A-Rod's mud smears the game - and his accusers

It used to be back in the days when the world made rather more sense that there was remorse when the baseball season ended with the lament about there being no more games until the swallows also returned presaging a wailing over the onslaught of winter.

Nowadays, in a cockeyed world, no one wants to take credit because it's backwards. Even if it brings with it the promise of spring, who would have this Hot Stove off-season end when every week features a new and richer soap opera coming to boil?

You'll take spring training, old Sport, I know. After the notable savagery of a thankless winter, you need those pictures of palm trees swaying in the background as the lads try to bend over and touch their toes. Illusion is mightier than fact. They are playing baseball in Fort Myers. God's in his heaven. All's right with the world.

But I promise you nothing that happens on the playing fields of Florida and Arizona will be more fascinating than the free agent machinations raging since November, or as juicy as Joe Torre's kiss-and-tell book, or as nasty as the latest A-Rod follies which bring upon all of baseball yet another tiptoe through the minefield of steroids.

The implications have only just begun to rear. The games on the field are swell. But it's on the cell phones and in the boardrooms and at the courthouses that they are ultimately won, nowadays.

The Rodriguez fiasco is a terrible blow to baseball and a bit of a low blow to Rodriguez himself, in my book. This bombshell will fester well into the season and perhaps explode at some point, making the Mitchell Report of a year ago seem a minor prelude. The personal damage to A-Rod is huge. The high priests of the sports pages already agree it should be enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

And to what end? Does the expose in Sports Illustrated, a time-honored muckraker on such issues, break any new ground? Absolutely not! The degree, scope, and intensity of the problem were firmly established by the Mitchell gang, among others. We have long understood the best and brightest are the most suspect. Of the 26 MVP's over the last 13 seasons, 14 either tested positively or have been heavily implicated. The late Ken Caminiti tried to tell us 10 years ago that 50 percent of all the then active players were devouring questionable performance-enhancers. But keep in mind that at that time there was much confusion even about what was banned and the Lords of Baseball were doing nothing about clarifying that confusion. They ran away from the issue in sheer terror for at least 10 critical years.

More to the point, Rodriguez is now being fried on the basis of results gleaned from the controversial 2003 season's so-called survey-test which was supposed to be anonymous and confidential and designed only to determine the extent of the problem, thus enabling the Lords to establish drug tests at long last. When the tests were taken there were no penalties in place and even lingering confusion about what was admissible and what was not. The specific results were supposed to have been immediately destroyed but for reasons that will forever remain unfathomable, the players union botched it. The results never got destroyed.

A year later Justice Department agents, led by avenging angel Jeff Novitzky, seized the list naming all 104 players who had failed the test, although the warrant they were operating under restricted their search to the records of the 10 players implicated in the infamous BALCO Lab scandal, chiefly involving Barry Bonds.

The wild antics of Novitzky's warriors have been heavily criticized by four different courts. The presiding federal judge in the Bonds trial has issued a scalding rebuke terming it "a callous disregard for constitutional rights (and) a seizure beyond what was authorized in the search warrant and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment." The issue is now before the 9th District Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in December and should soon rule. In the meantime, the court has warned those who know the names of the 104 ballplayers on this infamous list, now under seal by court order, must not disclose any name of anyone to anybody. Period!

But, if Sports Illustrated is to be believed, four people have done precisely that. Selena Roberts, the star reporter who landed the scoop, claims she has confirmation from four different sources. They are of course anonymous and she is, of course, pledged to maintain their anonymity. Bravo! But they are also clearly in contempt of court. Apparently, that does not concern Ms. Roberts.

Now, who might these sources be? Who are the precious few who know the names on that list. Not even Judge Mitchell himself got a squint. It's known some folks from the commissioner's office did but where's the advantage for them to squeal? Players Association personnel knew but there's no way they'd leak it. Necessarily, some people linked with the courts have to know and after all the notorious leaks from the Bonds grand jury, you wonder. Lastly, there are all the Justice Department sleuths connected with the case. Might we be getting warmer?

It's hard to even appear to be rushing to the defense of a royal doofus and legendary airhead like Alex Rodriguez but this is fast becoming an issue that has less to do with baseball than some very fundamental civil liberties issues. One doesn't expect constitutional law to be explored in the sports pages but it seems strange that so few of the learned sports columnists hammering on the story have taken note of the serious legal questions involved or chosen to wonder about the anonymous sources of high and mighty Sports Illustrated.

Instead, all the emphasis is on the revealed weaknesses and perceived insincerity of the heavily flawed Rodriguez and he is surely an easy target, being so rich and over-paid and spoiled and morally flabby and above all, a Yankee. His past protestations of near virginal purity don't stand him very well at the moment either. It may add up to authentic grounds for a verdict of guilty on the sports pages but this is no longer just a sports story.

Players who crossed the line before the 2004 season when there were no drug tests or penalties and confusion even about what should be banned who have not been otherwise charged by civil authorities should be allowed to politely concede their wrong-doing, pledge to sin no more, and quietly move on. Andy Pettitte is the perfect example of that scenario and Rodriguez needs to be given the chance to follow suit. But for players who falter from 2004 on - all the confusion and doubt having been rectified - there must be no mercy. It is that simple.

There are, of course, other issues. Lying to a grand jury or Congress will never fly no matter the details or when they occurred. That's why Bonds and Clemens face ruination. Jason Giambi chose not to lie to the very same folks and remains in the game, a most happy fella.

But there should be no more of this random justice stuff. Judge Mitchell was wrong when he branded about 80 players with goat-horns while conceding there were probably ' "hundreds" more equally guilty whom he simply couldn't get the goods on. And it's dead wrong now for one player to be scapegoated while 103 others who are equally guilty escape unscathed. And for that one player to pay so heavy a price simply because he's the most gifted and famous is unconscionable. In the end, random and selective justice is no justice at all.

Roberts, the ace reporter, now advises she knows the names of others on the list but has no interest in reporting them, only Rodriguez. What's that all about? We further learn that Ms. Roberts has a book coming out on Rodriguez this summer which, one assumes, will hardly suffer from all the wacky publicity Mr. A-Rod is sure to receive between now and then.

Questions! There are so many. It's about time people on our side of the fence began asking them.