Alex Rodriguez is a role model, whether we like it or not. A handful of people will follow him -- even off a cliff -- despite whatever warnings we think we should provide about copying his decisions. Part of being a model is setting an example, even if it's an example of what not to do.
In A-Rod's case, the game has decided that perhaps we can make him an example. That might be the best he has to offer in the way of life lessons on which we can grow.
With speculation about a pending suspension and conversations about performance-enhancing drug use swirling around him, it's easy to forget the monster numbers he's put up during his career. (Maybe that is the point: PEDs make you ignore the numbers.) But statistically, Rodriguez has been one of the game's greatest players, ever.
I knew when I became his teammate after signing with Texas in 2003 that he was the best player in the game. (A-Rod or Barry Bonds, pick your poison.) In my time playing with him every day, he did everything to confirm that truth. He was one of the best fielding shortstops I had ever seen, with a strong, accurate rifle for an arm. He did everything on the field, and he did it all well.
I assumed that the numbers he accumulated up to that point, and the talent he displayed every day, created an automatic leadership position. Automatic likability. That people would listen when he spoke about the game, that players would follow him to a World Series championship. Because whom else would you follow if not the best player in decades?
Yet believing that success grants you an instant leadership pass buys into the great myths about inspiration. That you need to be the best to lead. And that if you aren't leading, you're either following or you're on your own program. Greatness that follows is seen as less great (see: LeBron James). Greatness on its own program is self-absorbed and delusional (see: Ryan Braun).
Over the course of our day-to-day experience in Texas, I noticed that A-Rod's in-game motivational outbursts didn't give teammates goose bumps. I saw that his early attempts at teaching the game in a social setting with his peers were met with a roll of the eyes or a confused look of dismissal. He was working so hard to be a role model and a leader, yet he could only play the role of an actor trying to be a role model.
This, it seems to me now, is the part of the PED fallout that came before the allegations, investigations and asterisks began to rain down on him. That somewhere deep in the pit of any PED user's stomach is a self-doubt that comes with the burning dependency on the PED-laced diet to be a better ballplayer. You have to act, put on airs, put on a show and make it believable. You have to pretend that you -- and you alone -- are the only one responsible for those huge numbers, even as you wonder what life would be like without enhancement. After all, you are a ballplayer, but also a performer.
Let's take the position that PEDs are addictive -- or, at least, the results they produce are addictive. I imagine that when you dive deep into the world of enhancement and have success, you must continue to go deeper down that rabbit hole. Your body can't tell you much of anything reliable after it's been drugged into submission, so you have to just keep going. You're never able to find out what you can do without it; you never even ask questions until you're caught in the confusion between reality and fantasy. You become a walking caricature of yourself.
There is no time for cold feet after hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in your performance. After a $250 million-plus deal, no time for an epiphany. When Josh Hamilton quit tobacco during the season last year, Nolan Ryan criticized the timing. It was more than Ryan wanting him to perform with whatever insane cocktail made him produce; it was superstition. Whatever you do to be on a streak, you have to keep doing it -- whether it's eating the same sandwich or PEDs. Don't change now.
Addiction is a nasty world, full of lying, cheating and stealing. In the baseball world, you lie that you are not using, you cheat the system and the numbers, and you steal the records and the faith. But you believe you can't help it; you've gone too far. The truth is so far behind you that you don't know when you ever were clean. Or even what clean means.
Worse yet is that Rodriguez might not be able to get back on the field now, the only place for baseball redemption. He is waiting for his fate, wondering if he's played his final major league game, wondering if his work is already in the past tense. He can't change anything other than the future.
Still, we can learn from him even if they are lessons he doesn't want to teach, just as we learned from watching him play even when he couldn't always communicate how he did what he did. We know that PEDs inflate your numbers, inflate your ego, inflate your sense of reality. Yet they don't seem to inflate your awareness that you might end up alone, with a trophy made of plastic.
Inflated numbers pay well but get ignored. An inflated ego makes you miss the gravity of what is about to happen. An inflated sense of reality makes you think the inevitable will never happen. You used to be able to take the numbers and run. Now, you are being hunted to the ends of the earth. And it's too late to turn back.
It will not end well for A-Rod in the near term, yet it is still up to him how he goes out. He has other examples out there to look to -- Jason Giambi, for instance, who showed that apologies can work, that forgiveness can be part of the game. When all is said and done, not only is Giambi still playing at 42, but he also has been and will be a serious managerial candidate.
Sometimes, before you can fully embrace being a role model, you need to model yourself after some proven examples. You need to learn how to get back to zero. Then it can be up to you how to go from there. Up or out.