Why Jayson Stark Is Wrong About Alex Rodriguez and Steroids

Zander FreundSenior Writer IFebruary 11, 2009

This past Sunday, Alex Rodriguez confessed to taking steroids while playing for the Texas Rangers.

Shortly afterwards, ESPN columnist Jayson Stark went on a rant proclaiming that A-Rod had officially destroyed the history of professional baseball.

And now, I'm going to put Stark in his place for publishing one of the most disgraceful pieces of sports journalism I have ever seen.

In case there is any doubt about my motives here: I have always been fascinated with the history of professional baseball. The national pastime holds a truly special place in my heart, and there are few topics I enjoy discussing more.

I also happen to enjoy a lot of Jayson Stark's work. In fact his book The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History is beside me on my desk as I type this.

Stark is clearly familiar with baseball history, which makes his argument all the more shameful. In this critique I will be quoting Stark's diatribe and offering counter-points and comments. 

The original article that was published on ESPN.com can be found here.

Let's get started.

In baseball, we love our numbers. And we love our heroes. And that brings us to Alex Rodriguez, a man who has committed a crime he doesn't even understand:

A crime against the once-proud history of his sport.

A-Rod didn't commit that crime alone, of course. In many ways, he is just the latest, greatest face of a mass conspiracy that has now succeeded in obliterating the quality that used to separate baseball from the rest of the sporting jungle.


Implying that Major League Baseball has always been a cut above other professional sports leagues in terms of integrity and morality is a complete farce. Stark knows this as well as anyone.

This is a league that for half its history excluded minorities from stepping onto the field, and up until 1975 deprived players of rightful free agency.

The game has a proud tradition of cheaters that are regularly celebrated by historians and fans alike—from New York Giants Manager John McGraw watering down the base paths at the Polo Grounds and encouraging his players to slide with their spikes in the air, to Gaylord Perry, who made a career out of doctoring balls through any means possible.

From the way Stark makes it sound, Major League Baseball has had a squeaky clean record until now. Before Bonds, A-Rod, and the rest of the juicers ruined the national pastime forever, the league and everyone involved in it's existence was flawless.

I'd recommend that those of you who embrace such a notion watch Ken Burns' Baseball and make your own decision. You might re-consider your position.

Once, the numbers of baseball used to mean something special and magical. And the men who compiled those numbers were transcendent figures in American life.

I hear ya Starky.  Men like Ty Cobb—who's love for a good fight led him to stab a night's watchmen trying to break up a scuffle, and Babe Ruth—who's cravings for booze and food made him a model of human health, are the kind of people we want our kids looking up to.

But not now. Not anymore.

Translation: A league that once was based upon a tradition of excellence and integrity has now been corrupted forever.

Perhaps Stark is right; the proud traditions that Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Cap Anson stood for have since been desecrated.  Major League Baseball may have been characterized by bigotry and discrimination at the turn of the century, but bye golly, at least there were no roids!

Now we've arrived at this sad and tragic place where the players missing from the Hall of Fame will tower over the men who are actually in the Hall of Fame.

I'm willing to bet right now that Alex Rodriguez will join that Cooperstown missing-persons list -- no matter how many home runs he hits, no matter how he chooses to spin Selena Roberts and David Epstein's impeccably reported story on SI.com.

So long as Stalinist voters mark their ballots based on personal sentiments rather than the accomplishments of a player, I'm sure that will be the case.

So if that's true, think of where this sport almost certainly will find itself 15 years from now:

The all-time hits leader (Mr. Peter E. Rose) won't be in the Hall of Fame.

Then put him in the Hall of Fame, jerk!

Here's a classy move: tell Pete Rose that if he comes clean about gambling on baseball you'll reinstate him.

Then when he does what you've asked, go back on your word.

The all-time home run leader (assuming that's where A-Rod's highway leads him) won't be in the Hall of Fame.

Why not?  How come all of the other players who took steroids aren't on pace to set the record, but he is?

The man who broke Hank Aaron's career record (Barry Bonds) won't be in the Hall.

One of the best 10 ballplayers of all time isn't going into the Hall of Fame?  Why again?

Oh yeah: because the voters are self-righteous tightwads that allow the unfortunate trends of an era in sports to blind them from true greatness. 

The man who broke Roger Maris' single-season record (Mark McGwire) won't be in the Hall.

The man who was once the winningest right-handed pitcher of the live-ball era (Roger Clemens) won't be in the Hall.

The man with the most 60-homer seasons in baseball history (Sammy Sosa) doesn't look like he's headed for the Hall, either.

The Hall of Fame won't be the Hall of Fame without these three individuals, period. (To his credit, Stark did vote for Big Mac in 2007).

And who knows who's next? Who knows what other names are lurking on that list of seized urine samples? Who knows whose career and reputation will be fed through the shredder in the next big scoop? And the next? And the next?

In all likelihood, the majority of the superstars who played during this era of homerun ball were juicing.

Instead of banning them all from Cooperstown, why not just induct those who excelled above the rest?  Isn't that the logical thing to do?
I keep reading those previous seven paragraphs, trying my best to fully comprehend them. I'm not really succeeding.

I'm not either.  But probably for different reasons.
How could baseball have allowed this to happen to itself? How? Can anyone recall any other sport that has ever committed such an insane act of self-destruction?

If we apply the same standards for performance enhancing drugs to professional football or basketball as we have to baseball, we'll surely see similar fallouts in the years to come.  Does anyone really believe that offensive lineman pack on hundreds of pounds of muscle through weight training and dieting? 

A better question is: why did we scapegoat Major League Baseball?

And the answer, of course, is that that the sports fans of America care a whole lot more about the sanctity of baseball records than similar feats in other professional sports.

What compares to it? The Black Sox? This is worse. Game-fixing in college basketball? This is worse. Nominate any scandal in the history of sports. My vote is that this is worse.

Why open the nominations to other professional sports when there's such an obvious example in baseball itself? 

Ever heard of the color line policy, Mr. Stark?  That is a scandal of truly epic proportions.

Segregation in baseball lasted for over 50 years; it's existence prevented some of the most talented ballplayers known to man from competing at the professional level and deprived fans of the game from witnessing this talent first hand.  This blatantly unjust policy has also left baseball historians clueless about how Josh Gibson might have performed in the Major Leagues, or whether Babe Ruth would have still hit 714 dingers against black pitching.  

The color line policy made Hall of Fame decisions for black men who played before 1945 quite difficult.  Voters could have easily said that because statistics were not regularly kept in the Negro Leagues that those players should be ineligible for nomination.

They didn't though—and thank the lord for that.  We can now take our children and our children's children to Cooperstown and honor Oscar Charleston just as we do Tris Speaker.

Hall of Fame arguments for those who played during the steroid era are significantly less complex.  We know how Barry Bonds stacked up to other hitters on roids, and we also know how he performed against pitchers who were putting the same crap into their bodies.

Far more importantly, while the prevalence of performance enhancing drugs in baseball may be a true shame, it's hardly as unjust and immoral as excluding entire groups of people from competing based upon the color of their skin.

Memo to Jayson Stark: it is an insult to Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, those who played in the Negro Leagues and the entire African-American population of this country for you to suggest that the fallout over performance enhancing drugs is the greatest scandal in the history of sports.
It's not worse because it will cause massive numbers of people to stop watching or caring about baseball. Check the attendance. Check the revenue charts. People will come back. They've already come back. The sport, as a business, is doing great.

But the sport, as a unique paragon of American culture, is devastated. And that's forever.

Excuse me: this sport has never been a paragon of American culture.  Rather, it always has been and continues to be a reflective lens of our behavior as a nation—which sometimes is heroic and beautiful, and other times is selfish and ugly.

America was segregated along racial lines for the first half of the 20th century and so was baseball.  In both cases, it took bravery and persistence on the part of individuals black and white alike to change the trend.

Major League Baseball also has a long history of owners oppressing their employees—the reserve clause, which was in place until 1975, prevented ballplayers from seeking offers from other organizations when their contracts expired.  The United States meanwhile has struggled with issues regarding the ethical treatment of laborers since it's inception. 

When it comes to today's star players, their actions should not come as a huge surprise. We can see examples of selfish individuals choosing their own personal betterment at the expense of their fellow men nearly everywhere we look. 

While Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were building their bodies into superhuman machines—the integrity of the game be damned—wall street power players and mortgage brokers across the nation lined their pockets as the world economy collapsed in front of our eyes. 

Baseball has never been immune to the ills of our society.  That's to a large extent what makes it such an important part of our culture.

But like the challenges that we've faced both on the streets of America and the fields of Wrigley and Fenway, we will learn from them and get past this dilemna.  At least, that's what some of us will try to do…

At times like this, I always tell the story of what it was like to follow Mark McGwire around in September 1998. I saw this man hit 17 of his 70 home runs that season. I saw records topple. I saw powerful numbers rise and fall.
But more than that, I measured the feat I was watching by who else showed up to catch the show. And by that I mean Bruce Springsteen. And Bruce Hornsby. And Barbara Walters. And MTV. And "Good Morning America." And many, many others just like them.

They didn't join us in beautiful downtown St. Louis because they'd always wanted to see the Arch. They joined us because this wasn't a sports story -- this was a massive American story.

This was a story that lifted itself out of the batter's box and plopped itself right down on Main Street. It was a story that appealed to Americans who didn't know a split-fingered fastball from a banana split.

But they knew what the number 60 meant. They knew what 61 meant. They knew who Babe Ruth was. And they knew this was a phenomenon that linked Mark McGwire to the Bambino, that linked now to then, that linked this America to that America.

That's what the home run record used to mean in our land.

That's what baseball used to mean.

But not anymore.

And that's the crime here. That's the tragedy. That's what we've lost.

What exactly have we lost?  The idea that the single season homerun record was won fair and square?  If that's the case, why not just officially say that Maris still holds the record? 

Do we really need to make this a drawn out tragedy that we can never recover from? Is that the American way? To sulk in our misery, rather than trying to look towards the future?  Is that what we did when Josh Gibson was forbidden from playing in the Major Leagues and thus deprived of his chance at the record books?
We've lost the opportunity for Alex Rodriguez to restore that: the meaning. The relevance. The power. The romance.

He held that opportunity in his hands. And now it's gone.

Who put that burden of responsibility on A-Rod's shoulders to begin with?  You and your colleagues, Mr. Stark.  Some of us here never believed for a second that a guy like A-Rod was Christ reborn as a ballplayer.

Why was A-Rod expected not to cave into the pressure that other superstars did?  Why was he pinged as the golden angel in the midst of this madness?

He's failed to live up to the expectations you set for him because those expectations were completely unrealistic.  Perhaps it would have been better to wait until all the evidence had been collected before you chose him of all people as the savior of the game. 

He was the one man on the planet with the chance to resuscitate the greatest record in sports. He was the one man on the planet with the chance to rebuild his sport's sacred bridge to the glory days.

The glory days of segregation and spitballs?  Of corked bats and game fixing?  Of treating the talented individuals who invest their lives in providing entertainment for millions like complete and utter crap?

And now he'll never get that back, no matter how many more home run trots he makes.

I do have some measure of sympathy for him, though. We can't forget that these test results were supposed to be confidential. So the leaking of the results of those tests -- particularly his tests -- is outrageous on one level, suspicious on another.

I also know that he isn't alone. I know there are 103 other positive tests on that list, capable of being leaked any minute. And I know there are hundreds of other players who never failed a test, who never have had a finger pointed, who never have come up in this conversation, who are just as guilty of performance-enhancing-drug use as the names we spend all our time talking about.

So even now, it isn't particularly fair to single out A-Rod. I'll concede that.

But those are all just subplots to the big show, under A-Rod's big top. And that show isn't going to close for the rest of Alex Rodriguez's life.

He should resign himself to that before he takes another step or utters another word. The yolk is never going back inside the egg. So whatever he does next, however he explains himself this week and next week and for the rest of his career, all he can possibly accomplish is damage control.

But the damage itself already has been done. And it's never going to be undone.

That's the crime here. Oh, it may not just be his crime. It's a crime shared by everyone who allowed the steroid era to exist and persist. But that doesn't make our man A-Rod any more innocent, either. No, in some ways it makes him even more guilty.

He was a special player, with a special gift -- and an even more special opportunity: He was the man with the opportunity to reconnect baseball's once-indelible dotted line between past and present, between great-grandsons and great-grandfathers, between his home plate and your hometown.

And now he's squandered that gift, squandered that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So weep not for what A-Rod has done to himself.

Weep for what he's done to his sport.

No!  I refuse to weep.  I refuse to buy into this baloney that the league was once pure and has suddenly been corrupted.

The game of baseball it beautiful and perfect—but Major League Baseball has many stains on its historical record.  This is merely the result of the human beings who have graced its fields and offices over the years and the flaws that all-too-often complement their strengths.

No one—not A-Rod, Barry Bonds, steroid dealers, owners who turned a blind eye, or even pompous media personalities using their fame to manipulate the mass public about the implications of this mess—can alter the history of baseball.  History, after all, is immovable.

What can change is our attitude towards that history.  The choice is ours:

We can follow Jayson Stark in declaring that Performance Enhancing Drugs will forever tarnish the sport.

Or we can be a little more optimistic and, while admitting that steroids were a setback for this great game, refuse to let their prevalence infiltrate our interest in the past.

To those who choose the former, I wish you the best of luck.

For those of us who refuse to let MLB history die: let the journey continue.


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