Thu, Feb 19, 2009 - Page 19 News List

Superstar offers lesson for the youth

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TAMPA, FLORIDA

Don Hooton looked at Alex Rodriguez squirming through a news conference, and he thought about his own son, dead since 2003.

Both knuckleheads. Both willing to try something they did not understand. One, playing with a US$275 million contract, currently undergoing some public unpleasantness over steroids. The other, once a high school junior, trying to put on some bulk, now a name on a foundation.

Don Hooton was present under the big tent on Tuesday as Rodriguez became the latest Yankee to be linked to steroids.

Rodriguez called himself stupid many times, blaming his lack of a college education, as if that was an excuse for overlooking the warning that steroids have been banned by MLB since 1991. He started using the stuff, or so he claimed, three years after the first public suspicions about Mark McGwire and other sluggers of that generation. But he still went ahead and tried it.

His answers were vague, aimed toward moving along, so he could join the large complement of teammates sitting off to his right, giving him support. What else could they do? Not show up?

But at least Rodriguez was alive. And maybe his venture into the wonderful world of performance-enhancing drugs could help save a few young people who have a bit of knucklehead in them, too.

That was why Hooton was under the Yankees’ big tent. Hooton runs a foundation aimed at educating young people not to use substances in the name of bigger muscles and tighter abs.

Hooton reached out to Rodriguez a day after the Yankees star made his bland appearance on ESPN on Feb. 9. Rodriguez did not seem to know much about Taylor Hooton, but he later called Don Hooton and volunteered to make appearances for the foundation to talk about the dumb things he did.

“Sixteen-year-olds have no idea,” Don Hooton said on Tuesday.

Don Hooton encountered the wrath of steroids in January 2003. His son was 16 at the time, was 188cm and 82kg, not exactly a stick figure, but slender enough that the high-school baseball coach told him he needed some more bulk.

“What the coach didn’t know was that half the team was already on anabolic steroids,” Hooton said.

The son gained 14kg in a few months before the family noticed his mood swings. A psychiatrist urged him to stop taking the drug. Going through withdrawal, Taylor Hooton began experiencing depression.

“June 10 was his birthday,” Don Hooton said. “We rented a suite at the Rangers game.”

The father did not remember how Rodriguez, then in his third year of using a steroid, performed that night. He does know that his son killed himself five days later.

These are details that Rodriguez will learn if he follows through on his promise to make appearances for the Hooton Foundation. Rodriguez could subsidize a lot of seminars for young people with the loot the Yankees are paying him.

If A-Rod follows through, if he remembers, if he actually means what he says, he could have some redeeming social value.

What Hooton has learned since his son died is that major leaguers have access to the best stuff, the safest stuff, because of their money.

“The kids are getting crap sold in gyms,” Hooton said. “Stuff from China comes in, gets mixed with cooking oil, peanut oil, over 20 percent of the stuff is contaminated. These kids are injecting themselves with poison.”

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