By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Alex Rodriguez may actually be telling something close to the truth. Not the public relations version of the truth, which heretofore has been A-Rod's first, as well as final, standard. But maybe the actual true facts.
Rodriguez may have taken performance-enhancing drugs for only three years -- never before, never after.
For one thing, his statistics, as we'll show, indicate that he may be coming clean. He averaged 33 percent more homers in his dirty Texas years -- from 2001 to 2003 -- than in the other 10 full seasons of his career. That's a huge leap, similar to the numbers that first incriminated Barry Bonds in many baseball minds.
Also, Rodriguez's character -- or his lack of it -- lends credence to his confession Monday. A-Rod's defining quality, beyond his physical ability, is that he can't take the heat in any situation. He doesn't just crumble in October (when he has one RBI in his last 58 at-bats in the postseason in that infernally scalding Yankee uniform).
Just as he squirmed and overacted like a kid in his half-hour ESPN interview, he always wriggles when hot. Anything to escape pressure. Isn't Rodriguez just the kind of person who might start cheating to protect himself from the scrutiny of a new $252 million contract in '01?
"I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me, and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day," Rodriguez said in his confession on ESPN.
Because he's so ill at ease, except on a ballfield, and so desperately image conscious, Rodriguez also seems like the kind of guy who, when hit with a positive drug test in 2003, might be so scared of public exposure that he might really shy away from the juice.
By that time, Barry Bonds and others were already enmeshed in Balco. Public rage at baseball steroid users was so high that baseball's union finally caved -- 10 years late -- to a lame, easy-to-beat test that was mocked as not a test for performance-enhancing drugs, but an IQ test. If you couldn't beat it, you were a dope. Or had a lousy drug dealer.
What do you think Rodriguez would do, given his obsessive need for a perfect player image, when he found out he'd failed a test nobody was supposed to flunk?
My sense is that he would react exactly the opposite of Bonds and Roger Clemens when fingers were pointed in their faces. They'd "hold 'em," smart or not. A-Rod folds 'em.
Bonds and Clemens are as tough inside as they come. That's part of their problem. You can stonewall and, maybe, get away with it, up to a point. But toughness turns into self-destruction when you stonewall the FBI or Congress. By the standards of elite athletes, Rodriguez may be as soft at his core as you can find.
If we need more evidence that A-Rod is a personality type who avoids conflict and might back off the 'roids if caught once, look at what he just did this week. His confession, as painful as it was, was his least hellish option. It gets him out of the constant daily fire of accusation and denial in the tabloid echo chamber.
"The healing can start," he said. Not right away, buddy.
However, someday, A-Rod's dream of a best-case scenario may come true. Someday it may be generally accepted that he only cheated for three years and only lied for eight. What a great guy, relatively speaking.
If that time comes, Rodriguez may only be mildly detested by fans, not utterly shunned. Instead of staying sequestered in a gated community like Mark McGwire or facing trial like Bonds or awaiting a federal grand jury investigation like Clemens, Rodriguez may spend some of the last nine years of his Yankees contract just playing baseball.
Oh, not this year. This season is going to be priceless. But after an '09 of heckling, he may almost become a normal ballplayer. A normal fellow? He's probably too egocentric and eccentric for that.
In what now seems a long shot, he might even get into the Hall of Fame, while others who still deny and keep their whole careers under a cloud may never get in.
Of course, this is a big if. It depends on whether, after we've digested every detail, we ultimately decide that what Rodriguez confessed Monday was close to reality.
Don't believe Rodriguez just because he says so. Who'd be that "stupid and naive"? This is the guy who said he and Madonna only studied ancient mystical religious texts together. Instead, the stats A-Rod worships may end up helping him. If Bonds has been incriminated by his own numbers for years, why can't A-Rod gain credibility?
In his three years in Texas, from 2001 to 2003, he averaged 52 homers vs. 39.2 everywhere else. The jump was even bigger when compared to his previous five superstar years in Seattle, when he averaged 36.8 homers.
After hitting 42, 42 and 41 homers in his last three years in Seattle, he hit 52, then 57 in his first two years in Texas. Granted, the Ballpark is a launching pad. Rodriguez slugged .666 there in three years vs. .576 on the road. But that's still worth only a few extra homers a year, not 12 or 15.
Interestingly, his homers dropped to 47 in '03, his last year in Texas. Did that positive test scare him off the juice during the season? Maybe eventually we'll know such details. But it fits the clean-before-and-after case. In '04, as a Yank: 36 homers.
None of this is conclusive. A-Rod hit 54 homers and had 156 RBI in '07 after baseball instituted its current, and improved, drug-testing program. Is this monstrous year a testament to his ability? Or did it just take him a few years after '03 to get better drugs so he could beat the system? Right now, he's vulnerable to every accusation.
After all, anybody who admits he cheated in '03, after Balco, after the whole world was up in arms against performance-enhancing drugs, has proved conclusively that he cares nothing for his game or the risks he takes with his own name.
Nevertheless, in a year or five, Rodriguez may find himself in a place that Miguel Tejada and Raffy Palmeiro, Bonds and Clemens, McGwire and Sammy Sosa can only envy. It's a strange twilight limbo where some tormented public figures finally reside, their spirits partially at rest.
Their celebrity sins are not forgotten. But because they tell something close enough to the truth to satisfy the world, their misdeeds recede to a distance so great that it is the next best thing to forgiveness.