To understand the significance that this event would have had in years gone past, one must realise the special place held by baseball in American society. There was a time in which it was more than a sport – it was also a pastime, as intrinsic a part of American society as apple pie and the 4th of July. Also, more so than any sport popular in the States, baseball has historical resonance – A-Rod’s numbers are comparable to those of Babe Ruth, for example, because they played the same largely individual game, even if they did so in different eras. Therefore milestones such as 600 home runs are moments to be celebrated, a time in which heroes are to be revered.
The reception to this landmark, which bear in mind had been coming for some time, has at best been muted. Fans, pundits, and even A-Rod himself have acknowledged that this moment is not as special as it once was, and perhaps should have been. That is for one simple reason, steroids.
Like the aforementioned Barry Bonds, and along with the likes of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemons (and a heck of a lot more), Rodriguez’s career has been tarnished by his use of steroids. He has acknowledged that he has cheated in the past, but such revelations naturally impacted on his popularity. Once the special one, the sport’s future Golden Boy, he is now hated by some, and certainly disliked by many, yours truly included. He is a cheat, and cheats should be castigated and excommunicated, of that there is no doubt.
But let’s look at this a different way, just for a moment. Alex Rodriguez took steroids in a time where other players took steroids too. Drug use, for a long period of time, was rampant. Did he cheat? Yes. But did he gain an unfair advantage? Well, probably, but he did so at a time in which several of his peers were doing the same. Pitchers such as Clemons, who Rodriguez faced throughout his career, were also on steroids so why shouldn’t he? It’s an argument I don’t like, but it’s a reasonably valid one regardless.
The sport itself seems to validate it by not imposing heavy suspensions on the likes of A-Rod when their transgressions emerge. Bonds and McGwire still hold their respective home run records, with not even an asterisk alongside them in the official record books, and the same stands for Rodriguez who has taken performance enhancing drugs while soaring through the rankings. Though they have competed in this tainted era, and though their records are tainted, the sport itself has not acknowledged this in the way that athletics would, stripping cheats of medals and records.
Until baseball does this, until it takes corrective action, until Bud Selig admits that they got it wrong and allowed this to happen and until the integrity of the game is protected, then muted receptions like the one we have seen this week will continue. The ‘meh’ response from fans must act as a wake-up call to those in charge, though why it would happen now and not before I don’t know.
Heroes who should be heralded will be disliked, and innocent players will have unfair doubts cast upon them. The sport as a whole will suffer, and its role as America’s past-time will be consigned to the past.