By Flint Wheeler

Alex Rodriguez left baseball shunted quickly and quietly out the back door. Awkwardly the Yankees staged a pregame ceremony on Friday to honor the player they’d just shoved suddenly into forced retirement. There would be no fond national farewell, no rocking-chair tour, for the fourth-leading home run hitter of all time.

A-Rod and his complicated legacy return now to his Miami home with career numbers that should make him a shoo-in for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, except he far likelier is destined instead for the familiar fate of others who sinned to use performance-enhancing drugs. The official greeters at the gates of this purgatory, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, await him.

Contrast Rodriguez’s sad exit from his sport with the ongoing love fest carrying Boston’s David Ortiz heroically into retirement, a Cooperstown welcome surely ahead for a smiling Big Papi, adored by all.

We convict you of PED use, of cheating, in various ways. By evidence real or circumstantial. By admission but also by implication, rumor or suspicion. The court of public opinion renders its final verdict, bangs a gavel and moves on.

Big Papi sneaked by. He’s beloved by fans AND the game.

Ortiz failed a drug test, too, in 2003, when Major League Baseball tested around 100 players to gauge the extent of its problem. Results were supposed to be kept private. But in 2009 several names were leaked of those who’d tested positive for a banned substance, Ortiz among them. So, too: A-Rod and another prominent purgatory resident, Sammy Sosa.

Here’s a fun fact: Guess which of the 27 members of baseball’s 500-home run club hit the highest percentage of their career homers at age 27 or older? Three of the top four happen to be Bonds, Sosa and fellow Steroids Era pal Rafael Palmeiro — that company alone suggesting the category as a reasonable indicator of PEDs.

Steroid speculation swirled around Mike Piazza for years but he’s the newest inductee to Cooperstown. Jeff Bagwell, also dogged by rumors, came very close to getting in and still might.

Yet Bonds, with 762 homers and seven league MVPs, and Clemens, with 354 wins and seven Cy Youngs, and A-Rod, with 696 homers, are persona non grata even though there is zero way to know how much PED use helped pad those numbers — and every reasonable indication they’d have had Hall-worthy careers even without pharmaceuticals.

So much gray area, yes — too much for these permanent, blanket bans. We can’t even say exactly when the Steroid Era began. We seem comfortable retroactively convicting certain players, like Mark McGwire, of using PEDs that were not yet on the banned list when he used them. We also seem to have no problem that many players back in the day used amphetamines and other stuff they couldn’t today. Interestingly we are easily dismissing Big Papi’s one positive test.

In other words, Cooperstown already has plenty of members who cut corners or used their era’s equivalent of PEDs. As well as a bunch of alcoholics, not to mention racist Ty Cobb, who used to sharpen his metal cleats and intentionally gouge opponent’s legs while sliding, and who once was suspended by baseball for roaring into the bleachers to beat up a heckling fan. (Footnote: The heckler, on account of an industrial accident, had no hands.)

“Us guys in baseball, we make mistakes,” as Rose put it recently.

In the case of the PED crowd, I’d ask my fellow Cooperstown voters to rethink the no votes on players the echelon of Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez — whose greatness predated any implication of wrongdoing and whose careers assuredly would have been Hall-worthy no matter what.

Shame and scorn are their own punishment, and Rose, Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod have rightly endured their share. They will always bear a scarlet letter. They should be in Cooperstown anyway, along with all the other ne’er-do-wells and imperfect humans. Let their bronze plaques reflect the controversies, for all time. Rose’s should mention the gambling ban. The others’ should mention the PEDs involvement.

We see indications of a slow move toward that, a gradual thawing of their banishments. Bonds was hired by the Marlins as a hitting instructor. Rose has been a TV analyst and recently was honored by the Reds. A-Rod (unless the Marlins haul him out of retirement) will remain a Yankee as an adviser and spring instructor. Bonds and Clemens each saw a spike in his Hall of Fame support in 2016 voting, though both remain far from the 75 percent minimum for induction.

The newest test for this subtle move toward lenience, Rodriguez, twice admitted using banned substances and was suspended the entire 2014 season, itself a significant penalty.
After all, this isn’t heaven. It’s only Cooperstown. Calm down Baseball – We’re human.