We live in the age of the serious sports biography.
The 1980s and 1990s were filled with autobiographies written by sportswriters with help from the stars themselves. They were generally quickly written, not so easily read and guaranteed to break little new ground on the subject.
Now you can’t turn around in a Barnes and Noble without finding an exhaustively researched book about a baseball star. Want to read about Roger Clemens? Between “The Rocket That Fell To Earth” and “American Icon,” you have two books to choose from. “Becoming Manny” managed to get inside the head of Manny Ramirez, a seemingly impossible feat. And “The Yankee Years” managed to be a biography/autobiography/team chronicle rolled into one thanks to the collaboration of Joe Torre and Tom Verducci.
In the wake of those four books you’d think it would be hard for another to get noticed, but when Selena Roberts’ “A-Rod” broke the news that the game’s biggest star tested positive for steroids, it was a tabloid newspaper’s dream.
Breaking the news on Rodriguez’s positive steroid test is one of the bigger scoops in recent years in baseball, and gives “A-Rod” an instant hook. But that creates a problem: Because Roberts broke the story on SI.com months ago, her book arrives after everyone has already absorbed, dissected and moved on from the book’s biggest news.
Roberts lays out the case that Rodriguez’s story of giving up steroids after he joined the Yankees doesn’t ring true, but in the absence of any witnesses or drug tests, she’s forced to rely on speculation. It’s the same story with allegations that Rodriguez used steroids in high school: a lot of speculation and some reasons to think that maybe it happened, but nothing concrete.
None of that is Roberts’ fault. Unless you can get your hands on drug tests or find someone who saw a player injecting steroids, it’s hard to prove use without a doubt. It does mean that some will read the new book and wonder, “Is that all there is?”
But this is not just a book about Rodriguez and steroids. It tries to explain the complicated life of the Yankees third baseman, the differences between his once squeaky-clean public persona and the behind-the-scenes recklessness of strip clubs and swingers bars.
It works when Roberts tells the story through interviews with Rodriguez’s former friends and confidants. But sometimes the book tells us what Rodriguez was thinking and his motivations:
With no attribution, the reader is left to wonder how Roberts knew that, or if it’s just speculation, much like we’re left to wonder on some of the steroid accusations.
The books biggest other allegation—that Rodriguez tipped pitched to opposing hitters in blowouts—is much of the same. Roberts throws out the charge with some speculation, but the reader is left to decide if the speculation rises to a level of believability.
“A-Rod” is a quick read and generally well written. But in a year when books on Clemens and Ramirez explained the baseball stars in ways that hadn’t been explained before, it’s hard not to feel like A-Rod’s best material had already been written.