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Sunday, February 15, 2009

The revelation that A-Rod was using steroids back in in '03, and the subsequent hubbub has been percolating in my mind for a few days. What is there to say about it? I liked the crack that some sports radio character made: "If he was going to take steroids, why didn't he take the good kind that get you hits after the seventh inning?" That gets close to the problem, but not close enough-- it's a snarky way of saying that Rodriguez has never seemed clutch, but it ducks the statistical reality-- by the numbers he's already one of the all-time greats. Bonds and Clemens also qualify for the "Why, when you had everything already?" question, and it is interesting to wonder if the same drive to become great also lead all three of them to take the chance with steroids. Nobody ever thinks they'll get caught, at anything, which is why the jails are full, so it is easy to see how the risk of getting busted got by them. And the health risk? That probably seemed even more unlikely. By the way, isn't it interesting that now we have a white guy, a black guy and a Hispanic guy to be the Mount Rushmore of the Steroid Era in baseball?

What really gnawed at me, though, was that a lot of sportswriters were talking about Alex Rodriguez in terms that suggested that he was the likely savior of the sport. I've never heard a fan say that, but it seemed even odder hearing it from the sporting press. Fact is, what A-Rod, Clemens and Bonds all always seemed to have in common has always been that nobody seems to have liked them much-- ever.

As I read William C. Rhoden's column in the NYTimes Friday it struck me. Rhoden called Rodriguez "baseball's biggest star" and then I realized what was bothering me. No way is Alex Rodriguez baseball's biggest star. He is a phenomenal player, absolutely. He is a terrific athlete-- drugs or no drugs. But to call him baseball's biggest star is to misunderstand something fundamental about what we expect from our pop culture/sports heroes. It is the equivalent of saying that Kiss is/was as great as the Beatles. You could certainly make an argument that Gene Simmons and his Kabuki pals are more notable than I think they are, but to rank them with the Babe Ruth of rock bands you are going to have to base your argument on the same grounds that the A-Rod people are using to assert that poor old Alex ranks with the greats. It is purely a statistical argument. Kiss (is that supposed to be all caps, by the way?) sold a ton of sides-- more, I guess, than the Beatles-- and therefore Kiss is better. Certainly that is one metric, and it is certainly an important one, but it is not the only one. In an odd way this is Bill James' fault. I yield to no-one in my admiration for James' work. He changed the way we think about baseball, and sports, and he did it while writing about it in a deft, humorous way. I'd say that the best of Bill James' writing is some of the best humor writing produced since Russell Baker was at his peak, and it is a real loss to our culture that a lot of it is buried away in old "Baseball Abstracts" that a lot of people are never going to read. James has been right more often than not, and he was certainly right to argue that greater scientific objectivity should be applied to our understanding of baseball-- the game itself, and the careers of the players. It took a long time to get there, but now most people who watch baseball understand things like on-base percentage, and the reasons that power can be more valuable than average, and why saves are a poor measure of effectiveness across historical periods. What we've lost sight of, sort of, is that the sport is more than merely what we read in the agate print. Are Alex Rodriguez' statistics amazing? Of course. A-Rod is so far out on the bell curve that he is already one of the game's great outliers. Is he the bigest star in the game? Oh no. No he is not. He is not the way Pete Rose was not, only maybe people went to the ballpark to see Pete Rose. I'm not so sure that people in Cleveland, or Detroit say, "Hey, the Yanks are in town. Let's go to a game, we might see A-Rod do something amazing." That's what people say when you are one of the game's biggest stars. I said it once when I was in Montreal and the Giants were in town, and Bonds didn't disappoint. I saw Bo Jackson play in Yankee Stadium on that theory, and Bo was great too. I can think of a lot of players like that, but A-Rod has never been one of them. A-Rod is only baseball's biggest star in the sense that the person who has the high score on the Asteroids game is the biggest star of the pizza place the kids hang around at after school.

It is certainly disappointing that Alex Rodriguez is such a tool, but he has been kind of a tool for his whole career. He is incapable of disappointing me, and he shouldn't be capable of disappointing anyone else. Except maybe Madonna.

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