If the tallest tree in the forest cracks at the base, and everyone in the country hears it, do we have an obligation to prop it back up? Or can we just fire up the chainsaws and get the dismantling over with?

Alex Rodriguez is hardly the most heartbreaking name thatÁ¢€â„¢s recently been scrawled into the steroid-cheat record books, but heÁ¢€â„¢s certainly the most relevant. By the time they infamously appeared before a Congressional committee a few years back, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero et al were either gone from the game or on the downhill slope Á¢€” as were Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens even before their denouements devolved into potential prison terms. But A-Rod is still only 33, still at the peak of his (however imperfect) powers, still picking up $27 mil a year from the laughably duped Steinbrenners.

HeÁ¢€â„¢s got a lot of productive years remaining, assuming his body holds up. His head, however, is a different story. WhatÁ¢€â„¢s the psychology now, for a man who must pull it together and continue his pursuit of a lifetime home-run record that few will respect? WhatÁ¢€â„¢s the incentive for a guy to get back on the field and commence the second half of a career that looks brilliant on paper, but whose merits have already been downgraded in the more important realm of baseball mythology — and whose Hall of Fame prospects may never recover from the revelations of the past week?

Granted, there are 275 million bits of greenback motivation Á¢€” and Rodriguez will need every one of those simoleons to maintain the perfect shape of his coif and the silky sheen of his skin, not to mention the gold-diggers who likely will be the only women he can attract now that that wacked-out Madonna thing ended in tears. Still, itÁ¢€â„¢s difficult to imagine this pretty boy playing out his Yankees contract with anything like the panache expected when he signed it last winter. He just doesnÁ¢€â„¢t seem the type to develop a thick skin and a steely resolve in response to the first real adversity heÁ¢€â„¢s ever experienced.

A-Rod gets slap-happyYouÁ¢€â„¢re probably clued in by now to my lack of sympathy for A-RodÁ¢€â„¢s predicament. So, Alex, you felt pressure to live up to your $250 million, guaranteed contract? Boo frickinÁ¢€â„¢ hoo! And you gave up the juice as soon as you found out about your positive test, right about the same time baseball finally cracked down on chemical enhancements? Where can we pin your medal? (ItÁ¢€â„¢s not as though he gave up cheating, anyway. Between his pathetic attempt to knock the ball out of Bronson ArroyoÁ¢€â„¢s hand during the Á¢€â„¢04 ALCS collapse, and his bush-league ploy of yelling Á¢€Å“I got it!Á¢€ while running the bases a couple years ago, to induce an error by TorontoÁ¢€â„¢s third baseman, the man clearly has trouble stifling his instinct to get around the rules of fair play.)

Even his mea culpas this week seemed designed to help him elude actual punishment. Yes, I was on the juice, but only while baseball’s “culture” turned a blind eye to cheats. Absolutely, I purchased steroids Á¢€” but I did it legally, in the Dominican Republic, where testosterone is sold over-the-counter like Pez. No question I broke the rules and imperiled my health Á¢€” but I was young and stupid (or as Á¢€Å“young and stupidÁ¢€ as a guy can be who had already completed eight Major League seasons, and earned over $60 million in salary, by his 28th birthday in 2003). And of course I kept it secret all this time, and lied about it to Katie Couric Á¢€” my Á¢€Å“cousinÁ¢€ and I hadnÁ¢€â„¢t even been sure we were taking anything improper!

Does A-Rod really imagine that these excuses will save him from the boo-birds at the sparkling-new, money-sucking Yankee Stadium? How is Richie Rich gonna quiet down those hooligans whoÁ¢€â„¢ve paid a fortune to sit on benches in the right-field bleachers? And imagine poor Brian Cashman Á¢€” still on the hook for a cool $250 mil to a guy who owns a steroid rap sheet and a .136 postseason batting average since Game 4 in Á¢€â„¢04! Think Cashman will be able to trade him if the NYC fans and media send him over the edge? Rodriguez may have negotiated directly with the Steinbrenners after Scott Boras talked him into weaseling out of his old contract last winter, but you just know Cashman will get the BossÁ¢€â„¢s boys’ blame if A-Rod becomes a limp noodle.

With all this hanging over his head, itÁ¢€â„¢s difficult to imagine that A-Rod will rebound from this hit to his reputation (not to mention his fragile psyche) and become, once again, the first-ballot Hall of Famer he was two weeks ago. Difficult, but not impossible. HereÁ¢€â„¢s how it can happen:

1. Repent, repent, repent! On Tuesday A-Rod announced that he had joined forces with Don Hooton, who has become the public face of anti-steroid advocacy since his son committed suicide a few years ago. Rodriguez should go further. As suggested in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, he should match (at least) Major League BaseballÁ¢€â„¢s expenditures on research toward an elusive urine test for Human Growth Hormone. Additionally, he should volunteer for urine tests and locker inspections every two weeks until he retires, and request the release of all his previous drug-test results.

2. Obliterate the home run record. A-Rod is sitting on 553 career homers Á¢€” 209 short of BondsÁ¢€â„¢ drug-polluted record. His juiced-up years of 2001-03 account for 156 of those dingers. At his current pace Á¢€” and even accounting for a typical (if un-Bonds-like) decline in power toward the end of his career Á¢€” A-Rod could approach 900 homers a couple years after his current contract expires in 2017. HeÁ¢€â„¢d better get there. And heÁ¢€â„¢d better wind up a lot closer to 3,500 hits than 3,000.

3. Win a championship Á¢€” or three. And play a major role in doing it. Tripling that .136 playoff average would be a start Á¢€” but only a start. Of course, itÁ¢€â„¢s difficult to imagine the Yankees winning three trophies between now and RodriguezÁ¢€â„¢s retirement, even after this winterÁ¢€â„¢s unconscionable spending spree Á¢€” not with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera nearing the end, not with the competing egos (and checkbooks) that populate the teamÁ¢€â„¢s clubhouse, and certainly not with A-Rod teetering on the precipice of a meltdown. Which reminds meÁ¢€¦

4. Be a team leader and model citizen, not a head case. This, among all the elements required for RodriguezÁ¢€â„¢s full recovery, seems the least likely. Indeed, the concept of A-Rod taking JeterÁ¢€â„¢s place as team captain sounds preposterous Á¢€” but itÁ¢€â„¢s exactly the sort of personality transformation that will have to take place if Rodriguez wants to leave a positive legacy. So quit the whining and backbiting in the New York media; help Joe Girardi get a handle on this team of mismatched superstars; keep your trousers zipped, and your $20 bills in your pocket (rather than lining the G-strings at the VIP Club or Flashdancers). And for crying out loud, find a self-respecting woman to make an honest man out of you Á¢€” or at least make a big show of treating your children right.

This is quite a tall order, and — to paraphrase Rush Limbaugh in a very different context — I must say I hope A-Rod fails. (Each October, I find that my spirits are inversely aligned with the YankeesÁ¢€â„¢ playoff fortunes. I’m also not predisposed to granting second chances to rich, cheating douchebags.) However this all plays out, it should be entertaining Á¢€” which, I suppose, is half of what the Yanks pay for when they dole out their ridiculous salaries. But on a grander scale, it should be fascinating to find out whether Rodriguez can make it to Cooperstown on a plaque … or as just another notch on the Urine Vial Of Shame that someday will denote baseballÁ¢€â„¢s steroids era.

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