A-Roid and Armstrong

by Rant on August 20, 2013 · 4 comments

in Alex Rodriguez, Baseball

When last I occupied this space, Ryan Braun had just been proclaimed “the Lance Armstrong of baseball” by ESPN.com’s Buster Olney. Then a funny thing happened. Not long after that Alex Rodriguez and a number of other players were suspended for their connections to the Biogenesis lab in Florida.

So, what’s a wag to ask, except: If Braun was the Armstrong of baseball, what does that make A-Roid, exactly?

My point, in the previous post, was that comparisons like Braun being the baseball equivalent of Armstrong aren’t very precise. They are an easy way of making an analogy that people not familiar with a sport might understand. A nice shorthand, as it were. And given Armstrong’s current pariah status (well earned), he would be a perfect target for such treatment when some athlete commits a Great Doping Sin Against Sports We Hold Near and Dear.

In Braun’s case, though, the comparison wasn’t the best. Especially with reports at the time already connecting Rodriguez and others to the lab, and with speculation running rife that those individuals would be suspended in the not too distant future.

Truth is, A-Roid more deservedly merits the comparison to Armstrong. Rumors about drug use for years? Check. Denials of rumored drug use? Check. Attitude? Check. Now, to my knowledge, A-Roid has never been quite the bully that Armstrong was, but perhaps that might come out in time. But in most respects, the match between Rodriguez and Armstrong is a better one.

In the immediate aftermath of Rodriguez’s suspension, people who don’t normally comment on sports or doping were getting into the act. David Brooks, who writes a column for The New York Times, felt compelled to weigh in, and offered up this gem of pop psychology:

One of the mysteries around Rodriguez is why the most supremely talented baseball player on the planet would risk his career to allegedly take performance-enhancing drugs?

My theory would be that self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. They have no outside criteria that tell them what their talents are for or when they are sufficient. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.

Say what? In a sport where performance enhancing drugs have been used since … oh, I don’t know … just about forever … it’s a mystery why Rodriguez would use them? Really? Does The Mitchell Report not ring a bell?

Is Brooks trying to say that Rodriguez is a self-absorbed jerk? If so, that’s a whole lot more concise and precise than the pablum and gibberish he wrote in that second paragraph. The psychobabble Brooks offers up is fatuous.

No one really knows what goes on in Rodriguez’s head except A-Roid, and my hunch is he ain’t telling any time soon. Does anyone actually review the columns before they’re published? My editor/copyeditor (OK, that’s me) would be embarrassed if I wrote such meaningless tripe. But hey, maybe that’s why Brooks writes for The Times and I write my little blog over here.

Somewhere else [update: it was a piece from Outside Magazine] I saw an explanation of the A-Roid phenomenon using game theory, though I don’t remember where at the moment. We don’t really need any fancy theories to understand why Rodriguez did what he did. It’s simple. It boils down to money. And maybe a desire for fame, too. But mostly money.

Given that Rodriguez signed a pretty fat contract a number of years ago ($250 million over 10 years, as I recall), we can find all the incentive to dope right there. Rodriguez’s employers agreed to pay him an obscene amount of money to play baseball. In return, they expect him to play really well. Seems like a fair trade, kind of. In order to ensure that he played well, it appears that Rodriguez used PEDs. Did he start before or after getting the contract, you might ask. No idea. I’d guess before, but I could be wrong.

Even if he hadn’t been doping before, once he signed that contract A-Roid had 250 million reasons to take drugs, and not much in the way of disincentives. Baseball’s testing program in the major leagues is pretty minimal compared to what sports covered by WADA-affiliated anti-doping agencies are subjected to. The odds on testing positive as an MLB player are still pretty darn small.

In a typical year, Armstrong would have been subject to quite a bit more testing in and out of competition that Rodriguez or Braun. And Armstrong, with all his resources, “never tested positive.” But Rodriguez’s contract dwarfs what Armstrong was paid, and extended over a much longer period of time. So he could easily have put together a doping team every bit as effective as Lance’s.

So, big surprise, A-Roid doped. And bigger surprise, he’s appealing his suspension — and playing while he appeals. Again, it boils down to money. He keeps getting paid, and if he wins (not likely in my estimation), his pocketbook will be all the fatter for it. As an aging athlete, he’s likely to perform better now than he will after sitting out an entire season. It makes perfect sense for A-Roid to keep on slugging away.

So Rodriguez is still playing, and enduring catcalls from the fans, and getting beaned by a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. We’ll see how well this works out for him (I’m guessing he’ll be on a rather long “vacation” from the sport in the near future.) Meanwhile, Ryan Braun made the smart choice (well, the smartest choice available). By next spring, if/when he starts playing again, the fans will probably have moved on. Maybe not forgiven, but most likely forgotten. Sort of like The Mitchell Report.

Post to Twitter

MattC August 21, 2013 at 6:15 am

Welcome back Rant…was wondering when you were going to jump in on the A-roid thing. I’m trying not to be too judgmental, but I think your comparisons of Rodriguez to “he who shall not be named” is pretty much spot-on.

Baseball isn’t quite the same as Cycling in that there is no distinct top-dog, but Rodriguez is about as close as there is I guess. Certainly he’s one of the most famous (infamous?) players in recent years. About the only thing different is that he hasn’t taken to the courts and publicly squashed anybody who doubts his denials of doping as gospel (which IMO is what made Armstrong the most vilified athlete in sports history, not his doping).

Lance had huge clout in those winning years…he was a winner, and everybody wanted to be a part of that. He spoke and important people paid attention. He had the ears of corporate CEO’s and Presidents. He dated a rock star, had movie stars hanging out with him. He commanded respect (and fear?) everywhere he went. I can’t think of any other athlete that has ever been so powerful and well-known throughout the world…the closest I can think of would have been Michael Jordan during his reign as the supreme basketball player on the planet (though Tiger Woods was pretty close there for a few years, until his public self-destruction.

Unlike golf and basketball (and baseball), cycling is much more of a worldwide sport, where basketball and golf are much more localized (though golf comes much closer). Soccer (football) rivals cycling as a worldwide sport (and if the number of fans and income generated is considered I’d say it eclipses all other sports on the planet), but cycling is still unique in that it’s a team sport but there are individual winners in every single event.

In the end I also think you nailed it on the head…it all comes down to money. LOTS of money. LUDICROUS amounts of money. Only acting as a career rates on par with sports as to the insane incomes of the top percentile. And it seems almost universal that with that insane amount of money comes the ego that it is deserved. I think that you could substitute the word “money” for “power” in the old quote “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. It seems there are very few people who can handle either great power and/or great money, and not be drawn to the dark side where they place themselves above the rest of society where they believe the normal rules no longer apply to them.

I certainly can’t claim to understand the thinking of an elite mega-millionaire athlete…but it would seem reasonable to assume that in their minds anything they can do to maintain their career is justified and is in fact ‘just part of the job’. Maybe in the end that is actually true…the sporting fans just want to have their hero’s, and aren’t all that interested in the ‘how’ as long as it remains a secret. Only when the dirt is exposed to the light of day do the people rise up and gather their pitchforks and torches to march on the castle, proclaiming their surprise and hatred at the evil villain.

It will be interesting to watch how the A-roid saga plays out in the end. He is certainly not the favorite that he was before this latest doping scandal broke into the headlines. For now he has placed himself above that and continues to play as if nothing has happened. Maybe that is his best move, I surely don’t know. One thing that rings true is that most everybody loves a comeback, and seems quite willing to forget the sins of the past. Tiger Woods can attest to that. Maybe that’s what Lance is hoping for…the old saying “time heals all wounds”…but some wounds just take more time than others. A LOT more time.

Sheesh..this kind of turned into a post…sorry Rant!

Rant August 21, 2013 at 10:33 am

Hey, Matt, any time you want to do a guest post, let me know. :-D

MattC August 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

Hey Rant, well…that’s what happens when I’m at work by 4am (12 hr days right now, 7 days a week)…the mind rattles on in a drunken-state of tiredness.

What was I talking about?

William Schart August 31, 2013 at 10:26 am

Money may be the root of many evils, but I doubt it was much of a factor in this doping case:

http://espn.go.com/olympics/weightlifting/story/_/id/9617275/80-year-old-weightlifter-busted-doping

Previous post:

Next post: