When Alex Rodriquez was playing for the Seattle Mariners, I was the guest preacher one summer at the First Presbyterian Church of Spokane, Washington.
The title of my sermon that Sunday, "The Most Difficult Thing You Will Ever Do."
And the most difficult thing you will ever do in this life, if you're a person of the Christian faith, is live your life consistent with the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ.
Having read a long and admiring profile on Alex Rodriquez in Sports Illustrated, I used the young baseball star as an illustration of someone who took his Christian faith seriously and sought to follow his Lord.
I was specifically impressed by Rodriquez's devotion to his mother, a single mom, as Rodriquez's dad had walked away from his family; but his son bore him no enmity, saying there was enough love in his heart for his dad to come back. He also said he was praying for the Holy Spirit to lead him to the woman he should marry.
Several summers later I was invited back to First Presbyterian and preached on "The World's Greatest Need", the title taken from Mother Theresa, who said, "The world's greatest need is for people to feel as though someone loves them." By then Alex Rodriquez was gone from Seattle, the results of having signed a $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers, and his lifestyle was evolving (Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz, and Madonna were in his future).
A-Rod was not mentioned that Sunday.
You're reading this because a Washington friend asked why I had not written about A-Rod. The question was posed by a reader of my baseball notes, and wanted my take on Rodriquez's suspension; a baseball arbitrator having ruled the Yankees star must sit for 162 games, or one entire season.
I said to my friend, "You know me well enough to know that unless we're talking Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden, Karadžić, Mladić and Milošević (the last three names, a Serbian "thing"), I'm inclined to come down on the side of the accused, knowing prosecutors err."
My friend said he understood, but said before writing a brief in A-Rod's behalf -- before I opined on baseball's "persecution" of the Yankees' star -- I might want to consider the prosecution's side, and rethink my position that A-Rod was nothing more than a "victim" of MLB's zeal to bring down a high salaried, high profile player, who had become an embarrassment to the game.
Really? Was I being asked to change my mind?
The words of Oliver Cromwell, etched in stone above the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh, came to mind: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible, you may be mistaken." (Although he, the "Lord Protector," seldom did; ask the Irish.)
But before that I wanted to know what Peter Gammons, one of the most respected of baseball writers, thought of A-Rod.
This is the last paragraph Mr. Gammons wrote recently about the Yankees' third baseman for his blog:
As for Alex, even after all the billable hours are paid off, he's going to have lots of money. But he's not going to have an acting career. Madison Avenue won't touch him. The Players Association is not going to allow him to partner with Dan Lozano's MVP agency. He can live the life of clubs and good champagne, get a ghostwriter for a tell-all book and roll Collins Avenue as just another shell on South Beach.
My own view on ballplayers players using steroids and human growth hormones (HGH) was one mostly of disinterest. If millionaire athletes want to use performance enhancing drugs so they can hit 40 home runs instead of 25, throw 95 mph instead of 90, I was not getting my knickers in a knot.
But then one hot, humid Saturday afternoon in late August, while having lunch at Fenway Park before a Yankees/Red Sox game, I was joined by someone with extensive knowledge of baseball.
Since Randy Johnson was pitching, the question came up, how Johnson went from throwing fastballs in the low 90s in June to throwing fastballs in the high 90s in the dog days of summer, if HGH wasn't involved.
The concern expressed over performance enhancing drugs was palpable, especially since there was no way of knowing who in who's clubhouse, including the Red Sox', might be HGH users -- as there was neither a method of testing for it, nor evidence from medical science on its health effects.
Surprised by the conversation that unfolded during lunch, I needed to weigh my own position; not because anyone in baseball would care what I thought, but I would.
With A-Rod a major news story, and my friend's challenge, I read Steve Eder's front page story in the New York Times, a story based upon baseball arbitrator Frederic Horowitz's 34-page indictment of A-Rod. To say Eder's article was damning, would be an understatement, as it outlined in great detail A-Rod's habitual use of banned substances -- all in defiance of baseball's rules.
Outlined in a box accompany Eder's story were code names for A-Rod's drugs, which included, "Food," for any banned performing-enhancing substance; "Gummies," for testosterone lozenges; "Pink Food," "Pink Cream," "Blue Cream," and "PM Cream" for testosterone creams; "Liquid Soap" or "Red Liquid," for testosterone lozenges in melted of liquefied form; and Cojete or Rocket, syringes containing substances like HGH and IGF-1 (insulin growth factor)."
CBS Sports headlined the story, "Entire A-Rod arbitration case released, shows crushing MLB win."
Matt Snyder, who writes about baseball for the network, began his article by quoting the Horowitz report's opening paragraph:
A review of all the evidence and argument presented by all parties in this proceeding clearly and convincingly establishes Rodriguez committed multiple violations of the [Joint Drug Agreement] and [Basic Agreement] warranting a substantial disciplinary penalty...
And Snyder ended with the report's conclusion:
Based up on the entire record from the arbitration, MLB has demonstrated with clear and convincing evidence there is just cause to suspend Rodriguez for the 2014 season and postseason for having violated the JDA by the use and/or possession of testosterone, IGF-1 and HGH over the course of three years, and for the two attempts to obstruct MLB's investigation..., which violated Article XII (B) of the Basic Agreement. While this length of suspension may be unprecedented for a MLB player, so is the misconduct he committed...
The report's release and in-depth stories by cable television and print journalists make abundantly clear A-Rod is an A-1 "doper," and he should feel fortunate that his season long exile from America's Game was reduced from its original 215 game suspension.
The Alex Rodriquez I used as an example of Christian piety at First Presbyterian in Spokane 17 summers past, is no more. The young baseball star with a compelling personal story, who wanted the Holy Spirit's guidance on the woman he should marry, now seeks the guidance of drug suppliers and high-price attorneys to keep him free of the baseball rules he morally bound himself to observe.
But to my Washington friend, and to anyone else who might share an interest in my judgment of A-Rod, let me reaffirm, what millionaire athletes do to enhance their performances through drugs, while a heightened concern, will not become a major preoccupation.
I will not be compromised into thinking such issues pose measurable threats to America's future, while millions of young men and women fall victim to hard drug usages -- not least the heroin epidemic sweeping the land.
The national media, while devoting so much air time and ink to the A-Rod story, have shamefully ignored the drug epidemic we face; an epidemic so vast that if left unchecked, poses a serious danger to America's future.
The one political leader who gets it is the governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, who devoted his entire state of the state address to the problem of drug addiction in his beautiful stat -- which has witnessed a 770 percent rise in the use of heroin.
And yet national media has written off this border to border, coast to coast, epidemic as a problem of "rural America," as if that made it okay -- for this problem transcends Vermont and "rural America."
Mary Alice Williams, one of CNN's founders and brilliant television anchor, who now teaches at State University New York (SUNY) Purchase, says the idea that only "rural America" is effected by our drug epidemic is "complete nonsense and the height of journalism folly. No place in America is safe from this plague."
She's right, of course, and unless we as a nation own up to this threat and confront it openly, a problem that may already be beyond our control will take us further toward the abyss.
I began this essay with a sermon preached in Spokane about a young baseball star who rose to great fame, permitted it to consume his ego and corrupt his judgment and Christian values, and while I find his fall from grace significant, I cannot place his performance enhancing drug usage on the same level as the USA's had drug epidemic.
We will survive A-Rod; whether we survive the other is an open question.