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Take 'em for the team, A-Rod

February 12, 2009|Zev Chafets | Zev Chafets' book on the Baseball Hall of Fame, "Cooperstown Confidential," will be published in May.

If it is true that Alex Rodriguez stopped using steroids in 2003, before he came to New York, the Yankees have been swindled. A-Rod hasn't been trying his hardest to win and help his team.

In A-Rod's defense, it could be argued that there is no empirical proof that taking anabolic steroids improves baseball performance. But baseball players think they do. A-Rod himself admits he took steroids to make himself one of the greatest players of all time.

Even if steroids are potentially dangerous (and despite suspicions, there is no proof that they cause permanent harm when properly administered to adult males), what of it? For many people, danger is the price of doing business. Construction workers, firefighters, cops and combat soldiers all take their lives in their hands to earn a living.

According to Sports Illustrated, 104 major leaguers tested positive for steroids in 2003. That's about 10% of the players in the majors.

Back in 2003, A-Rod didn't necessarily know who the other 103 users were. But he did know that they were out there someplace. They might have been pitchers he was facing, or fielders who caught up with his batted balls. He probably guessed that some of the juicers were the great hitters he was competing against for primacy and the money that goes with it.

Can anybody blame A-Rod for leveling the playing field? What was he supposed to say: My rivals may be chemically enhancing their performances, but that's just a disadvantage I must live with?

Baseball players have been doing drugs since Hall of Fame pitcher Pud Galvin shot up with monkey testosterone in 1889. And it's not just steroids, Since the '60s, major leaguers also have used amphetamines and downers. Players take them for professional purposes, not for fun.

As every Little Leaguer has been taught, you sacrifice what you must for the good of the team. You play hurt if necessary, and you take your advantages where you find them. Gaylord Perry threw spitballs, more or less publicly, for 20 years, and he got into Cooperstown. As a player, John McGraw tripped so many base runners that baseball was forced to introduce an infield umpire -- and McGraw is in the Hall of Fame too. Even Babe Ruth was caught corking his bat. These and a hundred other incidents of sign stealing, bat tippling, ball scuffing and bat doctoring are staples of baseball lore, lovingly recounted by after-dinner speakers and broadcasters across American generations. Cheating is as much a part of Major League Baseball as alcoholism, ethnic bench jockeying and the ground-rule double.

Besides, let's be honest. Americans love chemicals that provide an edge. Students use them to cram for finals. Pilots and surgeons take Provigil to keep sharp. Trial lawyers and Broadway actors pop beta blockers to ward off stage fright. Bob Dole pitched Viagra on television. I've even heard rumors about sportswriters who smoothed out their workdays with Prozac.

Science marches on, no matter how much we long for the pristine days before medication. Ballplayers will always look for an edge, and chemists will always come up with one, and a way to evade testing too.

"Everybody does it" is not a moral defense, but honestly, is this really a moral issue? Baseball hasn't treated it that way.

Forty years after Jim Bouton revealed the widespread use of "greenies," no players have been seriously punished for using chemicals. Even now, the only real threat is getting banned from the Hall of Fame, and we'll see how long that lasts in the age of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and A-Rod. The baseball establishment still hasn't made a real effort to stop players from using steroids, because it is believed that steroids enhance performance and help win games -- and that is what professional baseball is all about.

Except, it turns out, to A-Rod. For the last four seasons, he has let his teammates and his fans down by doing less than his best. Unless, of course, he is lying about having quit in 2003, and he's been enhancing right along. Say that it's so, A-Rod. Say that it's so.

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