their agreement, Hooton would not reveal the extent of Rodriguez’s commitment other than to say they had visited several schools. He did recall sitting with Rodriguez at a restaurant in Tampa, Fla., last spring, soon after his public admission, the two of them trying to figure out what his message would be.
“He kept using the word ‘balanced,’ ” Hooton said. “He said, ‘Don, when I wasn’t using steroids, I always felt more balanced, more whole, than when I did.’ I said, ‘Alex, that’s your message right there.’ Here we are, less than a year later, he’s back to hero status. It’s not all that complicated.”
But the steroid debate has been confusing, a continuing argument about how much the public cares or should care. That, Vincent said, is part of a greater cultural problem.
“The reason why we can’t find a solution on these things is because there is no clear consensus in this country on what’s wrong in the first place at a time when there is so much that is wrong,” Vincent said.
All of which makes baseball, a form of daily escapism from spring through fall, that much more appealing to a population stressed out by a tanked economy, unemployment and unending wars.
Athletes may be easier to forgive than politicians who not only cross the ethical line but also fail to deliver in the clutch on budget control and health care. For people inside the stadium or watching on television, uncomplicated resolution is much easier to come by as long as the offender keeps his eye on the ball, and has come clean.
“American people are tremendously forgiving,” Yesalis said. “And they don’t ask too much.”
Click here to enjoy the convenience of home delivery of The Times for 50% off. Past CoverageSPORTS OF THE TIMES; On McGwire, Selig Sets a Puzzling Tone (November 1, 2009)Dominicans Try Shots to Boost Rising Players (October 25, 2009)Pettitte Has a Chance to Stand Alone as a Postseason Pitcher (October 25, 2009)Appeal Is Made To Admit Tests In Bonds Case (September 18, 2009) Related Searches Baseball Get E-Mail Alerts Steroids Get E-Mail Alerts Rodriguez, Alex Get E-Mail Alerts McGwire, Mark Get E-Mail Alerts Next Article in Sports (2 of 27) » Advertise on NYTimes.com MOST POPULAR E-Mailed Blogged Searched Good Dog, Smart Dog You're the Boss: 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do (Part 1) Op-Ed Contributor: Teach Your Teachers Well A Powerful Identity, a Vanishing Diagnosis David Brooks: Cellphones, Texts and Lovers A Southern Mirrored Window South Koreans Struggle With Race Second Opinion: Quandary With Mammograms: Get a Screening, or Just Skip It? A Free Credit Score Followed by a Monthly Bill Happy Days: Happy Ending Go to Complete List » Comcast Said to Be Close to Gaining NBC Universal TV Finds That Mortal Foe, DVR, Is a Friend After All U.N. Leader Arrives in Kabul After Karzai Rival Quits Race Obama Strategy on Health Care Legislation Appears to Be Paying Off Too Little of a Good Thing Gore's Role as Goad for Cause and as Investor Is in Spotlight Ford Posts an Unexpected Profit of $997 Million Three's Company In Iowa, Euphoria Gives Way to Second Thoughts on Obama Karzai Rival Says He Is Withdrawing From Runoff Go to Complete List » modern love obama china health care marathon october 1, 2009 swine flu halloween education immigration Go to Complete List » new Accordian("mostPopWidget"); MetLife® Life Insurance - as Low as $12/mo for $250K of Coverage Inside NYTimes.com Business » Vegemite Contest Draws Protests Opinion » Op-Ed: Help Small Businesses Hire Again U.S. » Gore’s Dual Role in the Spotlight Books » Collecting Headlines Funnier Than This Opinion » Happy Days: Happy Ending
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