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    A-Rod steroid scandal another trial for baseball

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    A-Rod steroid scandal another trial for baseball Empty A-Rod steroid scandal another trial for baseball

    Post by Admin on Thu Feb 12, 2009 11:32 am

    Spring training begins on Saturday, which is good, because baseball could use a fresh start. Not just the green-grass, blue-sky, hope-springs-eternal-everywhere-but-Pittsburgh-and-Kansas-City kind of fresh start that we get every year, either. No, baseball needs a genuinely new beginning, because the last two decades or so have been a trial.

    Perhaps the revelation that Alex Rodriguez was among the sport's many users of performance-enhancing drugs -- revealed by Sports Illustrated over the weekend, and vaguely confirmed by Rodriguez on Monday -- is the beginning of the end of the game's distorted and superficial era. If so, good riddance.

    The New York Yankees star is going to rewrite all kinds of records, health permitting; baseball hoped he would, if only to scrub a confirmed cheater like Barry Bonds from the books. But now the man known as A-Rod is just another face on the sport's anti-Mt. Rushmore, along with Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire. The era's icons have fallen from grace, one by one.

    Rodriguez's inclusion in that group was not so much surprising as it was, in retrospect, inevitable.

    Between Roger Maris's record-breaking 61 home runs in 1961 and the strike of 1994, three men in Major League Baseball hit 50 home runs in a season: Willie Mays in 1965, George Foster in 1977, and Cecil Fielder in 1990. Nobody else joined the club, but that was fine. Baseball was popular anyway.

    Then came the strike, which wiped out the World Series (and, in time, the Montreal Expos). That was the same year Netscape Navigator became the most popular browser of the still-emerging Internet, and the same year the first PlayStation gaming console was released. The ensuing explosion in all of popular culture -- personal computers, video games, the whole whiz-bang parade -- sharpened the fight for the entertainment dollar.

    Baseball has always been the opera of sports, or at least the theatre. Baseball is subtle, refined. Basketball and football and NASCAR are, by comparison, movies and video games and TV. That, in addition to actual movies, video games and television, was the playing field baseball faced.

    As The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell has noted, fans were chanting "steroids, steroids" at Jose Canseco in 1988. But under pressure, the cancer was allowed to spread. Baseball's overlords provided the lax regulatory environment; the players' union defended that same unmonitored sandbox; general managers and teams looked away; and a whole mess of players took full advantage of it all.

    Between 1995 and 2008, there were 23 different 50-homer seasons -- three by Mr. Rodriguez -- including six 60-homer years, and two at 70-plus. It was cartoon baseball. In exchange for cash and relevance, baseball sold its soul.

    (It was a profitable sale, it should be said. Last year, baseball's revenues hit US$6.5-billion and nearly caught the mighty National Football League, where positive steroid tests remain generally ignored.)

    And in all that time, there was never a star who seemed quite as soulless as the man newly minted as A-Fraud, among other unflattering nicknames. Even in his silence-breaking, control-the-message interview with ESPN on Monday, he looked alien: Oompa Loompa orange and pink-lipped, rehearsed and opaque.

    As imperfect as he might be, however, baseball still hoped Rodriguez would erase Bonds as a Yankee, on the biggest stage in sports. Now that chase will be a drawn-out version of Bonds's torture march. The difference between Rodriguez and the other fallen icons -- Clemens, McGwire, Bonds -- is that the others were all near the end or done when the toxic news arrived. Rodriguez, 33, signed a 10-year, US$275-million extension last year, with US$6-million bonuses for each new rung reached on the career home run list. He is not going away.

    The tangible effects of this latest revelation, however, will be difficult to measure. Baseball has set attendance records in four of its past five seasons, and its revenues continue to mushroom. Baseball has historically done well in economic lulls. There will be exceptions -- probably Toronto, for one -- but as James Earl Jones intoned in Field of Dreams, people will come.

    And yet it feels like over the past 10 years or so the role of baseball as America's pure sporting love has been irrevocably altered, doesn't it? By the end of George W. Bush's eight years in office, Americans were simply ready to start again; maybe baseball has reached that point of exhaustion, too.

    If we're lucky, this will result in renewed appreciation of baseball as it was; maybe the old giants -- Hank Aaron and Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and the Babe -- will regain any stature lost in the flood. And maybe this is the bookend of grand and sordid revelations -- beginning with McGwire's use of a performance enhancer during his 70-homer season in 1998, and ending somewhere close to here.

    Spring training has always been about hope, from the very start. Count that as the biggest hope of all.

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