How A-Rod Doesn't Add Up

The New York Times

August 5, 2013

By Doug Glanville

Before I played a single game of professional baseball, I was a fan. If my brother and I weren’t chipping the paint off our parents’ garage door with wayward pitches during an extra-inning session of Wiffle ball, we were playing simulated games like Strat-O-Matic or baseball on our then popular ’80s Intellivision video game system.

When I reflect on the ways I connected with the game, I remember moments from my childhood. Meeting Tommy Lasorda in the Dodgers’ hotel lobby in San Francisco, seeing Darryl Strawberry’s debut at Shea Stadium, hearing Vin Scully or Joe Garagiola call the “Game of the Week.” The voices, the players, the coaches, the stadiums.

It is a sentiment that gets lost in the performance-enhancing-drug mess surrounding Alex Rodriguez, who today was suspended through the 2014 season (pending a possible appeal). Performance-enhancing drugs thrive in a baseball environment obsessed with the cantilever between pitcher and hitter, opportunity and failure, the home run and the glove man, the quantitative and the qualitative. With all of this balance, numbers often tip the scale, and when it’s in a player’s interest to use numbers to gain value, he will do so, especially if his contract depends on it.

Strangely enough, I don’t remember the numbers that accompanied those moments that helped turn baseball into a lifetime passion.

The Phillies were my favorite team, but I didn’t know their record when I drove two hours to catch them at Veterans Stadium just after I had gotten my driver’s license. I can’t recall Steve Carlton’s E.R.A. during September the year they won the World Series, or the final score of the game where I saw Harold Baines of the White Sox, who I’d never even heard of before, hit a triple and a home run at Yankee Stadium. But I do remember how I felt when the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, or when I met one of my favorite players, Garry Maddox, for the first time.

I’d like to think I am good with numbers, so memory is not the issue. Rather, despite baseball’s obsession with counting and accumulating, what actually sticks and stands the test of time are the personal experiences we share with the game.

This is not to deny that numbers are endemic to baseball’s soul. We know 714. We know 56, maybe even 4,192, and we know who wore 42. We know the iconic numbers, but the day-to-day connection we make with teams and players comes instead from how closely we can touch the fabric of its train — just as when the Phillies catcher Bob Boone signed a photo card to me after I had mailed my first fan letter, for instance.

Now major league baseball is in overdrive, stalking the players who inflated those numbers most until they submit, with the zeal of a new convert who has seen the light.

That light now shines in Alex Rodriguez’s direction, illuminating the emptiness of his choices. Statistically, his career rivals some of the best players of all time, but we’ve stopped talking about his numbers. His quantifiable performance is no longer part of the debate; his numbers have become irrelevant in measuring who he is as a baseball player.

It is the great trick that the game played on him. You can take performance-enhancing drugs to fool the game into believing that you dominated and endured. You can break records that seemed unbreakable. It can all lead to a contract that surpasses the gross domestic products of some nations. But as the drugs give your stats greater value, they take away everything else. They turn around and destroy the qualitative and sustainable inspiration you could have provided, maybe to fans like me when I was young. Numbers mean nothing when you stop knowing what they are actually counting and why.

There used to be a reason we were counting. It helped build a story. Numbers allowed us to compare players within a generation or an era, and across leagues, countries and decades. They tallied how you ranked in any category and subcategory of your choosing. Or, better yet, in ways that may have mattered just to you in that quiet moment playing with your son in the backyard.

You accumulated because each chip was a singular flake of gold from the game. I had 1,100 hits in my career, but none were as magical as number 1, and none as emotional as numbers 999, 1,000 and 1,001, which all came the day my father died.

Numbers can have meaning because of what we bring to them. Their value, and meaning, may change over time. But when all that matters is the numbers as numbers, you have zeros.

Alex Rodriguez’s numbers have been hollowed out by his choices. They have become transparent and weightless, like a glass lens that fell off the Hubble telescope tumbling into deep space.

Yet his career can still have meaning if he sees the opportunity that is — barely — left in his grasp. The drugs will always taint his numbers, but they may have left him a chance to create something enduring that can be a source of hope for the game. Redemption is one important lesson the game has always imparted to its fans. Baseball is capable of forgiveness, as we have seen, but you have to make the gesture and ask for it.

His probable appeal of the suspension will allow him to play again until his case is heard. He is buying time and also allowing his performance to speak for him while he waits. But when he does speak, will he ask the right question?

Republished from The New York Times


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