Alex Rodriguez warms up during batting practice before Game 1...

Alex Rodriguez warms up during batting practice before Game 1 of the ALCS. (Oct. 13, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Alex Rodriguez may still be swinging but he's already struck out. Major League Baseball, in suspending the Yankee superstar and coming to a deal with 12 other players in a sweeping bust for violating anti-doping protocols, served notice yesterday that it wants to clean up the sport.

That's a belated souvenir to baseball fans, most of whom value integrity and natural athletic ability as much as a winning record or a World Series trophy.

The A-Rod saga is filled with errors. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling recalled on ESPN yesterday a union meeting when a handful of players who wanted to get the cheaters out of the game were shouted down by half the group. The rest -- including himself, he said -- kept silent.

This much we know: A sport marbled with corruption is bound to collapse at some point. Yesterday may have been that moment. That the main target was Rodriguez, blessed with astonishing athletic gifts, reveals just how widespread performance-enhancing drugs have become in the rarefied world of Major League Baseball. He admits to using steroids from 2001 to 2003, but allegedly lied about using drugs later and stands accused of trying to cover up the whole sorry mess.

This is the man who in 2007 signed the largest contract in pro sports, with the Yankees, for $275 million over 10 years. Yesterday he lamented: "I'm fighting for my life."

There are lessons here. Not only does he stand to lose part of an unfathomable salary. He has already lost the respect of legions of fans -- even though he'll keep playing until there's a ruling on the appeal of his suspension.

There's another lesson in this melancholy tale for major leaguers and those in the minors -- really for all who play and love the game that sentiment enshrines as America's pastime. We don't like cheaters.

Baseball has endured other scandals. The antidote has always been a strong recommitment to honesty. The Black Sox scandal, focusing on charges of a fixed 1919 World Series, led to the naming of a baseball commissioner to ride herd on the integrity of the sport. MLB has now done what it's long needed to do. But its work has only begun.

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