Understanding A-Rod's infractions

Way back in 2001 when Alex Rodriguez was in his first season with the Texas Rangers, I asked him which of these superpowers he would most want: the strength of 100 men, the ability to fly or the ability to turn invisible.

"None of those," he replied. "I would want to be the wisest man in the world."

Well, since then -- if you believe in the evidence that Major League Baseball apparently has about his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs -- A-Rod was striving for the strength of at least four or five men, although right about now, in the wake of MLB's just-announced 211-game suspension, he'd probably opt to turn invisible or fly away as far as possible. Because his actions sure as hell demonstrate he hasn't become the wisest man in the world.

Now, I've never been a big fan of A-Rod, ever since I was covering him back when he played for the Mariners. Instead of PEDs, he really should have been taking something to boost his sincerity, because that's a trait he completely lacks. But the league's zealous, no-holds-barred pursuit of him and the extreme punishment it imposed, along with the way we seem to be bashing him for everything under the sun (was taking his shirt off in Central Park really such a sin?) does make me feel some sympathy for his position, especially as it relates to this latest offense.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad baseball caught A-Rod, and he deserves to be punished. But we shouldn't judge Rodriguez, Ryan Braun or any other PED user any more harshly than we do Gaylord Perry, an admitted cheater whom we put in the Hall of Fame.

Don't tell me doctoring a baseball the way Perry did is merely "gamesmanship." It isn't. It's cheating. Perry brazenly broke a rule and cheated the batter far more than a pitcher does by gaining 1 or 2 miles per hour on his fastball due to PEDs. And unlike PEDs, the doctoring-the-ball rule has been specifically spelled out on the books for decades.

Proscriptions against PEDS are not always quite so clear. A substance considered all right one year (androstenedione) can be banned another year. But regardless of what he was using (and when he started taking it), A-Rod was simply doing what athletes have been doing since the ancient Olympics. He was trying to gain an edge and better his performance.

This is why players began taking amphetamines at least as early as the 1960s. That includes some of the players we most revere as clean and above suspicion. According to Jim Bouton, who wrote about the widespread use of amphetamines (greenies) in "Ball Four," half the players from his era took them. My favorite player of all time, Willie Mays, was linked to amphetamines by John Milner.

The difference between A-Rod and our sainted players in the good old days is merely the difference between what was available. Mudcat Grant once told me players of his generation took whatever they could, be it amphetamines or something he referred to as a "horse pill." Bouton told me, "If we had steroids, we would have taken those, too. I said in 'Ball Four,' if there was a pill that could guarantee you would win 20 games but would take five years off of your life, players would take it.'"

Why did they do it? And why do players continue to do so? Because they want to get better. And because fans and the media encourage them to want to get better. Because we benefit when our teams win more games and provide us with richer, more successful storylines.

We go ballistic when we later find out they did so by using PEDs, and we demand punishment for these "@#&#%-ing cheaters." But we never are willing to punish ourselves.

Manny Ramirez was busted for PEDs, but I don't see any Boston fans demanding the Red Sox pull down their 2004 world champions pennant and I don't see any members of the media demanding that their 2004 victories be vacated -- as they would if, say, an NCAA team had someone caught breaking the rules. I don't see any of the Red Sox players returning their World Series rings to Tiffany's.

Are Giants fans willing to give up last year's World Series because Melky Cabrera helped get them there? Are Yankees fans willing to surrender the many World Series from their recent dynasty because one of their celebrated Core Four was cheating? The Brewers are offering their fans $10 vouchers in August, but are they going to refund all the money Braun helped them generate through increased ticket sales and the two division titles he helped win for them?

Of course not. We won't punish ourselves, but we sure as hell want maximum punishment exacted on the players who provided us with such joy because they were cheating.

That just isn't fair. And it's something we would never tolerate if applied to ourselves.

Consider this scenario:

You are late for a very important meeting., so you push the pedal to 80 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone. You also drive in the HOV lane even though you are the car's only occupant. And you send a text on your phone while you're driving, to let people know you're on your way. No trooper pulls you over, so it looks like you get away with it all.

Except, you don't. A couple weeks later, you receive a notice in the mail. A traffic camera nailed you for the speeding and the HOV violation (but not the texting, because the photo was too blurry to be used as evidence).

Oh, well. You knew the penalties in advance. A fine, perhaps $250, maybe as high as $400, plus a bump in your insurance premiums. But hey, that's life. You know the rules.

Except, it turns out you don't know the rules, and that isn't your punishment. Despite what the law says, the public has decided it has had enough speeding- and texting-related accidents and fatalities, so the state has decided that the only way to put an end to all this is to impose far harsher penalties. Instead of a fine, you're losing your driver's license. You can't drive again for two years.

Sound tough? Yeah, well, that's the point. Just be happy you didn't lose your license for the rest of your life.

You'd be outraged under such circumstances. So why does baseball get to deviate from its own established procedure? If the owners and players favor stiffer punishments for violations of its collectively bargained drug policy, then they should change the rules, not ignore them.

I appreciate the desire for stronger penalties. Former commissioner Fay Vincent recently compared PED punishments to those for betting on baseball. He said that the lifetime ban for betting essentially eliminated gambling from the game (Pete Rose being the exception) and that a similar ban might do the same for PEDs.

That sounds good, but he's wrong. The harsh punishment is only one of the reasons we don't see betting in baseball. Another is the lack of incentive to do it. Players earn so much money these days that there is little or no motivation for them to cheat by gambling on games.

Would a lifetime ban diminish PED use? Probably. But as we've seen in so many other sports, it won't end it. Given the brevity of careers in, say, track and cycling, multi-year suspensions for doping in those sports can carry almost the weight of lifetime bans. Yet some runners and cyclists still juice. There is still too much incentive to win and, hence, cheat.

(And let's be clear. The main reason we see so many athletes busted in those sports isn't because track and cycling are dirtier, but because their governing bodies try so much harder to catch cheaters. That's also why baseball has had so many more players busted than in football, basketball or hockey. Baseball is trying much harder than those other sports to clean up its game.)

Athletes don't dope because they are bad, evil people. They dope because there is a very strong incentive to do so.

Consider this other scenario: You can take a substance that might carry a slight risk to your health (much like the drugs we see advertised on TV all the time) but that could also make you a better player. If you take it, you might help earn yourself millions upon millions of dollars and the acclaim of fans. Your friends and teammates also will benefit from your improved performance. And you know many others in your profession are already doing so. In fact, there is a decent chance you'll need to take it to offset the advantage opponents have gained over you by taking the same thing.

Do you take it? If you are even tempted to say yes, you shouldn't be so venomous in your judgments of Alex Rodriguez.

Yes, A-Rod deserves to be punished. And yes, we should try to rid the game of PED use. But while we're casting judgments on A-Rod and Braun and the others implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and past steroid stories, we might want to consider casting that same harsh judgment on previous generations of players.

And on ourselves.