Phil Rogers: Alex Rodriguez's 600th home run reopens steroids debate

Steroid use may keep Rodriguez and others out of Hall of Fame

August 08, 2010|By Phil Rogers

On Wednesday, Alex Rodriguez became the seventh player to reach the 600-home-run level. He was the youngest to do it and is on a path that easily could give him another 163 homers, and the all-time record, before his contract ends in 2017.

Yet Rodriguez's milestone home run wasn't a big event outside of New York. It was more of an interruption in stories about the start of NFL camps and the deterioration of Tiger Woods' short game.

How would this have been played if Rodriguez had not wound up on the list of players who tested positive for steroids in 2003?

Would he have been celebrated as the anti- Barry Bonds?

He would have been in some quarters, just as some put their faith in Albert Pujols to be the syringe-free icon to deliver baseball from the steroid age. But there's no getting around suspicion with any prolific hitter who played a significant chunk of his career before 2004, when baseball began testing for real to slow the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The truth is, none of us really knows what to make of guys who were linked to steroids.

Do we shun them as if they were adulterers and this was 17th-century Puritan Boston? Do we knock them down a few notches on our collective rankings but still acknowledge the greatness that gave them the high level of performance to enhance? Or do we give them real forgiveness, buying into the thought that they were somehow victims of a tolerant culture?

Bill James believes that all those linked to steroids, even one-dimensional stars such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, eventually will be welcomed to the Hall of Fame. There's no doubt Rodriguez and Bonds belong among baseball's all-time elite.

But given the voters' negative judgment toward McGwire by voters, you wonder how long the wait will be for anyone whose record isn't completely clean.

There were 539 ballots cast by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America on the 2010 ballot, which gave Andre Dawson the writers' stamp of approval. That means there were probably also 539 different standards on the steroid question.

Should this really be for us writers to decide?

Though there's a perception that the BBWAA is the keeper of the Hall of Fame, all we do is serve at the discretion of the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors, who 75 years ago asked us to vote. It's time that board of directors — a body composed primarily of owners, executives and Hall of Fame players — tackles the steroid question.

It will be front and center in future elections, including the granddaddy of them all in 2013 (first-time eligibles include Bonds, Sosa, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza).

This much should be clear: No matter how small the crowd of true A-Rod fans is around America, he is a vital cog for the Joe Girardi-era Yankees.

He's no longer a guy who hits when it least matters, as he showed last October. He entered the weekend with 87 RBIs, and 37 of them (45 percent) either had tied the score or put the Yankees ahead.

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is among the old-school types who respect Rodriguez for his hitting.

"Six hundred, you can't write it any other way, can you?'' Gaston said of Rodriguez's milestone. "That's a lot of home runs. How many miles is that around the bases? That's a lot of miles.''

Gaston says he uses Rodriguez as an example to hitters about thinking with pitchers and looking for certain pitches in certain counts.

"Once in a while he'll get jammed, but the thing I like about him is that he has a plan,'' he told the New York Post. "Pitchers have plans on trying to get hitters out. Hitters should have plans, too. … I don't think anybody can say you have the wrong plan, not when you have 600 home runs. That's a pretty darn good plan.''

Did Rodriguez's plan include steady dosages of chemicals on baseball's banned list? He says he only dabbled when he was with the Rangers, and maybe that's all he did.

But it will color the way most fans look at him and anything he does forever, including an eventual run at Henry Aaron and Bonds.

progers@tribune.com

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