Defending A-Rod from moralising sports writers

A Yankees fan is not impressed by a book which claims that Alex Rodriguez is a demanding, self-absorbed drug-taker.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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This article is republished from the July 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Alex Rodriguez has been baseball’s best player for about the past decade, and is considered one of the best ever to play the game. ‘A-Rod’, as he is known, plays third base for the New York Yankees. Among his many achievements, he reached 500 career home runs at a younger age than any other player, and now, at 34, he is on track to break the all-time record. Rodriquez is also the sport’s highest-paid: in 2007 he signed a 10-year, $275million deal, the biggest in history.

A-Rod has been a controversial figure for some time. His nationwide notoriety really began in 2000 after he signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers for $252million. It was a jaw-dropping sum – $63million more than the next highest-paid athlete – for someone exceptionally young (25) and relatively inexperienced (five full seasons in the majors). In 2004 he was traded to the Yankees, and fell under the full glare of the New York media spotlight. Despite excellent batting statistics over many years, he has been dogged by the charge that he does not perform in the clutch and has never led a team to a championship (1).

In February of this year, Sports Illustrated reported that Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids during the 2003 season. In response, he went on a TV interview and admitted taking banned substances from 2001 through 2003, explaining ‘I was young, I was stupid, I was naive’; he expressed regret (2). Before this revelation, A-Rod was considered ‘clean’, an exception to the ‘steroids era’; now his reputation has been damaged.

As it happens, players back in 2003 were assured that the drug test results would remain anonymous, and it is not known how they were leaked to Sports Illustrated. Selena Roberts is one of the co-authors of the SI piece that broke the A-Rod steroids story. Following on from that article, Roberts has published a much longer profile, A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez, which has fanned the flames of controversy further.

Roberts’ study attempts to reveal A-Rod the man, not just the player. She portrays Rodriguez as insecure, self-absorbed, high-maintenance, self-pitying – to name only a few of the negative attributes she ascribes to him. His ‘many lives’ of the subtitle refer to the contradictory images she believes he presents. For example, she finds him torn between family obligations and hedonistic impulses, such as breaking up with his wife to date Madonna and join her Kabbalah group.

Indeed, in Roberts’ A-Rod you will learn a lot about his relationship with Madonna. Roberts is considered by many to be a serious sportswriter, but her book is first and foremost gossip and celebrity news. And to make things worse, she attempts to explain A-Rod’s supposed character flaws by continual reference to the fact his father left the family home when he was a child: ‘Baseball gave and gave to Alex. It supplied the attention he craved. It soothed the insecurities he battled. It filled holes opened by childhood abandonment. Baseball wasn’t like his father. Baseball never left him.’

One of Roberts’ allegations in the book is that, in lopsided games, Rodriquez would tip off opposing team’s batters as to the type of pitch that was coming from his own team’s pitcher, in the hope that they would return the favour to him when he came up to bat. Roberts uses this as an example of A-Rod’s selfish, anti-team behaviour. But the claim is ludicrous. Not only is it based on unnamed sources; it doesn’t even make sense. There would be no guarantee that this unspoken arrangement would work; certain players would be in no position to provide a quid-pro-quo; and even knowing whether a pitch is going to be a fastball, curve or whatever, it’s still not easy to hit. Baseball is the most statistically-examined American sport, and sure enough, to test Roberts’ claim, someone analysed hitters’ performances during A-Rod’s blow-out games and found ‘the data provide a resounding answer: either no tipping was going on or it was pathetically ineffective’ (3).

Roberts’ most serious allegations concern steroids and other drugs. She goes beyond the claims in her article in SI to allege that Rodriguez began taking such drugs in high school, and has continued to take them up through his years with the Yankees. In other words, she claims Rodriguez lied when he said his drug-taking was limited to the 2001 to 2003 period.

A big problem with her argument is that it is unsubstantiated. There is no evidence presented; it is based on anonymous sources. Those who are quoted cannot say they saw A-Rod take steroids, or provide any other proof. For example, a trainer, Fernando Montes, is cited as saying about Rodriguez’s weight-lifting ability in high school: ‘It’s so out of the ordinary. It’s not physically possible without some type of steroid enhancement.’ Well, the whole point about A-Rod is that he is an ‘out of the ordinary’ athlete, and exceptional ability does not prove steroids use. The veteran sportswriter Murray Chass writes: ‘There is far too much in this book for Roberts to expect readers to take on faith that her anonymous sources are real and they can be trusted.’ Chass calls her book a ‘journalistic abomination’ and adds: ‘That phrase probably won’t appear in any advertisement for the book.’

Based on her prior work, Roberts is not a writer who can always be trusted. While in her previous job at the New York Times, she played a leading role in the now notorious Duke lacrosse rape case. Roberts was one of the ringleaders of the media mob that denigrated the Duke University lacrosse players, who in 2006 were falsely accused of rape. One Roberts article compared the players to ‘drug dealers and gang members’ (4). KC Johnson, co-author of the authoritative study of the case, Until Proven Innocent, has detailed Roberts’ errors and misleading statements on his blog (5). Even after it was conclusively shown that the district attorney fabricated the case, Roberts has not admitted her articles were problematic, nor has she apologised.

This may be because Roberts appears to believe there is a truth larger than the individual lives involved. Jason Whitlock, another sports commentator, sees a parallel between Roberts’ approach to the Duke players and her approach to A-Rod: ‘She wanted the Duke lacrosse players to be shining examples of how deep-rooted and protected sexism is, and she was more than willing to ignore their innocence to make her point… She wants Alex Rodriguez to stand as a shining example of what’s wrong with American sports and she just might be willing to ignore the flattering truths about A-Rod and publish hearsay and gossip to make her point.’ (6)

For all Roberts’ faults, it is worth noting that, unfortunately, she is just one of the worst examples of a general trend for sportswriters to become moralisers about society, rather than explaining the sport itself. This is evident in the obsession with steroids, which almost always is accompanied by a heavy dose of moral condemnation. Indeed, when reading the criticisms of Roberts, I wondered, what if another investigator comes along and proves that she is right, and A-Rod did take steroids for a longer period? Would that make her type of gossip and innuendo approach okay, because it gets to the supposed truth about steroids?

Rather than moralise about steroids and other drugs in sport, they ought to be looked at dispassionately. As I pointed out in spiked last year, there is little proof that steroids enhance performance or damage health. And government investigations and the criminalisation of athletes should be opposed (7). My sense from talking to fellow baseball fans is that most have moved well beyond concern with them and are now bored with the subject. They often remark that players have always taken all sorts of substances, they always will and we’ll never know, and so what, it’s still a great game.

The fans seem far ahead of the sportswriters, who still bang on about steroids as if they are providing a public service announcement. Baseball writers decide which players will enter the Hall of Fame, and many have already said they will not vote for someone they believe to have taken steroids. It is as if they believe they have a higher, moral duty to judge character, rather than deciding which player compiled the best performance statistics in his era.

The social discussion of baseball (and other sports) has changed. In the past, there were plenty of examples of ‘bad’ behaviour. In the 1920s, Babe Ruth (the game’s first celebrity) was known for drinking and his wife had a mental breakdown due to his ‘womanising’; in the 1950s/1960s, another hall-of-famer, Mickey Mantle, was also a notorious carouser. Yet, in both cases, the players’ escapades were often kept quiet by the media, who focused more attention on what they did on the field, and on the fact that they were great players.

Contrast that with the discussion of A-Rod. First of all, A-Rod’s ‘bad’ behaviour is different. While Ruth and Mantle were slated for imbibing booze, today Roberts (and others) disparage A-Rod because he prefers water to alcohol when out at a nightclub, viewing this as something weird and narcissistic. And today steroids are considered ‘bad’, even though when Rodriquez and others have resorted to drugs it is typically because they are dedicated competitors who want to find an edge and improve their performance (unlike alcohol, which in excess impairs performance over time). The other difference today is that players’ supposed bad behaviour is the media’s primary focus, at the expense of discussing the game itself. In Ruth’s and Mantle’s days, the bad behaviour was a sideshow, if reported at all.

As it happens, I really don’t care who A-Rod sleeps with, or what supplements he ingests. As a fan of the game, what I would like to know includes: what makes him so good? Many like to say simply that he is ‘talented’, but that does not seem to give him credit for hard work and skill development. How is he able to perform so consistently? His swing is a thing of beauty, a combination of fluidity and power. How did he grow from being among the best young players to become the top player in the game, and how has he adjusted his play over time?

Yes, there is a world that surrounds baseball, like the money and celebrities. Yet the great thing about the game is that, once the first pitch is thrown, it is all about what happens between the white lines. The challenges and drama that interest me and other sports fans are those that are inherent in the game itself, not from how athletes interact with broader society between games.

A-Rod could not play at the beginning of this season due to a hip injury. With the swirling steroids allegations, all eyes were upon him when he returned to the line-up in early May for a game in Baltimore, and fans there taunted him. He responded by hitting the first pitch thrown to him out of the park. Take that.

Since then, the season hasn’t gone that well for him. His statistics are not terrible, but they are not anywhere near his standards. Many now argue that Albert Pujols is the new top player in the game. The steroids controversy has died down, as most fans around the country have got over it, but A-Rod still has to contend with those self-appointed moral guardians, the sportswriters. A-Rod’s best riposte to them is to do what he did in Baltimore – hit a home run.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

This article is republished from the July 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez, by Selena Roberts, is published by Harper Collins. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) It is true that Rodriquez has generally performed poorly in the post-season playoffs, but it is false that he fails to deliver in high-pressure situations during the regular season. See Alex Rodriguez, clutch hitter, Wall Street Journal, 11 September 2008

(2) A-Rod admits, regrets use of PEDs, espn.com, 9 February 2009

(3) Did tipping pitches help Rodriguez and others? Numbers say no, New York Times, 17 May 2009

(4) When peer pressure, not a conscience, is your guide, New York Times, 31 March 2006

(5) Selena Roberts and journalistic credibility, Durham-in-Wonderland, 4 May 2009. For a review of the excellent Until Proven Innocent, see PC in the dock, by Sean Collins, 26 October 2007

(6) Bio hazard: A-Rod author has credibility issues, FOXsports.com, 7 May 2009

(7) Baseball’s Salem, by Sean Collins, 9 April 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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