Alex Rodriguez's admission this week that he took drugs has stunned a game sick of scandal, writes Rupert Cornwell
In the Yankees clubhouse the attendants used to call him "A- Fraud". Not in derision of the prodigious talents the baseball gods lavished on Alex Rodriguez, but because of the airs and graces, the endless petty neuroses on display after the slugger commonly judged the finest all-round player of his era arrived in New York from Texas five years ago, under the richest contract in American professional sport.
Today alas, the sobriquet has a deadly new meaning that will forever tarnish Rodriguez' reputation. This week the man the wider baseball world knew more innocently as "A-Rod" confirmed what Sports Illustrated magazine had reported a few days before: that he too had taken performance enhancing drugs, for three years at the Texas Rangers between 2001 and 2003.
In other words, Rodriguez' astonishing statistics - like those of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other tarnished superstars of baseball's steroids era - are, not to put too fine a point on it, a fraud. The only difference now is that the sport's pain, shock and embarrassment are if anything greater still.
The 33-year-old Rodriguez was hitherto the man with no asterisks. A prima donna he might be on occasion. But he was clean. The youngest player ever to hit 500 home runs, A-Rod was baseball's anointed redeemer, who would reclaim the career home runs title, his sport's marquee record, from the soiled and steroid-ridden grip of Bonds.
No more. The 156 homers A-Rod struck during his Texas years will now bear that fatal asterisk, the statisticians mark of Cain, diminishing everything that has come after as well. As with Bonds, McGwire and the rest of them, his entry into baseball's Hall of Fame must now be in doubt. Rodriguez has his consolations, among them a contract worth up to $300m (206m) over 10 years - which equates in Premier League parlance to the bagatelle of approximately 380,000 a week. Well before it ends, barring injury or a disastrous dip in form, he should have overtaken Bond's total of 762 home runs. But who will really care?
This weekend baseball's annual rite of renewal commences, as major league spring training camps open in Florida and Arizona - a reminder that no winter is eternal and that "The Boys of Summer", as the great baseball writer Roger Kahn once called the vanished Brooklyn Dodgers, will soon be back. In 2009 however the rite threatens, yet again, to be overshadowed by the seemingly never- ending steroids scandal.
On 2 March, just as practice games are starting in earnest, Bonds is due to go on trial for perjury and obstruction of justice, relating to his denial to a grand jury investigating the Balco affair that he had ever used steroids, among them "the cream" and "the clear" that were specialities of Victor Conte's infamous sports nutrition business in San Francisco Bay. …