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A-Rod and Augustine

February 19, 2009


A-Rod and Augustine
By Rev. Robert Barron

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was six years old, when my father took my brother and me to a Detroit Tigers game in the summer of 1966.  I’ll never forget the beauty of the intensely, almost garishly, green field and the crisp white uniforms of the home-team players under the bright lights that night.  I started with tee-ball when I was seven and moved through many years of little-league and Babe-Ruth league, becoming in time a pretty good hitter and shortstop.  When I was nine, in 1969, I moved with my family to Chicago and became (God help me) a Cubs fan and learned very quickly what it was like to move from giddy hope to blackest despair.  And I’ve always been an admirer of the great players that I’ve been privileged to see:  Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Pete Rose, Greg Maddux, and many others.  In the summer of 1999, I was in Seattle, attending the first Mass of a student I had taught at Mundelein.  Knowing my love for baseball, he had arranged to take me to a Mariner’s game, and the player I was most looking forward to seeing was Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod.  He didn’t disappoint.  That night, he got, as I remember, three hits, but what has stayed in my mind was actually a strikeout, for as he swung at the third strike, he exhibited one of the most beautiful, balanced, and elegant swings I had ever seen.

I’ve been thinking of that night a good deal as the revelations about Rodriguez’s steroid use have come forth.  By his own admission, the great A-Rod has joined the sad ranks of Ken Caminiti, Rafael Palmiero, John Rocker, Mark Maguire, Roger Clemens, and of course Barry Bonds.  Now there are any number of rather obvious moral observations that one can make concerning this scandal.  One could say that these players have undermined the integrity of the game, that they have damaged their own bodies, that they have set a terrible example to young players, that they have lied under oath or pathetically ducked the question (“I’m not here to talk about the past”), that they have egregiously cheated on their fellow competitors, etc.  And these observations would be absolutely valid.  But when I look at the two most prominent players in this scandal—A-Rod and Barry Bonds—something else strikes me with particular power.  These two figures began using steroids—Bonds in 1998 and Rodriguez in 2001—when they were at the top of their games, when they were generally regarded as the best players in baseball.  By 1998, Bonds was already a three time MVP winner, and by 2001, A-Rod had been awarded the biggest contract in the history of professional sports.  They both had sterling records, both were guaranteed a place in the Hall of Fame, both had more money than they could spend in ten lifetimes, both could out-hit, out-run, and out-play practically any player in the game.  If they had been minor leaguers, desperately trying to break into the majors, or .250 hitters hoping for that extra boost that would keep them competitive for a few more years, we might understand.  But why would these gods of baseball, these men who were, without artificial help, dominating their respective leagues, turn to steroids?  It has been suggested that Bonds was jealous of the national frenzy around the Maguire-Sosa homerun race in 1998 and that Rodriguez felt the pressure of living up to the expectations generated by his unprecedented contract.  Fair enough.  But I think that things go deeper than that.

St. Augustine spoke of “concupiscent desire,” by which he meant a perversion of the will.  We have, Augustine said, been wired for God (“Lord, you have made us for yourself”), and therefore, nothing in this world will ever be able finally to satisfy us (“our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”).  When we hook our infinite desire for God onto something less than God—pleasure, money, power, success, honor, victory—we fall into a perverted and ultimately self-destructive pattern.  When money isn’t enough (and it never is), we convince ourselves we need more and more of it; when honor isn’t enough (and it never is), we seek honor desperately, obsessively; when athletic success isn’t enough (and it never is), we will go to any extreme to assure more and more of it.  This awful and frustrating rhythm, which Augustine called “concupiscent,” we would call today “addictive.”  Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were not addicted to steroids per se; they were addicted to success, and we know this because they were at the pinnacle of success and still didn’t think it was enough.

One of the most liberating and salutary things that we can know is that we are not meant to be perfectly happy in this life.  When we convince ourselves otherwise, we, necessarily, fall into one or more forms of addiction.  Bonds and Rodriguez still felt, at the height of their success, a nagging sense of incompleteness.  That was not an invitation to take desperate measures; it was the invasion of grace.