BASEBALL REPORT: A-Rod's 600th homer reopens steroids debate

By Phil Rogers/Chicago Tribune (MCT)

On Wednesday, Alex Rodriguez became the seventh player to reach the 600-home run level. He was the youngest to do it and is on a path that easily could give him another 163 homers, and the all-time record, before his contract ends in 2017.

Yet Rodriguez’s milestone home run wasn’t a big event outside of New York. It was more of an interruption in stories about the start of NFL camps and the deterioration of Tiger Woods’ short game.

How would this have been played if Rodriguez had not wound up on the list of players who tested positive for steroids in 2003?

Would he have been celebrated as the anti-Barry Bonds?

He would have been in some quarters, just as some put their faith in Albert Pujols to be the syringe-free icon to deliver baseball from the steroid age. But there’s no getting around suspicion with any prolific hitter who played a significant chunk of his career before 2004, when baseball began testing for real to slow the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The truth is, none of us really knows what to make of guys who were linked to steroids.

Do we shun them as if they were adulterers and this was 17th-Century Puritan Boston? Do we knock them down a few notches on our collective rankings but still acknowledge the greatness that gave them the high level of performance to enhance? Or do we give them real forgiveness, buying into the thought that they were somehow victims of a tolerant culture?

Bill James believes that all those linked to steroids, even the likes of one-dimensional stars such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, eventually will be welcomed to the Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt players like Rodriguez and Bonds belong among baseball’s all-time elite. But given the voters’ negative judgment toward McGwire, you wonder how long the wait will be for anyone whose record isn’t completely clean.

There were 539 ballots cast by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America on the 2010 ballot, which gave Andre Dawson the writers’ stamp of approval. That means there were probably also 539 different standards on the steroid question.

Should this really be for us writers to decide?

Though there’s a perception that the BBWAA is the keeper of the Hall of Fame, all we do is serve at the discretion of the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, who 75 years ago asked us to vote. It’s time that board of directors — a body composed primarily of owners, executives and Hall of Fame players — tackles the steroid question.

It will be front and center in future elections, including the granddaddy of them all in 2013 (first-time eligibles include Bonds, Sosa, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza). The longer Rodriguez can keep playing, the better chance he has to have the issue clarified before he gets on the ballot.

This much should be clear: No matter how small the crowd of true A-Rod fans is around America, he is a vital cog for the Joe Girardi-era Yankees. The 2010 team would be fighting the Red Sox for the wild-card spot, two or three lengths behind the Rays, if not for Rodriguez.

He’s no longer a guy who hits when it least matters, as he showed last October. He entered the weekend with 87 RBI, and 37 of them (45 percent) either had tied the score or put the Yankees ahead.

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is among the old-school types who respect Rodriguez for his hitting.

“Six hundred, you can’t write it any other way, can you?” Gaston said of Rodriguez’s milestone. “That’s a lot of home runs. How many miles is that around the bases? That’s a lot of miles.”

Gaston says he uses Rodriguez as an example to hitters about thinking with pitchers and looking for certain pitches in certain counts.

“Once in a while he’ll get jammed, but the thing I like about him is that he has a plan,” he told the New York Post. “Pitchers have plans on trying to get hitters out. Hitters should have plans, too. … I don’t think anybody can say you have the wrong plan, not when you have 600 home runs. That’s a pretty darn good plan.”

Did Rodriguez’s plan include steady dosages of chemicals on baseball’s banned list? He says he only dabbled when he was with the Rangers, and maybe that’s all he did. But it will color the way most fans look at him and anything he does forever, including an eventual run at Henry Aaron and Bonds.

Money on the table: Jake Westbrook probably still would be in Cleveland if he insisted that the Indians honor his contract. But the 32-year-old pitcher felt he owed it to the Indians to let them get something back from their $33-million investment, so he facilitated the deadline trade to the Cardinals when he agreed to waive the $2 million bonus he was due if he was traded.

“I felt like any way I could help the Indians, I should,” Westbrook said. “I don’t think I honored the contract the way I should, with me being hurt, so it was in my best interest and theirs to help get this thing done.”

The Indians landed Double-A pitching prospect Corey Kluber in the three-way deal between the Indians, Cardinals and Padres. Westbrook, who blew out his elbow shortly after signing a three-year deal with Cleveland before the 2008 season, was 7-9 during that contract.

Bitterness: Rick Dempsey, the longtime Orioles catcher who works as a broadcaster in Baltimore, expects Buck Showalter to do a good job as the club’s manager but thinks he would have been an even better fit.

Dempsey hardly can believe owner Peter Angelos and his general managers now have bypassed him four times after interviews for managerial openings.

“I think it is probably the biggest mistake made here in a long time, and I’m not talking just today, I mean over the years,” Dempsey told the Baltimore Sun. “Every organization in baseball would like to have someone who has won, who has played in the World Series for the organization, who has learned to manage from A ball up and come back here. I think with the relationship I have had with the fans and this city, I should have been a slam-dunk years ago.”

Unfamiliar position: Angels box scores have looked weird lately. That’s because Torii Hunter has been playing rightfield, with rookie Peter Bourjos in center.

After hitting .314 with 12 triples and 13 home runs for Triple-A Salt Lake City, the 23-year-old Bourjos was promoted in manager Mike Scioscia’s attempt to improve the outfield defense. He might have more range than any outfielder already in the big leagues, so Hunter did not fight the switch to right field.

“Sometimes you have to slap pride in the face,” said Hunter, who has won Gold Gloves in each of the last nine seasons.

The last word: “Oh, my God, I felt like throwing up on the field. I was nauseous. I’m still sick to my stomach.” — Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey after his playful wrestling with Grant Balfour forced the setup man onto the DL for 4-to-6 weeks with a strained intercostal muscle.

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THE WHISPERS

Zack Greinke, who has two years left on his deal with the Royals, is talking like he’s getting the itch to move to a contender. He’s unlikely to ask for a trade, but the Royals could decide to deal him at some point after this season, as did the Padres for Jake Peavy last year and the Astros for Roy Oswalt last week. … Indians catching phenom Carlos Santana is out for the season after tearing up his left knee in a collision with the Red Sox’s Ryan Kalish on Monday night. He still might be limited at the start of camp next year, but the Indians hope he will be the same player when he returns. The stat that best tells his potential as a hitter — 37 walks and only 29 strikeouts in 192 plate appearances, elevating a .260 batting average to a .401 on-base percentage. … How about this? The only team that expressed interest in trading for the Red Sox’s Mike Lowell at the deadline was the Yankees. The Red Sox were glad they held onto him when Kevin Youkilis was lost for the season with a torn tendon in his thumb. … The Red Sox’s decision to trade for Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a sign that they aren’t sure they will hang onto Victor Martinez, an impending free agent. … Before being sidelined to recover from a cortisone shot in his right shoulder, Joe Mauer had gone 28-for-66 with 21 RBI since the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see how aggressive the White Sox are on the bases against the Twins this week and next week. . . . Juan Samuel was offered a chance to return to his job coaching third with the Orioles but felt it would be awkward to work under Buck Showalter. The Orioles went 17-34 under Samuel, who is expected to be a candidate to replace Cito Gaston in Toronto after the season. . . . Josh Hamilton has had two cortisone shots for patella tendinitis in his right knee, causing concern about his availability in September and October. … Nolan Ryan’s group wound up paying $84 million more than its original sales price in Wednesday’s auction against a group headed by Mark Cuban. While some specu late Ryan now will try to lock up free agent-to-be Cliff Lee, the reality is the team still is believed to have little payroll flexibility. Re-signing Vladimir Guerrero for a year or two seems more realistic. … This weekend’s Giants-Braves series is a reunion for Buster Posey and Jason Heyward, whose teams played for the Georgia high school championship in 2005. Heyward was just a sophomore but made quite an impression on Posey. “He was a monster at 16 — or 15, however old he was,” Posey said. “He’s impressive. He’s a specimen.”