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MCGRATH: Alex Rodriguez is MLB’s designated cheater

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez looks during third inning baseball game against Chicago White Sox Chicago Monday Aug. 5 2013.

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez looks on during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago, Monday, Aug. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

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Updated: August 5, 2013 11:24PM

There were more media types in the house than there are fans in the stands at some White Sox games as Alex Rodriguez sought to stave off career-ending disgrace Monday evening.

Rodriguez is appealing a 211-game suspension — the rest of this year and all of next — he was given for alleged involvement in the Biogenesis drug scandal. He can play while the appeal is pending, so he returned to the New York Yankees’ run-famished lineup after missing the first 110 games of the season recuperating from hip surgery. He was neither contrite nor forthcoming in declining to explain why he stood apart from fellow Biogenesis suspects who accepted their suspensions, choosing instead the path of most resistance.

“I’ve had two hip surgeries, knee surgery and I’m 38 years old,” Rodriguez said. “I’m fighting for my life. If I don’t defend myself, no one else will.”

But he refused to deny the charges against him, insisting that a news conference was not the proper forum. He seemed to age before our eyes as he parried reporters’ questions. A first encounter with the enigmatic A-Rod seemed a lifetime ago.

I was in Seattle on newspaper business in May 1996, and a break in the action one evening brought me to the Kingdome for a Yankees-Mariners game and a look at Seattle’s hotshot 21-year-old shortstop.

What a viewing. Rodriguez went 4-for-4, with a double and a homer off Doc Gooden, raising his average to .369. A handful of effortlessly slick fielding plays included two well-turned double plays.

I was working in Philadelphia then. The All-Star Game would be played there in six weeks, so I headed for the clubhouse after the game to chat up a sure-fire participant.

Nice kid. Polite, well-spoken … if his modesty was false, it fooled me. “See you in Philly in a few weeks,” I said as I was leaving.

“No way,” he demurred. “You really think so?”

A-Rod made the American League team as a backup to Cal Ripken, his first of 14 All-Star appearances. Before Seattle took him with the first pick in the 1993 amateur draft, one veteran scout described him as the most talented prospect he had ever observed. I saw what he saw. What I didn’t see was the baggage that turned him into the most polarizing player of his era, outranking Barry Bonds and booed vigorously by the U.S. Cellular Field crowd in his first at-bat.

Bonds was a surly, self-absorbed misanthrope, disdainful of people and totally unconcerned with what they thought of him. A-Rod, by contrast, was “A-Fraud,” an amorphous man of little substance who was almost cloying in his need to be not just liked, but loved. And he had an odd way of showing it.

His attempt to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s hands during a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game in 2004 was one of the weirdest, dumbest plays ever seen on a baseball field. Opting out of the richest contract in baseball history to extract an even richer one from the Yankees in 2007 almost made Team Steinbrenner seem sympathetic. As the Biogenesis story broke, MLB viewed him as a repeat offender because he acknowledged dabbling in steroids earlier in his career, but Hangin’ Judge Bud Selig might have gone easier on him if he’d been more honest and cooperative with Biogenesis investigators.

If his appeal fails, Rodriguez will be 40 years old when he’s eligible to return. And despite his Cooperstown résumé — a .300 average, 647 homers, 1,950 RBI, three MVP awards — Hall of Fame voters have been unfailingly intolerant of steroid cheats.

The severity of the penalties against Rodriguez and Ryan Braun speaks to Selig’s determination to rid baseball of performance-enhancing chemicals, perhaps as his valedictory act. He’s a little late to the party, having been blithely oblivious to juiced-up sluggers’ assaults on baseball’s record book for years.

It’s one thing to make A-Rod an example, and another to make him a scapegoat for an entire generation.

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