Alex Rodriguez has been portrayed this week as the last hope for a clean baseball hero, one who could dissolve the stain of steroids on names like Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, and McGuire. These fallen heroes have one thing in common: none of them have admitted any wrong-doing. As they fought pitchers and hitters in their careers, they are fighting the truth in their retirement.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” The classic line about baseball’s major gambling scandal, portrayed in “Eight Men Out” by a young fan who saw Joe Jackson in the street. Unfortunately Shoeless Joe didn’t have a good media advisor to help him sort out the truth from the lies about his participation in the “Black Sox Scandal.” Today’s baseball heroes know better the benefits of full or partial disclosure.
A real hero is not blameless, regardless of what the media says. A real hero just has to be straight with his or her fans and let them be the judge. I remember when Mickey Mantle was my hero in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Mantle had his share of carousing and stories about his late revelries with Billy Martin and Whitey Ford often got into the papers. The vices were relatively mild then, but it was enough to tarnish a hero. But Mantle never denied anything that he thought wouldn’t hurt his family, and he played through injuries as none of his contemporaries would. He made a lot of mistakes, but his fans forgave him. My father used to say he was influenced by older and more chronic boozers, players he respected. Even Mantle’s wife excused his infidelities for the sake of their marriage.
None of this contributed much to heroism, but it didn’t keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Mantle’s fans loved him in spite of his vices. Despite the fact he was baseball’s first $100,000 man, he never took on the persona of a corporation or tried to manufacture the untarnished heroism of players like Gehrig or DiMaggio or Bob Feller or Hank Aaron. He engaged the press and never complained about the pain or his contract.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation lifts its lonely eyes to you.” The DiMaggios are gone, but that does not mean heroism is defunct. If Alex Rodrguez really offers full disclosure of his past and keeps his future clean, he could yet be the kind of hero Mantle was: flawed, but sincere, after his fashion. I don’t know if Rodriguez has the moral fortitude to do it, but I do believe America wants a hero, flawed or not.