How Do You Solve a Problem Like A-Rod?

When it comes to cheering for baseball's biggest cheats, how do you separate fact from fandom? Turns out, it's pretty easy

Alex Rodriguez just passed Willie Mays on MLB's all-time home runs list: Up next? Babe Ruth. Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty

"Sports are like religion and politics. We  believe what we want and fight any challenges to our beliefs because it will ruin our perceptions, however false they may be."

My sentiments exactly, presuming I could have articulated them myself. Since I couldn't – and because I've long wondered how we as sports fans reconcile our devotion to a team with the knowledge that there is a cheater in the midst – I turned to a sport sociologist: B. David Ridpath, author of Tainted Glory, and the source of the quote you just read.

It was Alex Rodriguez's race to catch and pass Willie Mays that had me thinking, but as a Dodger fan I'd had the same questions earlier with Barry Bonds. What is it that motivates fans to root for their hero in the face of the knowledge that he's playing dirty, especially in an enlightened city like San Francisco?

Ridpath replies first with more questions: "What makes us ignore the indiscretions and unethical behavior we see every day in the world of sports? Why would we, as educated and primarily smart individuals in the great country of America, allow things…in sports that, frankly, we would never allow in virtually any other walk of life?

"Former Indiana University professor Murray Sperber once told me that sports make rational people irrational. I simply cannot think of a better description of how we easily look away and justify certain behaviors in the sports world."

Rather than asking the fan on the barstool next to me to weigh in, I sought the baseball writer's perspective. Several, actually.

Stacey Gotsulias blogs about the Yankees at It's About The Money, and her comments about the team appear regularly in ESPN.com's weekly Power Rankings. How does she solve a problem like A-Rod?

"It's no secret that Bud Selig turned a blind eye to steroids for years and only became concerned about it once the government stepped in. It seemed disingenuous at the time, and the way they went after Rodriguez for his involvement with Biogenesis seemed just as disingenuous. People are fooling themselves if they believe that A-Rod and the guys caught in the Biogenesis ring are the only guys who were [and are] taking stuff."

Dayn Perry, of Eye on Baseball, is "not particularly outraged by PED use in sports."

"These are pro sports, and they're structured to weed out anything less than the far-right sliver of the bell curve when it comes to talent and competitiveness. It seems perfectly logical to me that these kinds of guys will seek out any advantage possible. And I have no doubt that players from baseball's Golden Age – many of whom were taking amphetamines with a certain zeal – would avail themselves of whatever was available to them."

Though asked independently, Ridpath anticipated this line of thinking:

"Athletes using performance enhancing drugs – no problem? Everyone else is doing it, so that makes it OK? Although our mothers told us that two wrongs don't make a right, we continue to justify it in sports. Male athlete assaulting a female? No problem. She asked for it, she is a tramp and perhaps she should try not provoking her man, lest she get smacked in the face – or worse."

Perhaps mothers are no longer teaching their children the two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right lesson. Who's to say that it was universally applied to begin with?

Jesse Spector, national baseball writer for The Sporting News, thinks that it's about the Ws.

"In most cases, I think that cheering for known cheaters is as simple as 'We want to win,' because you've seen it with PED users both confirmed and suspected, far and wide, from Bonds to [Jason] Giambi to [Ryan] Braun. That said, I think A-Rod is a special case, because he's probably getting better support in New York now than he has at any point in his career.

"It's a bizarre situation. He was punished more harshly than any drug user before or since, in a situation where there were other players in Biogenesis who got a standard ban of 50 games. Between what can be seen as unfair treatment from MLB and the way that he was painted as a cartoon villain in the New York tabloids, A-Rod has become an anti-establishment folk hero, or maybe more of an antihero, to use the literary tradition of that label. Add to that the Yankees' refusal to pay his $6 million bonus, even though the guy is set for life, and every time A-Rod homers, it feels like he's sticking it to the man. People like that. It's a wrinkle to his career and image that I don't think anyone could have seen coming." 

I certainly didn't, and I can't imagine many outside the Tri-State Area responding with the word "hero" when prompted with "Alex Rodriguez" in a game of word association.

I asked best-selling biographer of presidents David Maraniss (note his volumes on Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi) for his two cents' worth as well:

"Let me start by saying that to be a sports fan almost requires a certain level of hypocrisy, or at least an acknowledgment of irreconcilable contradictions. I love the Packers, yet hate the long-term concussion damage of the sport and the NFL's inadequate response. I enjoy watching the UW Badgers,  yet deplore the money-over-integrity issues of college football.

"Does my fandom also mean that I'll root for cheaters as long as they are my cheaters? I am honestly not sure, but don't think so. I've always liked the SF Giants yet wanted nothing to do with them during the Bonds era. The Brewers are my team, and I still root for them, but was embarrassed by Ryan Braun's behavior, especially when he attacked the little guy involved in the delivery of his urine sample, and I just wish he would go away and cleanse the team. I am not a hardliner about steroids, though I don't like then, but I am a hardliner about telling the truth."

Hall of Fame baseball writer Ross Newhan has a rather unique perspective:

"I come from a different place, not so much as a writer or fan, but as the father of a son who played parts of eight seasons in the major leagues during the heart of the steroid era and lost jobs and money to known cheats. So, blood being thicker, I have less room for forgiveness, but I also get that in this country – where we root, root, root unabashedly for the home team and forgive presidents and benchwarmers without even apologies needed –  it's not necessarily a bad thing, part of the fabric, who 'we' are. It's just that I defect from the 'we' when it comes to the baseball cheats, and I hope I can be forgiven."  

I'd like to be forgiven too, though I don't feel as though I need to be. My feelings are as valid as any other writer's – or any other fan's – and I have zero patience for PED users. If I were so lucky, I wouldn't punch an official BBWAA Cooperstown ballot hole for a proven drug cheat. L.A. bust-ees Eric Gagne and Paul Lo Duca are dead to me. I wanted Manny Ramirez gone the minute he was suspended. Current Dodger catcher Yasmani Grandal poses a dilemma. I'd prefer a roster of men with career-long clean labs, but minus that I will try to separate the player from the home runs. So put me down in the "I want to win" category if that's what gets you through the night.

"One of my favorite analogies is, 'Never go into the kitchen of your favorite restaurant, as you may not like what you see,'" Ridpath says. "With sports, we refuse to go into the kitchen because we don't want to upset our largely false perceptions and our views of sports. If that means some cheating and unethical behavior, we can tolerate that because winning basically solves everything.

"Deflate a few footballs – no problem, we still won!" he continues. "We simply become who we are not when sports and our favorite teams are concerned."