We can't believe in A-Rod, because he couldn't believe in himself

NEW YORK -- The numbers are staggering: 667 homers, 2,004 RBIs and now 3,000 hits.

Only two players in baseball history have reached those milestones: Henry Louis Aaron.

And Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez.

But unlike Hank Aaron, the true story of Alex Rodriguez concerns not what he is, but what he could have been.

And what, unfortunately, he will never be.

And that is the real tragedy of Rodriguez, if a man who has achieved the kind of fabulous wealth and fame that he has can ever be considered tragic.

The fact that we look at those incredible numbers and wonder if they are legitimate. And the pretty safe assumption that in his most private moments, A-Rod must be wondering the same thing.

Because no matter what your stance is on illegal PEDs, whether you believe they are the bane of professional sports or no big deal, there is no longer any dispute over their effect.

And that means none of us can ever be sure if Rodriguez could have attained those numbers without some kind of help.

For us, it is a parlor game, a topic to amuse us over drinks the way we might muse on what Marilyn Monroe might have become had she not died so young or who would have won a fight between Ali and Louis.

But for A-Rod, it is the kind of nagging question that might haunt him for the rest of his life.

And not just because his two admissions of steroid use over the past six years alone is sure to keep him out of Cooperstown, at least for as long as it takes for a younger, presumably more permissive generation to take over the voting.

Again, no matter what you think of steroids, there can be little dispute over another contention -- that the athlete who resorts to them feels that in some way he or she needs them to perform.

That decision comes with a price tag: the understanding that the athlete can never truly know which of his accomplishments he truly owns and which belong to the drug.

And deep down, the athlete who makes that decision has to know that he might not really be the player the numbers say he is.

Such a concern probably would not matter to a marginal player who believed steroids or HGH were his only path to ever cashing a big league paycheck.

No doubt there was an entire generation of those players who felt that way in the “loosey goosey" era, to borrow A-Rod’s own phrase, that baseball encouraged for the decade between the cancellation of a World Series that gave rise to the steroid era and the Congressional investigation that shed a spotlight on it.

Then there were those, such as Barry Bonds, who apparently turned to steroids to achieve an ego-driven goal despite already having Hall of Fame-caliber talent.

Rodriguez falls somewhere in the middle, and his case is perhaps the most pathetic of all, because by his own admission, he turned to steroids after signing the 10-year, $252 million windfall with the Texas Rangers out of fear that he could never live up to the contract and the expectations that went with it.

Taking him at his word -- and for all we know, his PED usage might have started earlier, as far back as when he was a superstar athlete at Westminster Christian High School in Miami -- it means that 477 of those home runs, 1,407 of those RBIs and 2,034 of those hits are under a cloud that can never be removed.

We’ll never know if those numbers would have been the same had A-Rod resisted the temptation to grab an edge that his natural talent told the rest of the world he really didn’t need. It seems as if he was the only one who was unable to see that.

That is the legacy he will take home with him after his playing days are over, and there is a deep sadness attached to that.

After all, Alex Rodriguez is not a man without character.

This is a player whose work ethic has never been questioned and who is unfailingly generous with his time and baseball knowledge when it comes to younger teammates, who revere him.

This is a player who willingly switched positions to come to the Yankees at a time when he was indisputably better than the player he was deferring to, Derek Jeter.

This is a player who never publicly complained when dropped in the batting order or pinch-hit for by an inferior player or benched -- humiliations that were inflicted on him on that most public of baseball stages, the postseason.

He didn’t throw a hissy fit and refuse to play, as Jorge Posada did when dropped to ninth during a regular-season game, and yet Posada is a man who will be forever held in much higher esteem by Yankees fans.

Alex Rodriguez is a man who has been seemingly humbled by what he did, and the price he paid for it, and has gone out of his way to rehabilitate his public image this season.

Yet, his accomplishments will never be held with the same regard as those of Aaron, or even of Jeter, simply because of a decision he made more than 10 years ago that will have reverberations for him throughout his life, and probably beyond.

The sad fact is the tragedy of Alex Rodriguez has less to do with a failing of character than a failing of confidence.

At some point in his athletic life, A-Rod stopped believing in himself.

And as a result, none of us can ever fully believe in him -- or what he did on a baseball field.