The Man Who Would Be King

Article excerpt

Byline: Sridhar Pappu

Young, handsome, and eloquent, A-Rod represented the future of baseball. Then came the downfall.

These should be sun-filled days for America's national, if now somewhat beleaguered, sport. The spectacle of opening day--in which every stadium in America is filled to capacity--has come and gone in all its glory. The season has sprung, and, with it, all the cliches of spring and rebirth and childhood. At this point, most baseball fans still keep hope alive of a competitive summer and triumphant fall for the teams they love and hold dear. Off the field, the biopic 42 that portrays the game's great groundbreaker, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the first black man to play in the major leagues, has hit theaters, accompanied by a rush of nostalgic, sentimental stories about a time and place in America when one man stood alone to change the course of the world.

But here in New York, Alex Rodriguez is casting a pall. When the star, whose luster has dimmed thanks to outstanding reporting by journalists at the Miami New Times, ESPN, and The New York Times, comes up in conversation, his name is often followed by disgusted dismissal even though, because of an injury, he's yet to play a single game this season.

That's because A-Rod once again owns the back pages of the city's tabloids. For the second time in his career, the third baseman for the New York Yankees is suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. Yet this time Rodriguez, who admitted using steroids during his brief, tumultuous, and unsuccessful tenure with the Texas Rangers, has allegedly gone further and put his considerable resources toward destroying records of his involvement with a now-shuttered "anti-aging" center linked to helping several Major League players gain a competitive advantage, according to several reports, which he denies. But the shadow that A-Rod casts on the game's inherent beauty and capacity to thrill is even darker. He reminds us of an all-too-familiar dark narrative: the downward spiral of the man who wanted everything and may have been willing to take the fast, easy path.

Once, unblemished, he represented baseball's future. To an enamored America, he was the would-be king who had shone on the field at home in Seattle before setting out on a national career--a young, spotless star, handsome and eloquent, a beautiful man whose play inspired paeans.

Yet since coming to New York, to baseball's most storied team, his persona has grown harsh and confused, despite the fact that he still possesses those same Hollywood looks and dates the pool of actual Hollywood glamour. Yes, he became the man who held Kate Hudson close; who ate popcorn with Cameron Diaz at the Super Bowl; who walked without fuss, among the very, very rich and the very best athletes in the world, in Coral Gables, Florida. And he was the player who was supposed to erase the tainted era of overly muscular men whose blatant misdeeds we were willing to ignore as long as they continued to pitch with great, uncanny efficiency and hit balls into the outer reaches of the known world.

However, while A-Rod still carries himself with an ease and lack of self-doubt (masking the reported insecurities he has about his lack of adoration, of the constant, unrelenting ridicule that follows him every time he steps from his palatial home), he is unable to be the man--as Joe DiMaggio once was--who rose to reverence without saying a word.

His downfall bookends a period that many fans would rather forget; the period that began with the 2005 inquiry when revered players, including Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, stood before a congressional hearing convened to investigate the purity of our national sport and appeared foolish--brought-down men scrambling to save what little remained of their reputations. Sosa pretended not to know English. McGwire took the Fifth.

That different generations of fans might look at steroid use differently was brought home to me by our most treasured baseball writer, Roger Angell, as we sat in his office at The New Yorker a couple of years ago. …