Last clean player, please bring the flag

Knowing about Alex Rodriguez's positive steroid test from 2003 changes nothing, but get out your torches and pitchforks anyway.

Topics: Baseball,

One of these days, there’s going to be a national throw-your-hands-up moment about steroids, when the prevailing point of view is going to become “Ah, hell, they were all doing it. Let’s call off the witch hunts and get on with our lives.”

That moment is not going to happen in the wake of the weekend’s revelation by Sports Illustrated that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003. We’ve known for a long time that no one ever stops being hysterical when the subject is Alex Rodriguez. But it will happen.

How many times will the commentariat be able to dust off the old shocked outrage as another star is branded as a juicer? Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote a piece headlined “A-Rod has destroyed game’s history.” Is that all?

“We’ve arrived at this sad and tragic place,” Stark wrote, “where the players missing from the Hall of Fame will tower over the men who are actually in the Hall of Fame.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it? It makes me think, all right. Makes me think the Hall of Fame is on the fast train to irrelevance.

But that’s not what Stark’s talking about. He means that Rodriguez, because he was the clean one — of course, you have to have ignored Jose Canseco to have believed that, and Jose Canseco keeps turning out to be the one guy in the business who’s telling the truth — had “the chance to rebuild his sport’s sacred bridge to the glory days.”

That is, to a time when the sport’s records were magical things known even by non-baseball fans.

All Rodriguez had to do was keep his reputation clean and hit another 210 home runs to pass evildoer Barry Bonds’ record 762. The latter isn’t exactly in the bag. Two-hundred ten is a lot of home runs to hit starting at age 33. It’s been done. Hank Aaron hit 313 from that point. Bonds — with all that that name entails — hit 388. Willie Mays 236. They’re all-time greats, but so is A-Rod.

Then again, so was Frank Robinson. He was one of the best players in the American League at age 33, and he had more good years left, but he only hit 168 homers from that age on. A-Rod breaking Bonds’ record is a long shot and will be until he’s around 730. That’s how these things work.

But even if A-Rod breaks the record, I’m dubious about the premise that he could have saved anything.

Let’s say this report of Rodriguez’s dirty test had never happened. Let’s imagine there’d never been a hint that he used performance-enhancing drugs, not even from Canseco, and that there never is one. And let’s say that seven or eight years down the road he hits his 763rd home run, breaking the record of that dastardly cheater Bonds.

Is it even remotely possible that we as a nation would have our faith in the sanctity of baseball restored? Would we all join together to say, “Hallelujah! Baseball is legitimate again, and Alex Rodriguez did it!”

It’s preposterous.

That’s partly because Alex Rodriguez is Alex Rodriguez. He can’t scratch his ear without somebody declaring that he symbolizes all that’s wrong, evil and distorted with baseball, sports, America, humanity and the universe. I mean, did you see him scratch his ear?

It’s also because there are going to be dozens of other revelations like this one between now and then. The Sports Illustrated scoop was that Rodriguez’s name appeared on a list of 104 players who tested positive in the supposedly anonymous survey testing baseball conducted in 2003.

By agreement with the players union, if 5 percent tested positive, mandatory testing would kick in the next year, but the guilty would neither be punished nor identified. Seven percent tested positive and the mandatory program, with suspensions as punishment, began in 2004.

The union was supposed to destroy the list, but someone screwed up and it survived. Federal agents seized it after serving search warrants on two labs during the BALCO investigation. Now A-Rod’s name has been leaked.

So, one down, 103 to go.

And that’s just one source of revelations. There are plenty of others, from clubhouse boys like Kirk Radomski to personal trainers like Brian McNamee to disgruntled ex-wives to the players themselves, continuing to juice and occasionally get caught.

And every time the guilty party — or the accused — is a big star, we’re supposed to be outraged, to cry about the integrity of the game and the records being meaningless and the magical sanctity of the national pastime torn asunder.

At some point, we have to say, Look, it was the culture of the game at the time. If it wasn’t literally all of them who were juicing, it was enough of them that we can say that the game was juiced.

So maybe the records from that time — which for all we know is still going on, since the cheaters are always ahead of the testers — are tainted. But they aren’t any more tainted than the records from the time when baseball was segregated.

The focus should be on ensuring the game is clean now and in the future, not on the rending of garments over past sins. I’ve been saying for years that baseball should have a truth-telling commission and a general amnesty. Learning what’s really happening and why is a much better road to prevention than the cat-and-mouse game of testing and punishment.

In Sports Illustrated, Chris Ballard wrote, “It sure would be nice if baseball could somehow hold a clearinghouse, just get everyone out in the open so that we’re spared the slow trickle of transgressions that will continue, likely for years. Just hold a one-week special: Come out now and receive half off your public flogging!”

He wrote tongue-in-cheek. But it’s a start. Maybe after another 103 or so more revelations, this great nation of ours will be ready to accept that monstrously talented overachievers in a cut-throat business with millions of dollars at stake will take any opportunity, legal or not, to gain an advantage. And we’ll handle that like adults and call off the witch hunts.

Not this time, though. Not with A-Rod.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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