A-Rod now tarnished forever

Alex Rodriguez was supposed to be the guy who saved baseball, the way that Mark McGwire did in 1998. He was supposed to ride in and save the home run record from the clutches of suspected steroid user Barry Bonds. He was supposed to be the guy who would show that clean players could be just as prolific as the cheaters.

But that's all changed now, in the aftermath of Saturday's report by SI.com's Selena Roberts and David Epstein that Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003. Rodriguez wouldn't respond to the information in the report, but anything he says really isn't going to change the fact that this will stick to him forever.

All McGwire said was that he did not want to talk about the past, and he is essentially persona non grata, and so is Rafael Palmeiro, who wagged a finger at congressmen and insisted that he never used steroids. Roger Clemens is not really wanted at the Astros' spring training home anymore, the way he once was, and he probably will never get in the Hall of Fame, either. Probably, none of them will, including Bonds and Rodriguez. This is a scarlet letter that really will never go away.

You can argue reasonably that this scrutiny is unfair, that the context of a positive drug test for A-Rod is lost. The whole sport had done a lousy job, as George Mitchell announced, from the union leaders to management to the clean players themselves. The sport essentially fostered a culture of drug use through its inaction, and many players have said they believe the use of performance-enhancing drugs, especially at the outset of this decade, was rampant.

In 2003, the players knew they would be tested for performance-enhancing drugs, and had a pretty good idea of when they would be tested -- and yet presumably, at least 104 barreled ahead and peed into bottles when they knew there was a chance they would be dirty; reportedly, A-Rod was among those. You could call it arrogance, you could call it brazen -- or you could call it typical of the times. A whole lot of players were doing stuff, everybody knew it was going on, and the sport simply hadn't reacted in the way that it should have.

But context really won't save Rodriguez now, because he has the gaudiest numbers on the back of his baseball card, and as we've seen with the steroid fallout, it's the superstars who have the most to lose. Other players have been linked to steroids or human growth hormone and moved on, whether it be Andy Pettitte or Brian Roberts or Eric Gagne or Matt Herges. Record-holders, however, are simply held to a different standard, because they have performed at a different standard. Millions of dollars have been spent on Pettitte and Roberts and Gagne and Herges, in compensation for their play, while millions are being spent in pursuit of Clemens and Bonds, by federal investigators.

A couple of years ago, ESPN.com polled a large number of Hall of Fame voters about whom they intended to vote for, and only about 50 percent said they would vote for Sammy Sosa, who has been the subject of steroid speculation for years. There has been evidence of steroid use linked to McGwire, and less than a quarter of the voters put his name on their ballot, a strong indication that he'll never get in the Hall of Fame. Nobody linked to this issue probably will.

And now Alex Rodriguez has been linked.

If he says nothing and it's all true -- and there's no reason to think that the report is inaccurate -- Rodriguez might have legitimate questions about why the union didn't do a better job on his behalf, questions about how in the heck information that was supposed to be kept confidential got out.

If he acknowledges it's all true, it might make his life a little easier; he saw firsthand how Pettitte and Giambi acknowledged their past use and moved on.

But either way, whether he says nothing or says a lot, he's tarnished forever.

He can blame the union or baseball management; he might blame someone with the federal government for leaking the information. He could rightly wonder how some members of the media could naively put him on that Clean Guy pedestal in 2007; apparently, the lesson was not learned that we can never know for certain who is clean and who isn't.

He can blame himself.

But no matter whom he blames, Rodriguez will no longer be looked at as the guy who is going to save the home run record from Bonds, who, year by year, is increasingly surrounded by context and doesn't look quite so bad.

A-Rod will no longer be looked at in the same way. It might be fair, it might be unfair, but as Brian McNamee would say, it is what it is.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He updates his blog each morning on ESPN.com.