Alex Rodriguez was one of the greatest baseball players I’ve ever seen in person. It was a joy to watch him, an adventure to cover him, and there are times I wish MLB conducted its business in a vacuum, in a bubble, so all we could think about when it comes to its games and players is what happens on the field.
But there is no vacuum. There is no bubble. These games happen in real time, and in real life, and are not immune to the vagaries of the real world. We know, as a matter of record, that Alex Rodriguez confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs early in his career. And we know — again, on the record — that Rodriguez either continued to use or re-engaged in their use after MLB instituted steroid legislation in 2003.
It is why the box next to Rodriguez’s name on my Hall of Fame ballot will remain unchecked when I send it in next month.
There is something heartbreaking about that, because watching Rodriguez in his prime was about as good as baseball is capable of being. He did everything, and did everything well. He could carry a ballclub by himself for a month. It was impossible to take your eyes off him. There are a handful of players in each generation you can say that about.
A talent like that belongs in Cooperstown.
And if he’d merely left the drugs alone after coming clean in 2009 — two years after he lied in Katie Couric’s face, and in America’s, swearing he’d never touched them — this could be an entirely different conversation. There still might be Draconian voters for whom that would be an unforgivable sin. But he might have a shot at changing their minds.
That’s one thing to consider about those of us lucky enough to have the privilege of a Hall of Fame vote. It’s the quirkiest quirk: We can change our minds, and often do. That was always the best part about the 15-year period players used to be able to spend on the ballot; we could allow certain candidacies to marinate. We could revisit.
It’s 10 years now, which makes the urgency on the players’ end that much harder. But the same rules still apply. There was a time when it merely allowed for intense annual scrutiny of a player’s career, his statistics and his place among baseball’s immortals.
That frustrates some. But it also explains how Jim Rice, to cite one example, could go from 29.8 percent of the vote his first year to 76.4 percent in his 15th without ever taking an additional at-bat; and illustrates how Bert Blyleven, to cite another, could go from 17.5 percent in 1998 to 79.7 in his 14th year of eligibility without throwing one extra pitch.
It also, in truth, explains how Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds — the two faces of baseball’s steroid era — could go from 37.6 and 36.2 percent respectively, in their first year of eligibility, 2013, to 61.6 and 61.8 percent last year, in their ninth year.
(It is actually a quite remarkable oddity that in each of those nine years their vote totals have never been even 1 percent apart.)
I’m one of the reasons those totals have increased. I voted no their first three years on the ballot, then switched to a yes for both. My reasons have grown over the years. But the primary one is this: Whatever sins we believe they committed, almost all empirical evidence points to them having happened before there was actual legislation in the sport’s bylaws. There is also the argument that had both their careers ended before what is generally believed to be their PED starting point — after the 1998 season — they would’ve been worthy of inclusion.
It’s the first point that ruins A-Rod’s candidacy. He knew what the rules were, and he defied them anyway. It’s the same standard I’ve thus far applied to Manny Ramirez, who was twice suspended for PED use after the rules went into effect. And it’s what will make for some long nights of the soul pondering David Ortiz, also making his debut on the ballot, and the alleged positive test he turned in during the last year without steroid rules, when the results weren’t supposed to be made public.
In my heart, I really believe Alex Rodriguez was good enough naturally to make this a first-ballot cruise for him. But the heart does not carry the day here. The eyes, and the ears, know too much of what he did to knowingly skirt the laws of the sport. Across the next nine years, maybe I’ll change my mind. It’s my prerogative.