Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod to you sports fans, finally hit his 600th home run. But has news of a ballplayer passing a major career milestone ever seemed more hollow?
It should be cause for excitement. Only six other players in baseball history have managed the feat. Three are among the most beloved to ever swing a bat: Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays. A fourth, Ken Griffey Jr., commands widespread respect too. But Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader with 762, and Sammy Sosa, well, they're another story.
It's a dark, sad story, one shared by Rodriguez. The legacies of Bonds and Sosa are tainted by accusations that they used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to boost their home-run totals. A-Rod's case is even clearer: He's one of the few ballplayers to have openly admitted to having been drug-enhanced.
After Bonds surpassed the popular Aaron – an African-American who endured racial slurs with dignity and grace in 1976 when he broke Ruth's long-standing home run record – much of the baseball world cringed. But hope was on the horizon. Rodriguez, who at the time was assumed to be drug free, had the youth and ability to someday surpass Bonds and restore respectability to the throne of Home Run King.
Rodriguez may still pass Bonds – though he'll still need another five or six productive seasons to do it. But if he does, the taint of baseball's steroid scandal will no longer be washed from one of baseball's most revered records. One cheater will be replaced by another.
Is "cheater" too harsh a word? What else can A-Rod be called?
Even the other players know it. "Normally, I'm fired up about people getting those milestone numbers, pitcher or hitter, but this just takes away from it," former major league pitcher David Wells told the New York Daily News, referring to A-Rod's accomplishment. "It'll be just another number for me and, if you're dirty, it's not going to be the same for most fans, either,"
"Individuals have chosen the wrong road and they have chosen that as their legacy," said former player Andre Dawson at his induction into baseball's Hall of Fame earlier this summer, without referring to A-Rod or any other player by name. Dawson, who played before the "steroid era," urged today players to think carefully about their own decisions. "Others still have a chance to choose their [legacies]. Do not be lured to the dark side. It's a stain on the game, a stain that's gradually being removed."
Mark McGwire once hit 70 home runs in a season and 583 in all. Last winter he tearfully confessed to making a poor decision in using drugs. His bad choice has kept him out of baseball's Hall of Fame, at least for now. Will A-Rod face a similar fate? Or is 600 home runs too big a number to ignore?
President Obama summed up what a lot of baseball fans were thinking in a 2009 press conference after A-Rod's drug use was revealed. "I think it's depressing news...," Obama said. "If you're a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era to some degree. It's unfortunate because I think there are a lot of ball players who played it straight."
As Monitor editorial board member Josh Burek pointed out in May, referring then to doping in the cycling world, drug cheats violate at least three cardinal principles of athletic competition: They corrupt the very essence of sports, in which athletes seek to perform their best, but not to win at any cost. And they violate a trust by breaking the rules that the other competitors agree to abide by.
Few would argue that Rodriguez and Bonds, in particular, have always been unusually gifted and hard-working athletes, even before they took drugs. They could have had Hall of Fame careers without illegal helpers. The shame is that they couldn't resist the temptation to gain an extra advantage.
And that takes all the fun out of cheering what should have been their inspiring accomplishments.