Alex Rodriguez already made the transition from phenom to self-contained punchline, but now he's moving on to something different.
We're all a little guilty of some Mike Trout-related hyperbole. When we talk about how we'd never seen a rookie season like Trout's, how he was a new specimen, developed and weaponized in a mountain bunker somewhere, that was only mostly true. You had to use the qualifier "for a rookie", and even then Trout was just barely a rookie.
Alex Rodriguez had 64 more at-bats in his breakout season than Trout did before his, so there really wasn't much of a difference. Both were in their age-20 season when they each went crazy with the bat, doing things that 20-year-olds shouldn't do. There was a comp for Trout's season right in front of us all along, right down to the part where the phenom loses the MVP to a hulking slugger because of dingers, RBI, and a division title. Alex Rodriguez, in 1996, was Mike Trout.
Think about what Mike Trout probably represents to you right now. Even if you're a Mariners, Rangers, or A's fan who had to watch him run around silly, there's likely some measure of respect, if not awe. There goes one of the purest baseball specimens to ever live, you might think. There goes the ball of cells and neurons and muscles that is the culmination of a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years and producing a happier, mass-market-paperback sequel to Bernard Malamud's original.
Think about what Alex Rodriguez probably represented to you before today. MVP seasons. Centaurs. New York-manufactured controversy. A Hall of Fame-caliber career, at least going off the numbers and "fame" part. Steroids. Deliciously enjoyable called strike-threes to end playoff series. The pursuit of the all-time home-run record. Moments in forced self-awareness gone wrong. One of the best shortstops ever, before he was one of the best third basemen ever.
There was already a fall from Trout-like purity for Rodriguez. It happened years and years ago. Maybe it started with his contract with the Rangers, when he had the temerity to get paid what a team thought he was worth. Maybe it really started with his Yankees career, when the magnifying glass was tuned more finely. But where right now Trout means nothing apart from a baseball player doing amazing baseball things, A-Rod has been a complicated melange of good and bad, amazing and strange, for several years now.
And if you thought that was a mixed blessing for him, you might have been right before Tuesday, when the new scandal broke. But right now, that seems like a best-case scenario. There was never any way to stuff the toothpaste back in the tube when it came to viewing A-Rod as nothing more than one of baseball's all-time greats. He was going to be a player who summoned conflicting emotions. However, if the allegations in this report are true, Alex Rodriguez's legacy will be steroids, steroids, steroids. More so than Bonds and McGwire, even if they blazed the trail. There's a difference between then and now.
First, to be fair, we should note Rodriguez's statement today, first related by Joel Sherman:
The news report about a purported relationship between Alex Rodriguez and Anthony Bosch are not true. Alex Rodriguez was not Mr. Bosch’s patient, he was never treated by him and he was treated by him and he was never advised by him. The purported documents referenced in the story -- at least as they relate to Alex Rodriguez -- are not legitimate.
That is an unambiguous statement. So hold off on tarring Rodriguez with the scarlet "S" just yet. Well, wait, he already had one. What comes after the first scarlet letter? Is it an armband, or something carved into the forehead? Maybe it's one of those roadside guys following him around, flipping a foam sign and dancing. Whatever it is, hold off. Plan it out, but don't act on it.
But back to the difference between the days of BALCO and the days of Biogenesis. I don't know when steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs will be placed in their proper historical context, but it will happen one of these days. Right now, the opinion-shapers have crafted a narrative that revolves around morality and immorality, good and bad, cheaters and saints. Eventually, the narrative will have to do with money, vanity, group-think, blissful ignorance, hyper-competitive athletes at the top of a hyper-competitive pyramid, and more than enough blame and culpability to go around.
People will look back at the rise of steroids and see a unique period in baseball's history, when dingers were a-poppin', and reporters could get pilloried for asking questions about powders kept in plain sight. The change in public perception wasn't exactly glacial, but it certainly didn't happen overnight. It was a process. And there was a grace period built in there, I think. Decades from now, anyone caught up in the steroid scandals of the '90s and early '00s will get something of a pass. It won't be a full pass. But there will be a sense of, "That's how it was back then."
I think. I also picked the Red Sox to win the Wild Card last year.
The afterword to the "That's how it was back then" era, though, will have to do with the smattering of players who got caught after the initial hullabaloo. After the Congressional meetings, after the books, after the MLBPA capitulated and offered up regular blood tributes, there will be players who get pinched. And those players won't have the sanctity of "That's just how it was." They'll be looked at like anachronistic freaks.
And Alex Rodriguez will be the leader of that wave. It will define him.*
* If all this is true. Which Rodriguez categorically denies is the case. So there's room for ambiguity right now. But it doesn't look good.
As someone who has never been close to the best in the world at anything, who has never had unspeakable pressure from tens of millions of fans, who has never known the need to live up to a hundred-million-dollar contract, and who has never been faced with the inevitable possibility of losing that best-in-the-world talent at a relatively young age, I'm reluctant to judge A-Rod. Unless any of that applies to you, you probably should, too. So this isn't a post about what should happen to A-Rod. Just what will.
Rodriguez was a complicated figure before all this, and will be after this. But he'll be a complicated figure on something of an island, all alone. The big difference is that he wasn't just a part of that period of baseball. He might have kept going and added to what was already an unfortunate legacy. It seems incredible, but he used to be the Mike Trout of the '90s. Goodness, what a fall. What a fall.