Baseball was buzzing on Monday when 12 players, including Alex Rodriguez, were suspended by Major League Baseball for using performance enhancing drugs.
In Chicago, as the Yankees and White Sox prepared for the first game of their series, the media was in O.J. Simpson-hype mode as they fluttered around the ballpark “reporting liiiiiive” from the site of ARod’s return to baseball with suspension hanging over his head.
It was a spectacle, something we see too often in modern sports.
Meanwhile, two states over – in another city on the shores of another Great Lake – the Detroit Tigers opened a crucial series with the Indians, a series pitting the first and second place teams. The usual media was in attendance, but nothing more. But while ARod was getting all the attention in Chicago, fielding questions from the media in a special news conference 90 minutes prior to his first game of the 2013 season, another player was making his return to the big leagues, but with absolutely no fanfare.
Jeremy Bonderman did a few interviews before Monday’s game, but once he was done he crossed the field and went to the visitor’s bullpen, drawing hardly any attention at all from fans. He may as well have not had any name on the back of his uniform. His return, on the same day that Rodriguez returned to the Yanks, is a stark contrast in how the two men approach the game of baseball.
ARod has not played since last October, when the Tigers dispatched his Yankees in four games in the League Championship Series. He’s been sidelined with a hip injury that threatens to end his career. The injury is almost certainly a side effect of the years of steroid use. The synthetic drugs wreak havoc on the human body, and long term they can destroy organs, muscle, and bone.
Bonderman has fought his way back to the major leagues after being out of the game completely for two years in 2011 and 2012. He has worked hard to get back in shape. He’s sweated and trained and cajoled his body back into the form where he can throw the baseball past enemy batters again.
ARod has made hundreds of millions of dollars, and he aims to earn more, as long as he can avoid long-term suspensions or a career-ending ban from the game. His every move seems calculated and rehearsed. His words are almost scripted and his motions are robotic. He seems to be more of a “brand” than a man.
Bonderman made money in the game too, but he’s spent most of the last year traveling in buses, rubbing elbows with career minor leaguers and players who may never make it to The Show. He’s quiet and reserved, he doesn’t like the spotlight. He simply wants to play the game he’s loved since he was a child.
ARod is poised to take on Major League Baseball, whether it takes months, years, legal proceedings, appeals, and subpoenas. He’s dug in, ready to fight to keep what he feels he deserves.
Bonderman is just thankful to be back in the big leagues, grateful to be making the league minimum. His time out of the game has made him realize how fortunate he is to be able to play a game for a living.
ARod is playing for a team that doesn’t want him. His manager, though he insists Rodriguez is his “friend,” is put in a difficult spot where he has to write the name of a player on his lineup card that the front office would like to send into exile. The Yankees don’t want to pay him and the fans don’t want him in their uniform.
Bonderman’s manager tears up when he talks about the pitcher. The front office explains that they want Bonderman’s “veteran presence” in their bullpen. Bonderman speaks of how special it is to put the Old English D back on, and fans are excited to see their old pitching hero back on the club.
ARod is desperately trying to cling to the game that he once ruled like a king. He wants to get the 100 hits he needs to get to 3,000, and he wants to break Hank Aaron’s home run record (not coincidentally he’ll get bonus money if he does so).
Bonderman couldn’t tell you how many wins or strikeouts he has, he isn’t ever going to be on a Hall of Fame ballot, and he’s not interested in his legacy.
ARod has already been busted for using PEDs and he’s had his share of high profile interviews where he “confessed” and asked for forgiveness. He won an MVP Award and a World Series after admitting steroid use. Allegedly, MLB has damning evidence that he’s been using steroids for years and years, probably even when he was supposedly “clean.” Despite expressing contrition in the past, ARod has obviously never changed his ways.
Bonderman suffered arm injuries and faced adversity after helping the Tigers to the ’06 World Series, and by the age of 25 the right-hander’s career was tumbling into a freefall. But Bondo never took a shortcut. He endured being cut by the Tigers, signing a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners, and going two full years without picking up a baseball. He’s been humbled and he’s humble himself.
Over the next few weeks, ARod’s name will be uttered probably 8 million times on cable sports channels and news reports. Hardly anyone will notice Bonderman. ARod will be greeted with boos and catcalls. Bonderman will enter games to polite applause, or if he’s lucky, a festive cheer of nostalgic recognition. Every plate appearance that ARod has will be dissected. Bonderman, as a long reliever, by definition will be pitching when the game has probably already been decided.
Even so, the media will be paying attention to the wrong story.