Mike Mussina was always one of baseball’s more thoughtful players. Which is why he paused for a long time when asked why he thought Alex Rodriguez always managed to say or do the wrong thing as a New York Yankee.
“Here’s the thing about Rod,” Mussina said, calling him by the name he always used when talking about the man most people call A-Rod. “He’s spent his whole life being told he is the best player— the best player— of his generation, perhaps the best player of all time. That’s who he believes he is, with good reason.
“Then he comes to New York [in 2004] and all he hears is, ‘Oh yeah, you’re great, but you’re no Derek Jeter.’ At the very least that has to be confusing.”
Mussina didn’t make those comments this week in the wake of an arbitrator ruling that Rodriguez can’t play baseball this season because of steroid use. He made the comments almost seven years ago— before Rodriguez had admitted to using steroids the first time and before his career and legacy went into complete meltdown in the wake of the Biogenesis investigation.
Back then, when Rodriguez was asked if anyone other than Mussina called him “Rod,” he shook his head. “No, he’s the only one,” he said. “I think it’s because he knows I’m the only one on the team who likes him.”
Mussina— who was always well-liked in both the Orioles and Yankees clubhouses—laughed when that line was repeated to him. “Do you think,” he asked, “it might be the other way around?”
As usual, Rod was confused— and delusional.
The truth is, Rodriguez has always seemed confused. His baseball talent was extraordinary from the time he was a teenager. In 1993, he was the first player chosen in the MLB draft and bypassed playing for the University of Miami to sign for big money with the Mariners. He was in the majors before he was 19 — only the third 18-year-old to play shortstop in the major leagues in the 20th century — and was a star at 22.
And yet, according to his timeline, he first used steroids in 2001, the season he turned 26. A year earlier, he hit .316 with 41 home runs and 132 RBI. He was coming into his prime and yet, for some reason, he felt the need to take performance-enhancing drugs.
He’s not the only one who was already a very good player when he began taking steroids. Barry Bonds already had Hall of Fame numbers when — according to the book “Game of Shadows” — he began using after the 1998 season. Bonds apparently was furious at the attention that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa— both later revealed as steroid users — were getting for their seemingly historic home run chase. Bonds had turned 34 that season. Roger Clemens was 35 and clearly slipping when he began using, if you believe the testimony of the man who said he started Clemens down the PED highway.
That’s not to excuse Clemens or Bonds or anyone else, but at least there seemed to be a reason they resorted to PEDs. It is not a coincidence that in today’s drug-testing world most of the positive tests involve borderline players either trying to hang on for another year or two or trying to get just enough edge to get to the majors or to get one big contract. They believe it is worth the risk and, sadly, as in the cases of Melky Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta, ordinary players who put up star numbers after taking PEDs, cheating paid when they signed big-money contracts after testing positive.
None of that applied to Rodriguez early in his career. He was the Natural and decided at the peak of his powers to seek unnatural help. He lied about it, got caught, admitted to lying, said, “Judge me from this day forward,” and then did it again. Someone obsessed with his legacy put it at absolute risk.
Anthony Bosch, who provided Rodriguez with the PEDs he took for several years before the Biogenesis case exposed him again, talked on Sunday about the fact that Rodriguez came to him because he wanted to hit 800 home runs and put Bonds’s steroid-aided home run record in his rear view mirror before he retired.
In a sense, that makes Rodriguez’s decision to use again even more baffling. Clearly, he cared greatly about his legacy and he had to know that by going down the PED road again he put it at absolute risk. Had he stayed clean from his 2009 confession until his retirement he would have had a chance to make the Hall of Fame even with the steroid “S” marked on his forehead. He wouldn’t have made it the first year or perhaps even in the first five, but before his 15 years on the ballot ended a lot of voters would have decided that his numbers were so overwhelming in a 20-year career that he should be voted in even if he did use PEDs for a brief period.
Now, having been caught a second time, his Hall of Fame chances — the most important part of a baseball player’s legacy — are gone.
There may be a handful of people out there still willing to argue that Rodriguez didn’t test positive and that Bosch, the key witness against him, is a self-confessed liar and a criminal. It doesn’t matter: The documentation that Bosch produced of hundreds of text messages between him and Rodriguez isn’t a smoking gun; it’s hundreds of smoking guns.
A-Rod can flail all he wants — blame everyone from Abner Doubleday to Bud Selig and swear on the ghost of Babe Ruth that he didn’t do it — and almost no one is going to buy his story. Although he may play baseball again (almost certainly not in New York) with an attendance-starved team like his hometown Miami Marlins, any cheers he might hear as he tries to build on his now-empty numbers, will be hollow.
He’s done. Instead of departing baseball as a legendary, lock Hall of Fame superstar, he will leave as a punch line. And that won’t change for the rest of his life.
A-Rod may not understand that now. He’s too immersed in his delusional world where he’s surrounded by sycophants and overpaid lawyers telling him he’s the victim in all this. But someday he will understand and the sadness of it all will undoubtedly hit him hard.
And the worst part will be knowing and finally understanding that the only person responsible for his downfall was Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.