This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The range of opinions following the Alex Rodriguez press conference in Florida yesterday runs the gamut. Some call him A-Fraud. They don’t believe a word he says. How could he have felt so much pressure in Texas that he was compelled to turn to injections of some supposedly unknown substance, obtained by a cousin over the counter in the Dominican Republic, and then evidently never felt much pressure at all when he came to the New York Yankees so he evidently didn’t need his cousin’s booster drugs any longer? The A-Fraud team interprets Rodriguez’s performance as poor acting, seeing his grimaces and long pauses as orchestrated, transparent, utterly insincere. Then there’s a camp who accepts his appearance yesterday, as well as in his sit-down interview with ESPN a week ago, as mature, honest, deeply sincere. Statisticians are busy analyzing A-Rod’s numbers from his Seattle days, purportedly pre-steroids, comparing them to his admitted steroid days in Texas, and then putting those up against his Yankees stats, again purportedly clean.
A reporter asked me the other day what I felt when I saw A-Rod admit to his drug use on ESPN. My reaction was, “So what?”
To me, perspective is missing from all these arguments. Lance Armstrong expressed it well at the start of the Tour of California bicycle race last weekend. It was odd to see that much of the line-up, at least the big names, were drug cheaters who had been caught, served their time, and were now back in the saddle. Armstrong said cycling seemed to have climbed up from its darkest days, its days of immersion in performance drug culture, and now baseball seems to be caught in the thick of its own immersion. That’s exactly right. Baseball is the last major sport to turn to drugs in a systemic way. And because it does so now, at a time when a party-goer can snap a shot of Michael Phelps smoking pot with his cell phone and sell it to a London tabloid for $100,000, Major Leaguers are not going to go through their drug phase under the radar.
Steroids were first used in the 1940’s by weight lifters and wrestlers, athletes who obviously benefited from added mass, increased brute strength. Next came the body builders and field athletes. The shot putters and discus throwers. Those athletes trained in the same lifting gyms with football linemen and that’s how roids traveled into the gridiron culture. From the 40’s through the 70’s, the performance choice was steroids, almost always from a family of drugs that put on bulk. By the 1980’s, the menu widened. Middle-distance runners and swimmers and cyclists started using drugs that didn’t increase mass but allowed for better recovery time from tough workouts.
Through all those decades, the athletes were way ahead of the drug enforcers. It wasn’t until very recently that the drug police have been able to ferret out not only steroids, but THG and EPO and a full menu of performance substances from blood and urine samples. And it so happens that the evolved science, along with a relentless press corps, clashes directly now with the era when baseball players are the latest group to try to heighten their performances by manipulating their body chemistries.
Alex Rodriguez is one of hundreds of Major Leaguers who over the past 15 or so years have tried various banned pills and injections. We must face up to the fact that the sport of baseball has for a time dived into the drug experiment. But, just as we can’t go back and dig up all the weight lifters and nose tackles who juiced during the drug times of their sports, we can’t look backwards to clean up baseball. We can only look forward.
Many baseball records have been set by drug-using players. Some people call this a travesty, a tragedy. I call it reality.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that’s The Score.
Banner image: Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees talks during a press conference February 17, 2008 at the George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images