washingtonpost.com
The Search for Truth

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, February 9, 2009

Now that the witches with the longest broomsticks have been burned, can we please call off the rest of the hunt?

Or do we need to expose the other 103 baseball players, in addition to Alex Rodriguez, who allegedly failed steroid tests -- six years ago?

Until we hang every investment banker, until we unseat everybody who pimped for sub-prime loans, until we force into the street every citizen who lied on a mortgage application, I say we've pilloried enough ballplayers to make the point that, when a sport says, "This is cheating," you shouldn't do it.

Underneath the big contracts and a defaced Hall of Fame and a record book that will forever be a bowl of stat spaghetti, that's what this was about: Just don't cheat.

But if you do, and get caught, don't lie. And if you do cheat and you do lie, then at some point tell the truth. Then, if you're lucky, you may get a semi-fresh start, like Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte. Confession may or may not be good for the soul. But it is definitely good career strategy.

Is there a cutoff point for outrage over pro games? Is there a moment when we say, "That's enough." Maybe not. But turning Alex Rodriguez into A-R*d seems sufficient.

The report by SI.com that Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in '03, while playing for the Texas Rangers, feels like the beginning of a final act, the culmination of more than 20 years of baseball dirt.

It's been an interminably long road. In '88, Fenway Park fans chanted "steroids, steroids" at Jose Canseco, an embarrassment baseball chose to ignore for more than a decade. Steroids? No steroids here. So, the epidemic metastasized until the greatest stars became toxic assets.

Now, 21 years later, the last of the superstars that Canseco claims to have taught how to juice or, in A-Rod's case, introduced to a trainer/steroid-supplier, has been tarnished beyond recognition. "A-Fraud," the term former manager Joe Torre says Yankees teammates use to describe Rodriguez, now has a whole new spin. With the last of Jose's chemistry class unmasked, are we entering the last chapter?

Sometimes, we need to step back and apply common sense. In three weeks, Barry Bonds goes on trial for perjury. Roger Clemens is being investigated by a federal grand jury. And Rodriguez now faces nine more years in a contract that may make the new Yankee Stadium feel more like Rikers Island. With good behavior, he's out in '18.

And spring training starts Saturday. Yes, perfect baseball timing. We get it. The game was very, very bad. For many years nobody in the sport cared who cheated. So, many did. For deals of up to $250 million, would any group of humans in history stay totally clean, just to play a game by its stated, but completely unenforced, rules? Of course not.

Even for those of us who thought the steroid era was terrible for the long-term health of players, unfair to those like Hank Aaron who set records within the rules and an awful example of public hypocrisy, enough is enough. Baseball should continue to push for the toughest possible drug testing rules. Catch all you can. Leave the rest alone.

That's as good as the real world gets. Every sport's first responsibility is to the athletes who don't want to endanger their health or lives with methenolone or HGH. No playing field is ever entirely level. But any pro sport, and any credible union, must work toward that goal. MLB and its obstructionist union didn't even try.

If, someday, the consensus within medicine is that steroids, in astronomical dosages, aren't harmful, then allow them in sports. But that's certainly not the consensus now. Just the opposite. So keep them out of games. And don't apologize for it. If for no other reason, plenty of kids do imitate star athletes. Maybe they shouldn't. But it's fact.

However, we've reached the point, and probably passed it, when everybody, including prosecutors, needs to get a new hobby. There's a point where the punishment no longer fits the crime. If Bonds or Clemens or both end up in jail, if the lives of many of the 104 -- who were told they were in an anonymous "survey" testing program with no punishments -- end up torn to shreds, who is well served?

Of all the famous names who have ended up in the steroid net, none is a more fascinating case than A-Rod. He's a narcissist, but also, in Reggie Jackson's words, "too nice." He craves attention, yet fears criticism. And, in the contradiction that may have caused him the most torment since he crossed paths with Canseco in Texas in the late '90s, he wants to be seen by the world as the perfect idealized person and player -- whether he is or not.

"So marvelous is the power of conscience. It makes us betray, accuse, and fight ourselves, and, in the absence of outside witness, it brings us forward against ourselves," wrote Montaigne four centuries ago. "Whoever expects punishment already suffers it; and whoever has deserved it expects it. Wickedness forges torments against itself."

For the past decade, Rodriguez has lived a life that, in retrospect, feels like a campaign of self-sabotage. Held up as a paragon of "clean" record setting, he has increasingly been booed, especially in his home Yankee Stadium. He's the superstar with the gift for getting hated. Has A-Rod been betraying, accusing and fighting himself?

After all, what hasn't he done -- to damage himself? He upstaged the last game of the 2007 World Series with a contract negotiation stunt; then, mortified, he apologized. He ruined his marriage with a public sex scandal. Then he made a fool of himself as Madonna's boy toy.

Any Yankee fan, hair half pulled out, can quadruple that list. And all will mention his spectacular and inexplicable failures in October as a Yankee. Since choking in the final four games of the Yankees' collapse to the Red Sox in the '04 ALCS, he has hit .114 with one RBI in his three subsequent Octobers in New York. That's .114, one RBI.

The common complaint about Rodriguez is that, though he is a student of the game, he has little conscience as a player, no true team feeling, but is driven by statistics, by fame, by hooking up with the famous.

The best, perhaps, that can be said of him in this dark hour is that he may have more conscience than he thinks. "Wickedness forges torments against itself."

Who surrounds A-Rod now, planning what to do next, but the baseball players' union and agent Scott Boras.

At the moment when Rodriguez must define how he will be seen for the rest of his life, the devil himself could hardly have surrounded him with advisers more suited to stonewalling and counterattack but less inclined to the simplest and best strategy.

Tell the truth and live with it.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company