Compared with, say, the practices of ancient Rome, the penalties for failure of character or performance on today’s athletic fields could be considered rather mild.
But even for those who care little about baseball, the saga of hatred and bile in the matter of one Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez is akin to being unable to turn away from gazing at the effects of a serious automobile accident.
Mr. Rodriguez — better known to his sport’s aficionados as Alex or A-Rod — is a cheater. Blessed with an uncommon ability to hit a baseball with authority, he has acquired Croesus-like wealth, an abundance of female companionship and the odium of vast numbers of fans who yell mean things at him while he practices his profession.
The Romans knew a thing or two about sports, such as they were way back then. Some gladiators who fought in the Colosseum were idolized, but their lives were quite often short and brutally brought to an end in an arena where a turn of the thumb from the audience and ultimately the emperor meant the difference between life and death for a defeated gladiator.
All this disgusted early Christian writer Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), whose words about Colosseum onlookers could easily apply to today’s sports fans, including those in Boston on Sunday who cheered mightily when A-Rod was purposely hit in the ribs by a pitch traveling at more than 90 miles an hour.
“Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection,” Tertullian wrote. “…The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace.”
When it comes to A-Rod, the artist has done a pretty good job of disgrace all by himself.
Most of the sports public’s opprobrium stems from Rodriguez’s use through the years of performance-enhancing drugs, sincerely lying about it, then just as sincerely confessing that he had made a mistake and will never, ever do it again … until the next time he is caught (to use the current patois) “juicing.”
Rodriguez’s employer is the New York Yankees, who still owe him $114 million on a 10-year, $275 million contract. Major League Baseball, which says it has an abundance of evidence that A-Rod was obtaining illegal performance-enhancing drugs from a Coral Gables, Fla., “anti-aging clinic,” recently suspended him for 211 games, by far the harshest penalty of the steroid era.
Under the basic agreement between Major League Baseball and its players union, A-Rod has appealed his suspension and is allowed to play until an arbiter decides whether the penalty is fair. This appeared to rankle Boston Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster the other night.
Mr. Dempster has what’s known as excellent control. That means when he throws a baseball, he generally knows within a margin of an inch or two where it’s going to wind up. His first pitch to A-Rod almost hit him in the knees and sailed behind the hitter. The second and third pitches were inside, then on a 3-balls-and-no-strikes count, Dempster’s fastball smashed into Rodriguez’s ribs.
The umpire issued a warning that the next batter hit with a pitch would result in the pitcher and his manager being removed from the game. This prevented Yankees pitchers from retaliating by hitting a Red Sox hitter and rightfully infuriated New York manager Joe Girardi, who was thrown out of the game for arguing strenuously with the ump.
Days later, baseball fined Girardi $5,000. It fined Dempster only $2,500 and suspended him for a mere five games, which was OK with him and the Red Sox because starting pitchers play only once every five days. Tacitly, the league was informing its pitchers that it’s OK to hit A-Rod with a pitch any time they want.
Rodriguez got a modicum of revenge later in the game by hitting a massive home run off Dempster that helped the Yankees win. But A-Rod is today a marked man — marked by more than the bruise on his ribs.
The situation has gotten way out of hand. Alex Rodriguez is a cheat and a scoundrel who despite his prodigious baseball accomplishments will need a ticket if he expects to get into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but he’s not Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot.
Rodriguez is a human being who plays a game and who could get seriously hurt by a thrown ball or even by a crazed fan with a weapon. Old Tertullian was right. “The perversity of it!”
Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.