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Nightengale: A-Rod's early, ugly verdict in court of opinion

10:24 AM, Aug 6, 2013   |    comments
Alex Rodriguez used performance-enhancing drugs from 2010-2012, according to Biogenesis.(Photo: Tim Farrell, The (Newark) Star-Ledger via USA TODAY Sports)
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Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO - New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, speaking deliberately, and even emotionally at times, Monday called the past seven months a nightmare.

Judging by the reaction of the crowd that swarmed U.S. Cellular Field to see his first game of the season, Rodriguez's nightmare is just beginning.

Rodriguez was vociferously booed by the fans when merely walking to home plate in his first plate appearance, and the boos remained incessant, growing even louder when he singled, with fans screaming and taunting him. It only worsened as the game continued.

"It was a hard day today, that's for sure, a long day,'' Rodriguez said. "It's been crazy. ...It was good for me to get the first one behind me.

"For me, personally, I just want to get back to playing baseball. I just hope there's a happy ending somewhere in there.''

Such is life now for Rodriguez after being suspended earlier Monday for 211 games and then immediately appealing the largest penalty ever levied against a player for performance-enhancing drug use.

In all there were 13 players suspended in a day of sweeping and dramatic punishment meted out by Major League Baseball, eclipsing the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal for throwing the World Series as the most players suspended at once for off-field activities. Teams with World Series aspirations lost players for virtually the remainder of the season, including Jhonny Peralta of the Detroit Tigers and Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers who agreed to 50-game bans.

Yet, Rodriguez, the biggest star, with the biggest paycheck, who plays on the biggest stage, easily dwarfed the others.

Rodriguez, defiant to the end, is the only player who appealed his suspension. The decision is not expected to be rendered by arbitrator Fredric Horowitz until at least November, players union chief Michael Weiner says.

"I'm fighting for my life," Rodriguez said. "I have to defend myself. If I don't defend myself no one else will."

The images of each of the suspended players will forever be tarnished, but no one will suffer more than Rodriguez, who like Lance Armstrong, Ryan Braun and many more before him appears set to deny accusations until all avenues are exhausted.

"I know what people are going to say," Rodriguez told USA TODAY Sports in July. "They're going to say, 'This is a bad guy. This is an evil guy. He's a prima donna. Look what he's done.'

"Sometimes, you just want to say, 'Uncle, already.'"

The boos and taunts were vicious at times during the game, with 3,200 tickets sold Monday to voice their opinion of Rodriguez, but he refused to listen, choosing instead to hear the cheers from the visiting Yankees' fans.

"Look,'' he said, "I don't think anybody -- no matter how much you like or dislike -- wants to see anybody suffer. I think the fans want to see what's best for the game, but hopefully, we can take a pause for some of this and start focusing on baseball.

"At least for a little while.''

Rodriguez, who has spent most of the year recovering from January hip surgery, evaded most of the specific questions during a pregame news conference.

He was asked if he ever used performance-enhancing drugs: "We'll have a forum to discuss all of that, and we'll talk about it then."

He was asked whether he thought MLB had a personal vendetta against him: "I don't know what the motivation is for any of this, but I'm going to respect the process. I feel good that we have an opportunity to do that and the right platform."

He also was asked about MLB's evidence against him - accusing him of using banned substances such as testosterone and human growth hormone over years and attempting to obstruct the the league's investigation: "We've seen everything. There will be a time and a place for (discussing) all of that. When the time is right, we'll all speak more freely. ... That's as much as I feel comfortable going into right now."

So many questions, so few answers.

Even his teammates have questions, and ask what life is like as Alex Rodriguez.

"You wonder why he thought he had to use (steroids)," Yankees first baseman Lyle Overbay told USA TODAY Sports. "Why did he feel he needed to do that? Why?

"He was the man. He was the best player in baseball. It's hard to understand.

"When you see these things, I even ask myself, 'Why didn't I ever use that stuff?'"

Overbay wasn't joking. He didn't even crack a smile.

"I don't think I could have lived with myself if I had taken stuff," Overbay said, "but I can't put myself in Alex's shoes. He was dealing with pressures that I will never feel or understand.

"So I don't know if I would have done the same thing, I really don't."

Maybe no one will ever know the real truth about Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball in the sixth year of a 10-year, $275 million contract.

He was supposed to be the clean one, the one who would break Barry Bonds' tainted career home run record, only to be publicly shamed.

Rodriguez admitted in 2009 that he used steroids from 2001-03 while playing for the Texas Rangers. Yet, he says that he has been clean since he joined the Yankees in 2004.

And no one believes him.

If he is telling the truth when he says he had no relationship with Anthony Bosch, the director of the now-shuttered Biogenesis Clinic in South Florida, then why did his name appear 16 times in the documents first reported by the Miami New Times in January, including detailed doping records?

If you believe Rodriguez that Bosch fabricated the records, and simply wanted to extort money from Rodriguez, then why did all of the other players accept their suspensions, giving credibility to Bosch's testimony?

Do we actually believe Rodriguez when he sits down and tells us that there is no widespread cheating in the game?

"The notion that people are doing this (expletive) and getting away with it is so untrue," Rodriguez told USA TODAY Sports. "If you're doing it, you get caught.

"To risk anything like that, that's on you.

"That's just crazy."

Just as crazy, perhaps, there still are people who believe in him.

Tyson Wessel, 35, one of nearly 30,000 people who attended Monday's game, proudly wore his Rodriguez jersey. He was chastised by the surrounding fans as if Rodriguez was inside the uniform himself.

"A-Roid."

"User."

"Cheater."

"I heard it all," Wessel said. "I came here to support him. I don't see how they can suspend him so many games without having any failed drug tests. They test these guys all of the time. So why are we believing this one guy (Bosch) now.

"I don't think baseball is treating him fairly. I feel for what he's going through. And how do these other guys get 50 games and Alex gets 211 games? It doesn't make sense."

David Cornwell, Rodriguez's attorney, will argue the same, accusing Commissioner Bud Selig of abusing his power. In truth, Selig could have gone for a harsher sentence. He thought seriously about banning him for life, or at least invoking his power as commissioner and making sure Rodriguez didn't play until his appeal is heard and ruled on likely until October or November.

Selig decided to treat him just like any other player linked to performance-enhancing drugs, only extending the penalty because of the egregious charges.

The legal battle before Horowitz will be fascinating, and in the meantime, we'll be captivated by the daily Jerry Springer-like show on the field.

"He can definitely help us on the field," Overbay said, "but help in the clubhouse as well. We could be in a long losing streak, or we could be in big slumps, and all anybody will be talking about is Alex. I think they'll forget about the rest of us."

This time, Overbay was laughing, but there is truth to the sentiment. The cruel reality is that if Rodriguez performs well, he could be embraced in New York again. If he is able to somehow lead the Yankees to the playoffs, he might even be beloved.

"I'm not in this world to judge people," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It's not my job. He's a player as long as he's in our clubhouse.

"I know there's a lot of speculation what he did and what he didn't do. Until I know 100%, it's hard for me to really comment on it."

Rodriguez is convinced that the Yankees don't want him back and accused the team and MLB of conspiring to keep him out of the game. He thinks the Yankees would rather recover the remaining $95 million on his contract that runs through 2017 than see him wear their uniform.

"If I'm productive," Rodriguez said, "I think they want me back. ... New York's about winning championships. It's about producing.

"Nothing about it has been easy. All of it has been challenging. I'm sure there have been mistakes made along the way. We're here now. I'm a human being."

Yes, he might be a deeply flawed and concedes that he has made plenty of mistakes, but it's still America. He has the right to due process. He's supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Yet, in the first day of public opinion, the jury that sat in those seats at U.S. Cellular Field, loudly expressed their verdict: Guilty as charged.

 

 

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