At a Tampa press conference on Feb. 17, Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez was asked whether his use of steroids for three seasons constituted “cheating.” “That is not for me to determine,” Rodriguez responded.
OK, you asked for it. Memo to A-Rod: You cheated.
To which the fallen superstar might answer, “Well, everyone was doing ‘roids, including the pitchers I was trying to hit”—and if everyone is cheating, it isn’t cheating. To which the answers are: First, not everyone was doing it (including some minor leaguers who missed their chance at The Show and the big money because they had too much respect for the game, their health, their integrity, or perhaps all three). And second, if there’s a fifth-grade conspiracy to cheat on the math test and everyone’s in on it, it’s still cheating.
A-rod is not the only confused camper in this sorry mess. I spend far too much time in my car listening to sports-talk radio, which I justify professionally because it’s a good way to get a fix on the moral confusions of contemporary American culture. Wasn’t Andy Pettitte’s use of steroids—which is to say, Andy Pettitte’s cheating—less odious than A-Rod’s, because Pettitte came cleaner sooner and gave a better press conference? (Answer: Pettitte may be more mature, today, than A-Rod—which is perhaps damning with faint praise. But cheating is cheating, period, and any assessment of Pettitte’s career must reckon with that.) Shouldn’t Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame, despite his deliberate decision to juice himself in order to out-slug Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? (Answer: None of them should be in the Hall of Fame, because the Hall ballot instructs voters to measure character as well as statistics, and they all disrespected the game by breaking the rules—the implicit moral rules, as well as the legal and professional rules.)
Yet what ought to be fairly obvious moral calls are sliced-and-diced all over the airwaves, and the debate is not terribly edifying. Immaturity, racial animosities, cultural differences, economic pressures—all are trotted out, if not as vindications, then as excuses for better-baseball-through-chemistry. None of them makes the slightest degree of moral sense, for cheating is cheating, no matter what one’s age, race, national origin, or income-level.
Yet the moral confusions of the steroids debate are nothing new, for today’s excuse-making was previewed in the debate over whether Pete Rose—an admittedly stellar player—should be in the Hall of Fame despite betting on games. To which the proper answer is: absolutely not, for every professional baseball player from the lowest minors on is told, and in no uncertain terms, that gambling on games gets you a lifetime ban from the sport, period. Pete Rose bet on games; the Hall, rightly understood, is an integral part of the sport; therefore, no Pete Rose plaque at Cooperstown, no matter how many confessions Rose eventually makes. That’s what Catholics used to call “temporal punishment due to sin.” The sin may be forgiven, but it leaves a residue that requires purification. Purgatory in this case means “No Cooperstown.”
Baseball’s steroid era is a national disgrace in which both management and labor played despicable roles: the arrogant players’ union, by ignoring its members’ health and protecting outrageous salaries at grave moral and possibly physical cost; the blockhead owners, by sacrificing the game’s integrity to a chemically induced slugfest they believed would restore the sport’s popular appeal after The Strike killed the World Series (an abomination the combined efforts of Hitler and Tojo failed to achieve). There are few heroes here, save the guys who didn’t cheat.
Is there any point in railing about this? Yes. Cultural critic Jacques Barzun, an immigrant to these shores, was right when he said that anyone who wanted to understand America had better understand baseball, the mirror of our national culture. If the Jackie Robinson/Pee Wee Reese Dodgers (or, in my case, the Frank Robinson/Brooks Robinson Orioles) embody America at its best, the steroid era holds up a mirror to an America in moral trouble. Both images bear considerable reflection.