Sunday, January 12, 2014

The long way

Want to see someone go from a cliche to Alex Rodriguez in a few paragraphs? I'm just the man for the job.

Let's start with my absolute least favorite phrase in sports, one that I almost refuse to use in print whenever possible. Say your favorite team is having big problems winning. Media members ask the usual question - how are you going to get out of this mess?

The answer often comes back in this form: "We have to work harder."

I'm willing to admit that every once in a while, a lack of effort is part of the problem. Usually it's because the coaching staff has lost the attention of the team for one reason or another. The key part of the sentence is "every once in a while."

The reason players say that they need to work harder as a team is because they aren't too interested in talking about the real reason: They just aren't good enough.

And that's tough to hear. Especially when it might be true.

That's because many athletes, even professionals making huge dollars, are extremely insecure. No matter what you might think, many of them wonder if they are good enough. If they don't score goals and baskets in a couple of games, they start thinking they'll never score again and be out of the lineup and then out of the league in no time. There is a lot of pressure there.

What's more, sometime they are right. Sometimes they aren't good enough, and sometimes their teams aren't good enough. It happens every day.

That leads to all sorts of situations that keep team psychologists employed. I once heard about a hockey player who was moaning and groaning about his lot in life. He was told by a professional something along the lines of "you are 22 years old and earning about a million dollars a year in the NHL. Tell me again why you are depressed." He snapped out of it, for a while. But he didn't stay in the league for long.

You probably can understand that attitude when it comes to a fringe player. The difference between playing for the Buffalo Bisons and Toronto Blue Jays, or Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres, is enormous financially. No wonder some might be tempted to take some chemical help to stay in the league, or just block out an obvious answer.

But what about the stars? You'd think they should be more secure. Alas, they have more to lose.

That brings us to Alex Rodriguez. Here's someone who probably was the most naturally talented baseball player of his generation. (If you want to say "ever," I won't argue too much.) He took the major league field as a teenager and probably, in a more perfect world, would have been the one to pass Hank Aaron for the all-time home run crown - as a shortstop for most of the time, no less.

But that wasn't enough. A-Rod admitted to steroid use once before, and on Saturday saw his appeal of a similar conviction upheld even if the sentence was reduced to a year. His denials this time around have been loud, and they have been generally ignored. It's difficult to see how he could possibly play in 2014, and perhaps this episode will mark the end of his career. The Yankees seem almost anxious to let him go away.

Rodriguez won't end up in Cooperstown, but instead will be in Never-Never Land with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - all players who apparently decided that being great wasn't good enough.

A strong work ethic was never Alex Rodriguez's problem, and neither was talent. That's what makes his fall from grace so dramatic, and so disappointing.

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