Why do Yankee fans still love the Yanks? The team has embarrassed its supporters by leading the league in steroid scandals — thanks, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez. It’s also made them cringe by strong-arming New York City into giving the team public funds to subsidize its new $1.5 billion stadium while simultaneously flexing its herculean financial muscles to grab expensive free agents like a spoiled heir stockpiling rare sports cars. Last off-season, the Yanks allocated $423 million for three players while getting more than $1 billion in tax-exempt bonds from the city, costing taxpayers millions in revenues. It can be thrilling to see the Bombers win free-agent battles year after year — and why shouldn’t they, if they can make more money than other teams by selling lots of tickets at high prices and draw even more fans to YES, their multibillion-dollar television network? But then why does the richest team in American sports need taxpayer help?
This is the side of the Yanks embodied in Rodriguez, with his steroid-stained résumé and the biggest contract in baseball despite no postseason success. A-Rod sometimes seems preceded in Yankee history by Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth, with their home run swings, household brand names, outsize personalities and knack for controversy, but — critical difference — Mr. October and the Bambino shone in the big moments. Rodriguez consistently fails in the clutch in the regular season. That doesn’t move the turnstiles.
What makes fans proud of the pinstripes is the Yankees’ Jeterian side. Derek Jeter, with his four World Series rings and the respect of everyone in baseball for being a stand-up guy and playing the game the right way, is the latest in a long string of Bronx Bombers with dignity, character and class — recall Bernie Williams, Thurman Munson, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford and Lou Gehrig. These men are why New Yorkers feel the Yanks are the sporting extension of the ego of a city that sees itself filled with winners who are tough under pressure. The Rodriguez side is perhaps what the rest of the country thinks of us: larger than life, financially bloated and perpetually controversial. Alas, in recent years it seems the A-Rod side is dominating. The ’09 Yanks are streaky, and though sometimes great, they spent most of the first half in second place in the American League East behind the still-hated Red Sox, who have beaten the Yanks all eight times they’ve played this year.
The Yankees’ Rodriguez/Jeter split personality leads to inconsistent baseball but makes for fascinating reading. Three books give us an unsettling peek inside the team: “A-Rod,” by Selena Roberts, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated (and a former reporter and columnist for The New York Times); “The Yankee Years,” by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci; and “American Icon,” which focuses on Roger Clemens, by Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, Michael O’Keeffe and Christian Red, the sports investigative team for The Daily News in New York. Because so many of the players discussed are still Yanks, these books have an almost magazine-like immediacy as they reveal a diseased team that doesn’t seem to have the chemistry needed to win it all anytime soon. Johnny Damon has struggled with existential crises that make him uncertain whether he really wants to play baseball. Robinson Cano has lapses in concentration and has to be prodded into doing the work it takes to be a good major leaguer. And things have gotten so bad between Rodriguez and Jeter that everyone feels the frost, forcing players and management to choose sides. Management sides with Rodriguez, the clubhouse with Jeter. “The city welcomed him,” Roberts writes of Rodriguez. “The team, though, rejected him. They did not like his haute couture flair, his high-maintenance needs and his manicured quotes for the media. They also knew that he was a hypocrite, playing the Boy Scout by day and the Bad Boy at night.” The Bronx Zoo is back.
We learn many of Rodriguez’s secrets in Roberts’s meticulously reported psychological profile, which will give fans no comfort about the man who’s contracted to be a Yankee through the 2017 season. She finds Rodriguez an extremely insecure, ultra-vain, self-absorbed, gullible attention addict who’s emotionally stunted, has no sense of self, is constantly in need of validation and has no real friends. At one point in his book, Torre implores several players to help with Rodriguez. “I remember calling in Sheff, Jeter, Giambi, Georgie” — by which he means the catcher Jorge Posada — “and just saying, ‘He’s got to feel important.’ ” But he can never be just one of the guys and is weirdly fixated on Jeter. Rodriguez is superior in every possible baseball metric (except clutch hitting), but Jeter is more loved, respected and revered by fans and players. “Jeet knows who he is,” Giambi tells Roberts. “He doesn’t blow his own horn… . He doesn’t do something and then tell the media, ‘Hey, look at me lead,’ to be validated.”
The Jeter issue drives Rodriguez crazy. Even away from the park, Roberts says, when he’s in nightclubs hitting on women who know nothing about baseball, he remains obsessive, asking them, “Who’s hotter, me or Derek Jeter?” Roberts finds him rather pathetic with women in general. He picks up his future wife, Cynthia, by pretending to have run out of gas. And after his daughter Natasha is born, Rodriguez feels pushed aside: “Alex adored Natasha but was also taken aback at how much of Cynthia’s attention was funneled to their newborn, not to him. Alex knew it was wrong to feel that way.”
Rodriguez, according to Roberts, is deep down still the abandoned little boy who was scarred by his father, Victor, who left the family when Alex was 10. “He had always been a sensitive boy; Victor’s departure made him even more fragile emotionally. Neighbors recall seeing Alex’s eyes brim with tears at the slightest criticism.” His father’s absence became part of his identity, and his baseball success filled the void that had been created. But his self-esteem remains so fragile that he’s afraid of failing, and he’s so painfully self-aware that he’s gripped by a performance anxiety that makes high-pressure moments nearly impossible. Which is why he usually fails in them. Yankee players tell Roberts he’s “the vainest hitter they’ve ever known.”
Torre takes that sentiment deeper in his book. “When it comes to a key situation, he can’t get himself to concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks,” he says. “Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. And sometimes players aren’t willing to do that. They have a reputation to uphold.” But through five years as a Yankee, Rodriguez is fashioning a reputation as someone who hits mammoth home runs in the early innings and dribblers to the shortstop with the game on the line.
Torre’s book explains that Rodriguez is a crucial example of why the Yanks have fallen from their dynastic high to a team that’s struggled to get out of the division series, despite adding a slew of high-priced players. The expensive imports — Giambi, Randy Johnson, José Contreras, Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano and others — are like off-season Pyrrhic victories, because the new guys tend to erode team chemistry. “The players all hated him,” Torre says of Pavano. “It was no secret.” The pitcher Mike Mussina called the disabled list “the Pavano,” adding: “His body just shut down from actually pitching for six weeks. It’s like when you get an organ transplant and your body rejects it. His body rejected pitching.” Torre says he watched the Yankees move from the egoless, workmanlike makeup of the late-’90s dynasty into a mismatched collection of self-absorbed, stats-obsessed stars. “It was just not an unselfish team,” he says about the 2002 season. “We were all spoiled.” He continues: “A number of players out there are trying to do the job to their own satisfaction, instead of getting the job done. A lot of those players are more concerned about what it looks like as opposed to getting dirty and just getting it done.” Some of the things players need to do to move their teammates around the bases and win games net them negative statistics. The dynastic Yanks were willing to do those things, while many of the post-dynasty Yanks have their own agendas. “Alex monopolized all the attention,” Torre says. “We never really had anybody who craved the attention… . He certainly changed just the feel of the club… . His focus was on individual stuff.” But how could you expect him to be a team guy after his stint with the Texas Rangers? Rodriguez reportedly told their owner, Tom Hicks, which players around the league were using steroids — while he himself was using them.
It’s poetic justice that steroids have become wrapped up in the Rodriguez story: he’s a central figure in the last two decades, when steroids have been the defining issue in baseball. Rodriguez might never have been unmasked if not for Roberts, whose reporting forced him to admit he had taken steroids in the early part of this decade, when he was a Ranger. But Roberts has sources who suggest that Rodriguez also used steroids and/or human growth hormone in high school, when he gained an improbable 25 pounds of muscle between his sophomore and junior years; with his first major league team, the Seattle Mariners; and, according to anonymous players, with the Yankees at least as late as 2007. “Two players close to A-Rod say he has used H.G.H. while with the Yankees based on side effects they’ve seen,” Roberts writes. This is a drug history far longer than what Rodriguez has admitted to. There’s no wiggle room between Rodriguez’s position that he did performance-enhancing drugs for a brief period and Roberts’s position that he’s done them from high school through his Yankee years. History will vindicate one of them, and the other’s reputation will suffer greatly. Rodriguez’s place in the Hall of Fame could rest on whether Roberts’s account is believed.
Fittingly, because he is sometimes referred to as the Johnny Appleseed of the steroid movement, José Canseco touches all three books. He’s been a substitute father to a high-school-aged Rodriguez, a Yankee under Torre and Clemens’s teammate in Toronto. He’s gone from team to team spreading the gospel of steroids like a Patient Zero, preaching about their effectiveness and introducing players to dealers. Canseco is like the Kevin Bacon of steroids: in addition to playing with Clemens, he’s been teammates with Mark McGwire and Miguel Tejada in Oakland and Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and Kevin Brown in Texas. In a scene from “American Icon,” Clemens is standing in the locker room one day looking at oral steroids in the hand of Brian McNamee, the trainer who would become his accuser, when Canseco walks up, grabs some pills and shoves them into his own mouth.
“American Icon” mostly covers ground that serious baseball fans already know, but it may answer some lingering Yankee questions. Why did Chuck Knoblauch, second baseman during the dynasty, suddenly and mysteriously lose the ability to throw to first base? Possibly because he was using G.H.B., the dieter’s drug (also known as a date rape drug), which goes into the central nervous system and can lead to convulsions or twitching or the yips. Also, what really happened to Clemens in that bizarre moment during the 2000 World Series when he grabbed half of Mike Piazza’s shattered bat and flung it toward him? Most likely, roid rage.
The authors of “American Icon” also argue that because so many players in the majors and minors are taking steroids — insider estimates range from 50 percent to 80 percent — not to be chemically enhanced is to be at a competitive disadvantage. Thus, the choice is often between using steroids and building yourself into a multimillionaire or not using them and losing your job to someone who does and ending up in the minors, making five figures, or out of baseball altogether. With stakes like that, it becomes very hard to stand on principle.
How did we get here? Baseball’s steroid problem dates back to the late ’80s, but no action was taken until the middle of this decade, in large part because of the Major League Baseball Players Association, by far the most powerful union in sports and an enabler in the steroids scandal. Throughout “American Icon” and “A-Rod,” we see an obstructionist union that repeatedly blocks testing, is accused of intimidating people who speak out about how big the issue is becoming, sends doctors to tell players how to use steroids safely, and then, after the players are forced to accept testing, tips them off about when testers are coming. Three players tell Roberts that Rodriguez was warned about testers by the union. “The union was going to take care of the superstars,” one of the players says. “The big boys made the big money, and that was the bread and butter for the union.”
But in the short term the union’s position made sense: steroids aided performance so much that they set off a contract explosion — the average player’s salary has jumped from less than $300,000 in the early ’80s to more than $3 million now, fattening the union’s pockets. And when the truth seeped out about how deep the steroids problem had become, attendance didn’t decline. So if players, owners and fans are happy, why should the union get in the way? But the Players Association worked only on behalf of steroid users. It didn’t protect those who abstained, and now most of America thinks of all baseball players as guilty. The union was there for Rodriguez, helping him cheat, but it abandoned, say, Jeter, who I feel comfortable assuming isn’t roiding — though it feels naïve to assume any major leaguer isn’t nowadays. That’s how far the union has gone in allowing doubt about its clients to be sown in the minds of fans, and how badly it has allowed the game’s reputation to suffer.
Some have said steroids are simply the latest drug that players have used to get by, and since chemical enhancement has been part of the game forever, why not just let modern players do whatever they want? This argument is frighteningly absurd.
Put aside the fact that the steroid explosion has reduced baseball from a nuanced attempt to move men around the bases to a version of home run derby, because most fans seem to like that fundamental change. The real, unignorable problem, the main reason steroids cannot be allowed to proliferate, is that they are killers. Steroids can lead to several forms of cancer, heart attacks, liver disease, even homicide and suicide. The football star Lyle Alzado died at 43 from a brain tumor that he was certain steroids were responsible for. The high school baseball star Taylor Hooton committed suicide, perhaps because of depression brought on by steroids. Ken Caminiti, the National League’s most valuable player in 1996 and an admitted steroid user, died from an accidental drug overdose at 41. An autopsy revealed that coronary artery disease and an enlarged heart had contributed to his death.
Too many ballplayers have already gone too far and taken too many drugs. It seems inevitable that in the next decade several retired stars will die young, leaving the entire baseball family heartbroken and searching its soul for answers.