Commentary

It's only just begun for A-Rod

Originally Published: February 12, 2009
By Pedro Gomez | ESPN

If Alex Rodriguez thought he needed performance-enhancing drugs to justify his then-record $252 million contract back in 2001, wait until he begins the coming season.

What Rodriguez said he did because he believed he had to validate the largest contract in team sports history will seem like a walk in the park compared to the pressure he will surely face in 2009.

Rodriguez has now put himself in the tightest of spots for the '09 season and, without a doubt, those to follow.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe pressure to perform could be bigger than ever for Alex Rodriguez in 2009.

What if, say, his career arc has maxed out? What if his numbers drop considerably this year and in those to come? Will the public buy that Rodriguez stopped using PEDs in 2003 as he insisted on Monday night?

Even if he is telling the truth, probably not.

Rodriguez hit 54 home runs, drove in 156 runs and batted .314 while winning his third Most Valuable Player award in 2007. Last season he finished with 35, 103 and .302. Anything less this season will surely create massive suspicion.

For better or worse, that's the spot Rodriguez has placed himself in.

Rodriguez, who will turn 34 on July 27, must now replicate -- or at least come darn close to -- the kind of gaudy numbers he has put up for most of the past 10 years.

If not? Well, the answer to that question will not be pretty, even in what should be the safe haven of New York City and Yankee Stadium, his home ballpark where you figure he should receive the most latitude for his indiscretions and whatever inevitable slumps may arise this year.

Yankees fans, many of whom have been filling message boards mostly blasting away at Rodriguez since his confession to Peter Gammons, have been known to be less than forgiving when they believe they have been crossed.

Just ask Ed Whitson, Rickey Henderson and even Roger Clemens, persona non grata in the Big Apple now that he has been so closely tied to steroids and human growth hormone.

That's not to say it will be hell for Rodriguez in the South Bronx. It's just to say he will have to produce to be in the good graces of some of the most passionate fans in all of sports.

Rodriguez has to be aware of the kind of wrath he will face during the Yankees' 81 road games. That's pretty much a given. He probably believes he will be protected while wearing the elegant home pinstripes.

The only way that happens is if Rodriguez is a superman of sorts and is finally clutch late in games, something he has struggled with since being traded to the Yankees prior to the start of the 2004 season. Anything less and rage will surely rain down from the stands at the sparkling new Yankee Stadium.

Yankees fans have already had to scratch their heads over a few questionable acts perpetrated by Rodriguez.

Let's not forget how he was called out for interference in the 2004 American League Championship Series when he swatted at the glove of Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo while running down the first-base line.

That stunt even produced a Photoshop facsimile of Rodriguez running down the line with a superimposed purse under his arm.

And then there was that bit of what was called "bush" gamesmanship in Toronto in 2007, when he shouted "Mine!" while running behind Blue Jays third baseman Howie Clark, causing Clark to back away from the ball because he believed John McDonald, the Blue Jays' shortstop, was calling him off the play. Even then-Yankees manager Joe Torre had trouble justifying his star's actions.

And then there's Rodriguez's very public off-the-field life, including the photos of him with a stripper on the road in 2007 and his alleged trysts with Madonna.

This isn't to say Rodriguez shouldn't have come clean about his PED use. He absolutely did the right thing, even if he remained vague when it came to several answers.

But would Rodriguez have said anything if Sports Illustrated hadn't had the goods on him?

After all, Rodriguez said he has been living with guilt ever since he first began taking PEDs. But that didn't seem to stop him from continuing to use steroids for at least two years after he said he ingested his first PED and supposedly lying to Katie Couric during a 2007 interview when he flatly denied ever using steroids.

As for the Hall of Fame, well, if Mark McGwire's first three years on the ballot are any indication of how voters feel about potential users, then how can voters differentiate one alleged cheater from any other?

Sure, McGwire was more of a one-trick pony -- he hit home runs and did nothing else all that well. It looks like we'll have to wait for the next batch of supposed users, those who had more well-rounded games like Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, etc., before we can predict how voters will react.

But as a Hall of Fame voter since 2002, I know I have made up my mind that I will never vote for anyone I believe to have used PEDs. Ever. By the looks of McGwire's vote totals, it doesn't appear that I'm alone.

How can I be certain of who has and who hasn't used PEDs? Obviously, I cannot be 100 percent certain. But the beauty baseball possesses over any other sport is its visual splendor. It's the only sport with which you can trust your eyes.

Most know what we watched from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s was shady. Those sudden spikes in home runs, RBIs, batting average and miles per hour from pitchers had all of us whispering at the time.

There's almost always a penalty to pay for doing the wrong thing. Those who injected themselves or swallowed magic pills knew that they were breaking a cardinal rule, even if it wasn't written in stone.

After all, if it was all right to take these substances, no one would have hidden or lied about their use. In the back of their minds, the players had to know this type of ending was always possible.

Pressure to perform?

It's only just begun for Alex Rodriguez.

Pedro Gomez is a reporter for ESPN.

ESPN's Pedro Gomez covered the Oakland A's home and away nearly every day from 1992-97 for the San Jose Mercury News and Sacramento Bee and then became the national baseball writer and later a general columnist at the Arizona Republic before becoming an ESPN bureau reporter in 2003.