Don Hooton, Sr., has been trying to work himself into an angry lather over Alex Rodriguez. He wants to be furious at A-Rod for deluding him and his foundation, dedicated to the memory of his 17-year-old son, Taylor, who 10 summers ago hanged himself in his bedroom because of what doctors say were the wild mood swings associated with steroid withdrawal.
But he can’t muster hate for a malicious fraud as much as sympathy for a psychologically sick friend.
“It’d be great if there were a perfect opportunity to beat the [expletive] out of him if I wanted to, but that wouldn’t be right,” Taylor’s father says. “Because he did a great job for me — believe it or not, he really got through to the kids.”
A-Rod visited Boys and Girls Clubs and high schools with Hooton in Miami and New York the past several years, telling kids he made a mistake and that they have the God-given traits they need to be whatever they want — that there is no need to put pills and syringes in their bodies to look like their athletic heroes.
Finally, Hooton thought, after testifying to Congress in 2005 with other parents whose cut and buff sons took their own lives after they got off their ’roid cycles, a former cheating superstar who became an advocate for his cause.
And now, after Major League Baseball on Monday hit Rodriguez with the longest off-field suspension since Pete Rose, 211 games?
“You’re mad, but you kind of feel like when one of your kids disappoints you,” Hooton says. “You don’t get mad at ’em and hate ’em and throw chairs at ’em. You’re disappointed.”
Love the user, hate the drug.
Hate that A-Rod and baseball’s dirty dozen become the newest faces of the PED era instead of the real victims.
“As Americans, we’ve gotten so focused on 13 professional athletes — 13 — we’ve lost sight of the 1.5 to 2 million children, from sixth grade through 12th grade, that are using this stuff,” Hooton says. “Wake up! We’re focused in the wrong place.”
The Taylor Hooton Foundation cut ties with A-Rod on Monday, more than four years after Don stood next to Rodriguez in Tampa in 2009 at the first news conference he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs and pledged not to use again.
When I brought up the analogy of the alcoholic uncle who says he stopped drinking and was going to his AA meetings, but instead had a relapse and had to be kept away from the kids and family until he got clean again, Hooton agreed.
“Exactly,” he said. “These drugs, these steroids, they’re addictive. I have no idea physically if that’s the case — I’ve never seen medical proof — but psychologically they’re definitely addictive.
“After Taylor killed himself, I spoke to one of his 16-year-old friends, who said, ‘Mr. Hooton, from a kid’s perspective, once you’ve used this stuff, you’re all beefed up and cut. You’ve moved into a new class of girl. Your social group has changed. You’ve made the starting lineup on your athletic team, and even with the steroids you had to work hard to get here. You got all that and you think, how can I ever make the decision to go back to where I was?”
The same can be extrapolated to A-Rod.
Sometimes I don’t think drug cheats in sports need more public shame as much as they need a support group. I’d love to see some of the greatest athletes in the history of baseball, track and field, cycling — name an Olympic sport — meet in a vacant church basement without cameras and share their stories of why they felt the need to submarine their careers and lives.
“It still baffles me that one of the best players to ever play the game of baseball got to a point of thinking they need these drugs,” Hooton says.
It baffles me that Rodriguez would do it again, that armed with the knowledge he’s not going to the Hall of Fame he would still jeopardize the remaining $95 million on his contract with a ’roid relapse.
That doesn’t sound like greed or hubris or an out-of-touch multimillionaire drama king who Monday claimed he was “fighting for his life.” That sounds like someone whose delusion borders on a sickness born out of the same insecurities that make so many of the great ones engage in these Faustian bargains.
I once was fortunate to get Joe Montana alone after a training camp practice in Rockville, Calif., at the end of his 49ers career. Unable to come up with something original in the moment, I asked him what kept him motivated after so much success.
“You want the truth?” he began. “Fear of failure. I’m scared to death every day I step on this field someone else is going to take my job — that someone else is going to take away the life that I have.”
At that moment in his career, the greatest quarterback in NFL history probably makes a decision whether to risk his health and his reputation for an elixir that a syringe could bring. His insecurities didn’t get the best of him. He didn’t go that route.
On the 10th anniversary of his son’s death, Hooton wrote letters to Congress, essentially saying his testimony eight years ago has almost gone in vain. “After all the grandstanding before the TV cameras that day, our federal government has not instituted any form of education program for our children,” he wrote.
When I spoke to him six years ago after the Mitchell report was released, Hooton worried about the same issue as Monday: another big-name athlete would garner the headlines, overshadowing the kids who worship their physiques and still do whatever is needed to get bigger and stronger, because, the logic goes, if Barry, Roger and A-Rod needed drugs. . . .
“Everybody gets stuck on the big names, the big fish,” he said then. “Well, this is where that river all trickles down to.”
All the way down to a still-grieving parent, trying to change a culture without, as of Monday, his most high-profile effective advocate.
“Alex really had the right message — that you have all you need to be what you want to be — that not everybody was going to get the things they needed to play third base for the Yankees but they would get what they needed to be lawyers, doctors, plumbers, whatever they wanted to be in life,” Hooton says. “I just wish he would’ve listened to that himself, you know, because the kids sure heard him.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.