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After A-Rod's fall, he and MLB are a perfect fit

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 5 NFL Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

IT SOUNDS SO inconceivable, naive, delusional, but it was only a decade ago that Alex Rodriguez was the antidote to a ruinous generation of drugs and greed. He was the choice of the really smart baseball men, such as Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman, both of whom traded for him, and a paralyzed commissioner such as Bud Selig, who tolerated Barry Bonds holding the home run record because soon enough Rodriguez would shatter it and make the game whole again. He would make them clean.

Alex Rodriguez only made it worse. The Golden Boy wasn't so golden after all. Following a bizarre week in which the Yankees held a retirement ceremony for him even though he'd never announced he was quitting, Rodriguez was discarded without much care. Even the pregame celebration before his final game as a Yankee was curtailed by thunder, lightning and rain, fitting for those who found him less of a True Yankee than the rest. "That wasn't thunder," former Yankees player and coach Lee Mazzilli said of the biblical thunderclaps that preceded the downpour. "That was George." The Yankees' 1996 championship team was being honored the next day, but for Rodriguez's night, only Mariano Rivera joined him on the field. Former teammates Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter were not present. Neither was his old manager, Joe Torre. That's called a message pitch.

Point the blame at Rodriguez, who admitted using PEDs, but no amount of reveling in his inglorious end can undo the enormous collaborative effort that has created baseball's current dystopia. Rodriguez, along with Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire, is part of the Mount Rushmore of discredited legends that represents the true legacy of the steroid era: It isn't that they aren't in Cooperstown. It's that nobody cares.

The all-time home run list was once led by the most recognizable foursome in sports -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson. That leaderboard stood for nearly 30 years, until Bonds, who hit his 500th and 600th home runs just one season apart, passed Robinson in 2002. Sammy Sosa hit 60 home runs three times and won the home run title in exactly none of those years. While baseball took the money and laughed at warnings that it was undermining itself, the consequences would be felt later, with Rodriguez amassing 3,000 hits, 2,000 runs and 2,000 RBIs -- something only Aaron had done -- but leaving the game utterly uncelebrated, inside baseball and especially out.

The Rodriguez epitaph will be a one-sided story about the phenom who was part of the top millionth percentile of talent and blew it all. Yet Alex Rodriguez will in the end be no different from the industry in which he performed for the past two decades, a game that has lost its way, seemingly intent on undermining all that made it special.

The game, like A-Rod, took the money (it is now close to a $10billion industry), ignored the spread of steroids and lost out on the good stuff. Its records are now as worthless as those in the league it is so envious of, the NFL. It decides which team will host the most important games of the World Series based on an exhibition game. It plays its championship in the worst weather because its leaders refuse to compromise on money and adjust the schedule. It plays at least one game every day between teams that play under two sets of rules. And because baseball cannot decide whether it wants to be truly modern, the game's leadership allows it to stand weakly in the middle, playing a full season of baseball, simultaneously rewarding and penalizing teams for not coming in first place by staging a one-game playoff, as if the baseball season were the NCAA tournament.

Baseball wants the world to be proud of its drug-testing program. Meanwhile, it deals with an All-Star team of steroid-tainted players who thus far need a ticket to enter the Hall of Fame -- Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez and most certainly Rodriguez -- by disciplining virtually none of them and hiring nearly all -- laying the weight of accountability on the Baseball Writers' Association of America. If not knowing himself was the self-destructive fatal flaw of Alex Rodriguez, it makes perfect sense that he felt so much at home playing major league baseball.

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