That’s right, you read the title correctly. It is not a misprint nor is it a ploy to get you to read further along only to see me backtrack from my original thesis. When I say we should stop labeling A-Rod a cheater, I mean it. The critic Kenneth Burke tells us titles or names are used to “identify a person or cause with whatever kinds of things will…call forth the desired response.” And we select these titles in accordance with our own biases and opinions (Rhetoric of Motives, 86). Lawbreaker yes. But cheater?
If for some reason you really have no inkling as to what I am speaking, let me clue you in. Earlier this month, New York Yankees third baseman, Alex Rodriguez was exposed for having tested positive for steroid use during the 2003 baseball season. Rodriguez further admitted to using banned substances in the 2001 and 2002 seasons as well. A most humiliating situation to be in for sure and it likely makes his enshrinement into baseball’s Hall of Fame a near impossibility precisely because he has been labeled a cheater.
I have no problems with identifying Rodriguez a lawbreaker. He took drugs in an illegal fashion. In this case Rodriguez injected himself with drugs for which he had no prescription. He knew it was wrong yet he did so anyway. But breaking the law is a separate issue from cheating. Therefore it needs to be dealt with appropriately.
If Rodriguez is a cheater as so many are quick to label him, whom is he cheating? It certainly was not the sport of baseball. For starters, I have a difficult time believing players as well as owners were not aware of who was and who was not injecting. As a player, if you knew and or believed your opponent was gaining some sort of unfair advantage over you, why wouldn’t you blow the whistle? True, most of us aren’t that brave (I know I certainly am not), but you mean to tell me out of over 750 major league players, not one was man enough to come forward, even anonymously? Yes, Jose Canseco wrote a tell-all book earlier this decade, but he did not do so until after his career was finished.
You also can’t convince me Rodriguez cheated the fans either. Why because he had high power numbers? Yet isn’t that what most fans want to see? We want to see the big hitters rip the tar out of the ball. Manufacturing runs may be great fundamental baseball, but it’s not considered exciting baseball to most. So to automatically assume a player’s power number were what they were due to steroids is a specious argument at best. Remember, we are talking about major league baseball, not Sunday afternoon softball in the park. There are numerous factors that contribute to a hitter’s productivity, such as where he hits in the batting order. Who hits in front of you or behind you can have a great deal of effect on your overall offensive productivity.
Where you play also contributes. The trend in the past decade or so of newly built ballparks has been stadiums that favor hitters over pitchers. Examples include shorter outfield dimensions (more homeruns) and less foul territory (more chances for a batter to put a ball in play). Also keep in mind major league baseball expand by four teams between 1993 and 1998. That’s 40 pitchers who would have been jobless otherwise. That’s forty pitchers (not to mention the other position players) who would not have been deemed worthy enough to play at the major league level a few years prior. Combine those factors and you can see why Rodriguez along with his colleagues could see their career averages improve. When Roger Maris hit his 61 homeruns in the 1961 season, one factor that rarely gets mention is that it was an expansion year.
Earlier I mentioned that no active major leaguer felt the need to speak out against Rodriguez or any of the other alleged steroid users. There’s another possibility why. More than any other sport, baseball is driven by numbers. Homeruns, RBI, steals, batting average. Strikeouts, wins, saves. They all are hallowed in some form or another. Numbers are what every major league baseball is measured against. If Alex Rodriguez was a cheater, what is quietly not discussed is ALL major league players benefited. It’s akin to the rising tide lifting all boats. If steroids did indeed help Rodriguez and his ilk to stratospheric offensive productivity and mega-sized contracts, it also helped lesser players who may or may not have juiced up realize fatter paychecks as well.
Baseball is a funny game. Much of it is built on deception. Cryptic signals, stolen basis, fooling umpires are all acceptable behavior. For years in the 1960s, the San Francisco Giants would allegedly water down their infield supposedly as a way to slow down the LA Dodgers’ fleet footed shortstop, Maury Wills. The short right field fence at old Yankee stadium was rumored to have been done so to favor Babe Ruth.
Numbers in baseball are sacred. The longer a record survives, the more sacrosanct it becomes. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Nolan Ryan’s six career no-hitters. Rickey Henderson’s 130 stolen basis. Breaking these records creates the appearance of immortality. A-Rod’s admission demonstrates just how mortal he really is.
Well, I gotta scoot…