The Worst Story in Baseball

arod 0 The Worst Story in BaseballThe report from Sports Illustrated that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids means many things. Foremost among them: the $423.5 million dollars the New York Yankees spent on free agents C. C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A. J. Burnett to make championship baseball the story in the Bronx is wasted money from a public relations standpoint.

While the Yankees have never enjoyed a season devoid of sidebar distractions, this is no simple George Steinbrenner outburst or Reggie Jackson taunt. It is a perfect storm of controversy that will hover over the baseball season and any success or failure New York has.

Rodriguez was supposed to be the clean power hitter to overtake the villainous Barry Bonds and restore the home run record to the side of liberty and justice. He is baseball’s highest-paid player, and by a wide margin. And despite all of his individual accomplishments, he’s never managed to lead his team to a World Series title—and his team is supposed to win that championship every year.

In other words, Alex Rodriguez is set to be the story for the Yankees over the next several years—for good or ill. Rodriguez is just 209 home runs from Barry Bonds, who hit 762. Considering that Rodriguez, over his past five seasons, hit 208 home runs, reaching that milestone sometime in 2014 or 2015 (allowing for some regression as he ages) was a reasonable goal—and fit with the statistical pleasure fans of all teams would get from seeing the clean Rodriguez soar past tainted figures like Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and eventually Bonds.

For Yankee fans in particular, the already cool devotion to Rodriguez will become even chillier, with a bigger reason to cite distaste than the absence of a world championship. Of course, the Bronx faithful have displayed the capacity to forgive steroid transgressions before—witness Jason Giambi turning boos into Moustache Day with a simple turnaround in his performance. But Giambi was likable and real—Rodriguez isn’t.

This fan perspective is vital for what it means for Rodriguez, the Yankees and Major League Baseball as a whole. For Rodriguez, assuming this positive test isn’t some mistake, an immediate apology and full acknowledgement must take place. (Honestly, in this environment, even if it is a mistake, he’s probably best off coming clean, assuming he can’t definitively prove his innocence.) Witness Giambi’s restoration, and to a large extent, Andy Pettitte’s—then contrast that with the demonization of both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

If Rodriguez wants any chance at restoring even a part of his place in baseball history, he’ll come clean. Some won’t forgive him, regardless—but many will applaud his willingness to take responsibility. Add in a World Series title—and the Yankees are bound to win one with him sooner or later—and steroids can be part of the story of his baseball life, rather than all of it.

As for the Yankees, they need to wait and see how Rodriguez handles this before they make their plans. If he refuses to speak out publicly, the team needs to put pressure on him to do so by referring all questions about it to Rodriguez himself. Nothing less than the Yankee brand is at stake here. And with Rodriguez still owed hundreds of millions of dollars, it isn’t as if they can trade him—the main reason he re-signed in New York is that no one else would pay him nearly that much, when he was presumed clean.

Remember: Derek Jeter is turning 35 in 2009 and showing signs of slowing down. Rodriguez’s pursuit of the home run crown was supposed to be the game-in, game-out center of Yankee marketing for much of the next decade. With home runs and steroids so inextricably linked in the country’s mind, that drama will disappear. When it happens to a player like Rodriguez, who unlike Bonds was never loved by his own fans beforehand, it is hard to imagine that pursuit at the center of a successful marketing campaign. Worse yet, it will likely overshadow anything the Yankees try to put in his place.

For Major League Baseball, the answer is simple, yet practically impossible. The Rodriguez result came from a 2003 sample of steroid tests to determine, in effect, if baseball had a steroids problem. The answer turned out to be yes: 104 players tested positive. They need to release those other 103 names, now in the hands of prosecutors for the Bonds case and certain to come out, bit by bit, over the coming months anyway. The league should get ahead of the story.

The Players Association won’t like it—indeed, this list was supposed to be destroyed as soon as it was collated in 2003—but the labor union is doing a disservice to the overwhelming majority of its members by failing to release the names. Now, everyone is a presumed cheat, and the magical pleasure of seeing a player grow from mediocrity to superstar carries with it an implied asterisk.

But even if the names leak out slowly, Major League Baseball will recover from the steroids scandal just as surely as it did the strike, the Black Sox scandal and innumerable other problems throughout history. The Yankees, too, will eventually move past the A-Rod era. Alex Rodriguez, without ever having testified under oath (which is what tripped up Barry Bonds), should be fine, too. All of them will suffer from this, however.

The only winners from this story are likely to be Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and any other player who has already been tarred by the steroids scandal. As more and more names get linked to steroids, the public is going to move from castigating a few players for playing on an unlevel field to blaming baseball itself.