Of course, Rodriguez's return from injury came with a hurricane of distractions, issues and questions, but it also came with a bat that helped galvanize a Yankees team that knew it needed to be one voice working toward one goal, even it disagreed with A-Rod's personal choices. For the most part, A-Rod has filled New York's production void at third base.
As polarizing as A-Rod can be, his performance impacts something much greater than his numbers or the Yankee win column. It is something by which Major League Baseball's credibility rises and falls. Forget about redemption, greed or punishment, because, when you strip it down, the game is now looking for a way out of this performance-enhancing drug nightmare -- and, ironically, the league could choose to view Rodriguez as helping the game go down the path to a clean culture.
Given that the PED era has created infinite doubt over performance in baseball, we might have a rare chance through Rodriguez to know one player who is playing clean at a given moment. His performance being under a microscope proved to leak out his secrets, just as now that microscope can focus on what happens when a player plays clean, even if it is by force. Logic would tell us it would be reckless and pathological if he were to take PEDs during this appeal and with his team in the playoff hunt.
I recognize that logic has often been cast aside in his saga, but if Rodriguez were in a clean season and getting good results on the field, that would support the idea that you can play well without the testosterone-laced candy -- a message we'll need to see over and over again to restore the faith in the game. His playing well may not be enough to appease those who expect a $275 million showcase, but, then again, living up to a megacontract has too often been part of the excuse for some players to take a drug shortcut. A-Rod's play and the open criticism toward the PED culture can help redefine the performance expectations.
After all, it is hard to know much of anything from a results standpoint when it comes from any player these days. That has been the unfortunate and persistent by-product of this era. Even the cleanest players in the game are under suspicion, and those players are even suspicious of other players. Nothing is known for sure; the trust was compromised, and it continues to be comprised. It might take a player like Rodriguez, assumed to be on the extreme end of the dirty-player spectrum, to show resounding evidence that you can play and play well in Major League Baseball and be drug-free. Backward? Yes. But if this era of baseball has taught us anything, it is that the game now has a culture of guilt before innocence. Even so, the "guilty" still have real power to change perception.
So for the cleanliness of the game, it is advantageous for Rodriguez to play well. It might even surprise A-Rod that he can be a productive player at the highest level as a clean player. I would imagine that years of PED usage would cloud the surest of players when he is evaluating his own performance -- never sure of how much weight to place on his abilities versus his chemist or pharmacist's formulas and concoctions.
This reality is highly damaging to the young players growing up in the game on high school fields and little league parks worldwide. We lost the certainty that you can be the best at this game by playing without illegal and illicit enhancement, and no matter how many players line up and express that they are playing drug-free, there is doubt. So maybe the player under the steroid era's biggest shadow can actually be a best messenger for change if, and it is a big "if," he can commit to it. Rodriguez can speak to its pitfalls and its appeal. He can speak to its direct and indirect benefit and failings, he can play clean and be the only one who knows this to be true and have real results from human chemistry that is juiced by heart and hustle.
The fact that Rodriguez's credibility is in doubt might be secondary at this point since he might be forced to be credible on the field if he ever wants to play beyond this season. Are there still loopholes? Sure.
I would think a player who has danced with a history of PEDs must have moments of clarity. A moment when the cycle is off, when he is swinging the bat without extra assistance from a lab. During a career, you have many moments when you are not sure you have what it takes on a given day. The bat feels slow, the arm feels dead, the doubt creeps in and then you still get three hits, you throw that shutout anyway. and you have taken that one extra step toward solidifying that your PED-free ability is enough on a given day.
I think back to the first call-up as a young player. It is a time when you might have the most ability you will ever have when it comes to your physical attributes. You can recover quickly; stretching is important but not necessarily mandatory. You feel good a lot of days, but you don't know how you measure up yet. You don't know what you are truly capable of doing because you have no history. It is speculation, it is spring trainings and advanced metrics, but it is not real game-time evidence -- even though the quantitative measures of your ability say you will succeed. Then you hit a home run off Justin Verlander, then you punch out Miguel Cabrera not once, but twice. Then you see that, three months later, you are still hitting .300. Those markers are transformational because each one is fresh when it is the first time you have tasted major league success beyond one game, one week. You are now every-day "major league."
Rodriguez can have that feeling again. The new taste, the "I almost forgot I could do that" moment that happens when your body needs no extra help to beat the best in the game. He could have that all again -- this season or after his pending suspension. This is not just about Rodriguez and the choices he made for his career, but that we might be able to stretch and see A-Rod in the raw and see a player that is still pretty good. This can move us toward taking that small first step forward in hoping that a real message can be sent that plenty of players play clean and do well, and even one of the statistically great players of all time could learn that lesson in the twilight of his career. A lesson that is never too late to learn.