Sports Nut

Deep in the Glute of Texas

How did A-Rod’s Rangers become ground zero for baseball’s steroids scandal?

Alex Rodriguez

Flashback: It’s circa 2001, and Alex Rodriguez sleeps in his North Texas mansion on Lakeside Drive. He lives among the most prosperous plutocrats and petro-sexuals in the state, just around the corner from the swell crib Dick Cheney occupied during his Lone Star tenure. A-Rod is having a nightmare.

In the dream, Rodriguez stands in the batter’s box. Bottom of the ninth, World Series on the line. He hears a play-by-play voice. “A-Rod hits a drive to deep center! It’s going … going … but it’s not gone! The outfielder catches the ball for the final out because A-Rod is too weak to hit it into the cheap seats. What a c—! And little Johnny, the hospitalized youth who A-Rod had promised a home run, will never walk again because he just died.”

Now baseball’s quarter-billion-dollar baby wakes up with the shakes. The pressure from all that dough has transformed A-Rod’s central nervous system into Silly Putty. He stares out across the front lawn that he’s had landscaped to resemble a tropical rain forest. Then the superstar is struck with the reassuring voice of reality. Remember where you are, boy! This isn’t the major leagues. … This is Texas, the foreign legion of sports. This franchise has produced enough notorious characters to fill a wax museum and has a training room stocked with enough performance enhancers for a Russian woman shot-putter. You know the Rangers’ slogan: If God hadn’t wanted man to shoot juice, He wouldn’t have given him a butt. Come on, kid. Get with the program.

And that’s about when Rodriguez made the decision to desecrate his temple of a body.

OK, maybe that’s not exactly how it went down. But that was the impression that I got from watching his wrenching confessional on ESPN with Peter Gammons. During that uncomfortable session, the word that came out of A-Rod’s mouth most often wasn’t baseball or steroids or sorry or stupid. It was Texas. He said it 16 times, and his implication was clear: His steroid usage started in Arlington and ended there, a pre-Yankees fad. In his press conference on Tuesday, A-Rod tried to backtrack a bit, saying that his “mistake [had] nothing to do with where I played.” Rather, he pinned his habit on youth and curiosity, the stupid innocence of some eighth-grader trying to get high on his little sister’s asthma inhaler. He should have stuck with the blame it on Texas explanation. I could sympathize with that idea, as could most Rangers fans: What choice did he have but to do drugs, considering that he was exiled with the most bizarre team in organized sports?

I covered the Rangers for a newspaper when the team arrived from Washington as a major-league foster child. Right from the outset, it was evident that the vessel was cracked. From Billy Martin in the dugout to Jimmy Piersall in the broadcast booth to Willie Davis on the field, the team had an unquenchable capacity to recruit personalities from the fringe. That characteristic endured. Always will, I am now convinced.

While I wouldn’t wish a stint with the Rangers on any man, my patience with A-Rod vanishes when he drags the weatherman into the equation. “You know, it was hot in Texas every day,” Rodriguez said to Gammons by way of explanation for his doping. “It was over 100 degrees. You know, you felt like—without trying to over-investigate what you’re taking—can I have an edge, just to get out there and play every day?”

If A-Rod had bothered to ask around, he would have learned a local folk remedy to defeat the heat. It’s called a Fort Worth Air Conditioner, and it consists of a large plastic cup filled with tequila on the rocks, colored by a couple of tablespoons of orange juice. Rangers players had relied on that concoction for three decades, and nobody ever heard a single one of them carp about life within the world’s largest sauna. That was the old Arlington Stadium, with its shadeless metal stands configured like a gravel pit, where the scoreboard thermometer once hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the first inning of a night game.

But let’s leave aside Rodriguez’s astounding revelation that he was more obsessed with the numbers on the thermometer than his own batting stats. Otherwise, the heart-rending saga of his Rangers tenure—”I am sorry for my Texas years,” he told Gammons—holds up under scrutiny. The Texas Rangers franchise seems to have been fashioned from the template presented by 1961’s The Comancheros.That motion picture, like the Arlington baseball club, was set in a desert sanctuary so remote it existed beyond the reach of law and order, the ideal redoubt for bandits, cutthroats, and their ilk.

From its very outset, this asylum of a baseball team stocked its roster with retreads and lovable lunatics, far more notable for their off-the-field exploits than their lamentable status in the American League. Those early Rangers—the Boys of Bummer—shot themselves with handguns, not syringes. They turned themselves into human statues, they lived beneath ocean piers while hiding from the cops during spring training, they beat the living crap out of manager Frank Lucchesi, they resorted to every possible tactic to avoid the boredom of a Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

So it is not surprising that with the advent of baseball’s steroids era, the Rangers’ clubhouse seemingly became a haven for players with a flair for experimentation. In other words, success-oriented individuals who wouldn’t say no to anything.

While the Dallas Cowboys were monopolizing national headlines thanks to their penchant for recreational drug use, the Rangers—who plied their trade in the baseball equivalent of parts unknown—rose to the top of the standings in the under-the-counter-dope league. Alleged early practitioners included Rubén Sierra, Rafael Palmeiro, Iván Rodríguez, and Juan González, to name only a few—a who’s who of chemically fortified all-stars. If nothing else, this team must now be remembered as pioneers of the contemporary era of baseball, when a scouting report on a prospect might read: “Has limited range, but earnest face will make him believable while perjuring himself before a congressional committee.”

As you might expect, baseball’s steroids prince eventually found his way to Arlington. “I don’t know about Typhoid Mary, but I don’t think there’s any question that when I arrived in Texas [in 1992], the other Rangers saw me as a useful resource,” José Canseco explained in his memoir Juiced. “Before long, other players from all around the baseball world saw what was going on with me and my buddies and Texas.”

To make this passage even juicier, Canseco implies that George W. Bush—then the Rangers’ managing general partner—engineered the trade that brought Jose to Texas because of his prowess in the use of Superman serum. Alas, this point is where Canseco’s oft-reliable narrative strays from reality. First of all, the Rangers didn’t need José Canseco to tutor them in the finer arts of shooting up. Any North Texas high-school football player worthy of the all-district patch on his letter jacket could have assisted them in that regard. Secondly, having had his fingers burned for approving the Sammy Sosa trade in 1989, Bush had retreated from participating in roster decisions. In the only conversation I ever had with Bush regarding his Rangers days, I came away convinced that he was oblivious to Dr. Frankenstein’s presence in the training room. According to Bush, he was much more concerned over the mental state of his pitching, referring to one of his staff aces as “a fucking psycho.”

If José Canseco did leave a legacy in the Rangers’ clubhouse that extended through the A-Rod years, then it prevailed not only here but throughout the sport. That’s one thing that Rodriguez got right on Tuesday. He didn’t start taking steroids because the evils of Arlington made a squeaky-clean player go dirty. No, A-Rod got on the juice because, in a single decade, the rest of the baseball world took on the characteristics of its seedy underbelly. We are all Texans now.