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Role Models and Villains: Walking a Tight Rope

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Role Models and Villains: Walking a Tight Rope
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

One Tuesday afternoon, Alex Rodriguez sat in front of a curtain adorned with New York Yankees emblems in Tampa Bay as he answered questions from reporters from across the country.

Just one week earlier, the star third baseman sat with ESPN’s Peter Gammons for 45 minutes answering questions about his recently released positive steroid test from 2003.   

The usually confident hitter was clearly out of his element. Watching A-Rod answer questions was like watching Dick Cheyney fire birdshot. He was confused and disoriented, and he looked unsure of which prying reporter he would prefer to shoot next.

Reporters asked the 33 year-old athlete why he took the steroids, how it would affect his reputation and whether he had tarnished the name of baseball. And all Rodriguez could do was repeat over and over again that he was young, naïve and stupid.

It seemed almost as if A-Rod was on public trial. Accusatory questions were shouted from every corner of the room, and on a number of occasions Alex was moved to tears. He knew that the proverbial court had made its decision. He was guilty, and the jury wanted to enforce the harshest penalty.

But before we hang A-Rod from the foul pole, let’s remember, he’s human, and he’s not the only one with blood on his hands.

Major League Baseball’s commissioner Bud Selig has said that when he looks for someone to blame for the steroid era, he will avoid the mirror. But Selig, who looked the other way and neglected the drug problem in baseball, is as much to blame as anyone.

Countless other athletes were taking steroids at the same time as Rodriguez. After Alex was caught, he had the courage to stand before reporters and answer any questions they had for him. That’s more than Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada, and Roger Clemens can say, and all three may be facing jail time as a result.

Many asked Alex what parents are supposed to tell their children. Of course, thousands of Americans have purchased Rodriguez jerseys for their children, and offered the Yankees superstar up as a role model. To this question Rodriguez could only fight back tears and pathetically repeat his apologies.

Unfortunately, Alex Rodriguez is not a role model for children. He is a man who got caught up in his own fame and success, and he let his ambition get the better of him. He was not honest, and he may not even be a good guy.

But A-Rod is far from the first bad guy to play baseball. And decades away from the first bad guy that the media molded into a baseball hero.

In 1964, Mickey Mantle published a book that he co-wrote with Robert W. Creamer entitled, “The Quality of Courage: Heroes In and Out of Baseball.” In the book, Mantle writes about comebacks, quiet courage, sportsmanship, being a good teammate, and a profound respect for the game of baseball.

Growing up in East Rutherford New Jersey, it was one of my dad’s favorite books. And when it was passed down to me, the spine of the book was only held together by the “if duct tape doesn’t work then you’re not using enough,” philosophy.

I read it myself, and it is an inspiring book, written by one of the greatest baseball players who ever played the game. In his time, Mantle was held up as a champion and a hero, one of the greatest who ever lived.

Mickey could have been the greatest player who ever lived, but his personal life held him back. He was a drunk and an adulterer, who during his career showed an utter disregard for his own body.

He was infamous for showing up to the ballpark drunk or hung-over, and he was unabashed about his extramarital sexual encounters. Once even daring his wife to leave him after she discovered one of his many affairs.

Mantle underwent treatment for his alcoholism many years later, after his retirement from baseball. Crippling physical illness from alcohol forced him to make a recovery, and eventually complications from his liver killed him in 1995.

In his final days, Mantle stated that he was only a role model in that he was an example of what not to be like. But for years, Mantle had been the envy and the role model of millions. Why? Because fans could only see what the media allowed them to see.

The fact is that there have been cheaters in baseball before. Gaylord Perry, Joe Niekro, Whitey Ford, and Don Sutton all doctored baseballs, but it never drew media attention.

Today, athletes in America are under a microscope, and few athletes can withstand the scrutiny. Everyone makes mistakes, but celebrities make them publicly.

The media covered up for Mickey. When he stumbled into the clubhouse hung-over, they put down their cameras and went to grab him a cup of coffee.

Today, the sounds of flashing cameras almost drown out the voice of a contrite and apologetic A-Rod, while a gossip hungry beat writer counts his newly found fortune after releasing a picture of Michael Phelps hitting a bong.

Athletes are not role models. They are entertainers with an exceptional ability to perform in athletic competition. A-Rod’s job is to hit a baseball, not be a model citizen. Athletes are mortal, and they make mistakes. And this time, Alex made a colossal mistake.

Today, he needs to stand before a jury of reporters with condemning looks and damning questions, and his career will be forever tainted. That is the world we live in today. But forty years ago, A-Rod would be stepping to a batter’s box instead of a podium, while quiet and forgiving reporters would have made sure we never knew the difference. 

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