I've been working on a project involving the '27 Yankees, still by most counts revered as the best baseball team ever. Let's just say my research has not led me to believe they are also the finest role models ever.
That thought came to mind as Alex Rodriguez confronted both his Yankee season debut and a potential suspension that would last into his fourth decade. Once considered a possible challenger to Barry Bonds' dubious achievement of 762 career home runs, his only challenge to Bonds will now be who gets into the Hall of Fame last, if at all. But in the pantheon of baseball heroes with muddy feet, A-Rod is, as he is in so many other ways, just a pretender to the throne of most egregious fallen hero.
Lest you think I'm just going to drag out the old "Babe was out of control and the Mick drank and Pete gambled and everyone took speed" argument, consider this one anecdote about Lou Gehrig, historically the most respected player of all time. During his second year, in a game against the Tigers, Gehrig hit a single and overran first base, whereupon Ty Cobb threw behind him and started a rundown, which ended with Cobb running in from center field, tagging Gehrig out, and letting him know as only Cobb could (talk about your role models) what he thought of him as a player and a man.
What did the Iron Horse do then? Walk away with dignity? Hit a homer his next time up? Nope. He went after Cobb, got thrown out of the game, couldn't be restrained by his teammates and then, after the game was over and he'd had plenty of time to think about it, went after Cobb and threw a haymaker at him which, fortunately for both of them, missed badly, with Gehrig hitting his head on the dugout steps, knocking himself out. When he woke up, the first words out of his mouth were not "What was I thinking?" They were "Did I win?"
Now I'm not dumb enough to compare A-Rod to Lou Gehrig, who by most accounts was a quiet, decent man who had some of the most remarkable offensive seasons in baseball history. And most of you will read that story and laugh: Hey, those old-timers were pretty funky out there, huh. But imagine if that incident had happened today and, worse, if Gehrig had connected? The shower of judgment and invective, the Latrell Sprewell and Kermit Washington comparisons on countless debate shows, the season-long suspension, the unctuous columns and commentary on how Lou let us down.
It's sad but not surprising that the closer technology and media bring us to our would-be heroes, the more fault we find in them. We'd rather believe in the myths and legends we create than in the real players in front of us, who can do extraordinary things but cannot, in the end, escape the flawed nature of being human. The steroids myth cycle is playing out on a continuous loop: First, Mac and Sammy were going to drag us of the post-strike '90s with a feel-good buddy movie about hitting dingers. When that turned out to be fiction, we then got the tent-pole of Bonds, the perfect super-villain you loved to hate but couldn't stop watching. After that, A-Rod and Ryan Braun (and a few other hefty sluggers whose bodies have suspiciously broken down over the past few years) were going to star in the redemption flick, the new feel-good message being that all is well now that we've gotten rid of a few rotten apples. All that's missing is Charlie Brown lining up to kick that disappearing football again.
It's been said that sports in America is a religion, and while that has always seemed to me an overreaching and glib statement, it does seem like baseball, our most venerable sport, is well on its way, complete with a rigid moral code and a strong fundamentalist strain that resists change. Consider the ongoing and often silly argument between traditionalist guys and analytics guys. Not long ago my editor and I got into a discussion about this question: If we can predict so much of what happens in a season, won't we lose our belief in the magic of the game? He's a very bright and skilled editor, and still a young man, so he's not naturally inclined to nostalgia. But he said he missed the time when he didn't know so much about what was likely to happen and could just, well, wait and see.
I pointed out to him that the best analytics in the world could not predict the outcome of any single play, just its likely outcome, and could never predict what economists call the "black swan," the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that isn't in the numbers. I told him that when Derek Jeter made that backhand flip to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate during the 2001 playoffs, my colleague Steve Wulf, one of the great baseball writers of this generation and a man who has literally seen thousands of games, turned to me and said: "That's what I love about this game. Watch long enough and you'll STILL see something you've never seen before." My editor was not convinced nor consoled.
These arguments, about the science and the magic, reflect those that have divided scientists and theologians for millennia. We love the stories we tell ourselves about where we came from and what our heroes did to get us here. That these might reflect the vivid imaginations of storytellers from the past who had no other plausible exclamation to fall back on, or maybe just liked making stuff up to keep us entertained, does not reduce our passion for them. And those that puncture those myths thoughtlessly will pay the price.
So now it's A-Rod's turn on the Promethean rock, sure to be torn to shreds by the birds of prey in and around our business. What a relief for Bonds and Roger Clemens, who failed, and not for the last time, to get into the Hall this summer. And for Braun, who finds himself quickly displaced on the rock by A-Rod, although probably not in Milwaukee. And for the memory of Lou Gehrig, who fortunately lived in a time when the cameras were far away and bloggers were not a part of the English language.
Maybe he was the luckiest man.
Gary Hoenig is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.