After beating MLB's drug tests for years, Alex Rodriguez finally faces discipline—in no small part because his fellow players are serious about enforcement
A former teammate of Alex Rodriguez, someone once close to him, shook his head at the mention of the third baseman's name last week, the way someone might at the memory of having been taken in by a Ponzi scheme, a phishing scam from a Nigerian prince or a game of three-card monte. There was disgust and shame at having believed anything about baseball's Bernie Madoff, the urbane master of deceit.
To believe Rodriguez's claim that he had started using performance-enhancing drugs in 2001, the former teammate told me, was foolish. The player went a big step further, suggesting that Rodriguez had not played a day clean in the majors. Extreme? Perhaps. But there is something—a lot, in fact—to the idea that Rodriguez's famous insecurity prevented him from finding out how good he could be without drugs.
The entirety of Rodriguez— his career and his character—was made suspect on Monday when Major League Baseball suspended the Yankees' slugger for 211 games not only for serial use of PEDs, but also for actions to subvert its investigation into the Biogenesis scandal. Rodriguez has announced his intention to file an appeal that will allow him to play for the Yankees until it is decided by an arbitrator, a decision that may not come for months. When asked at a press conference on Monday in Chicago if he denied using PEDs, Rodriguez dodged the question, saying, "We'll have a forum to discuss all of that."
Baseball connected Rodriguez to specific drugs in multiple years. According to a source, MLB officials presented Rodriguez with evidence to that effect on July 12, and for two hours he refused to answer questions. His public protestations hinted at conspiracies and flawed processes but never touched on the fundamental notion of innocence. Last Friday, in the most classic Rodriguez moment of the whole affair, the man who was never as smart as he believed himself to be mixed metaphors like ingredients in a PED cocktail: He complained that a conspiracy to keep him off the field was "the pink elephant in the room."
That Rodriguez has been a fraud hardly came as news. SI first revealed in 2009 that he was a steroid user, having flunked a test in '03 (when MLB was phasing in its testing process and was not yet using positive results as a basis for discipline). "Judge me from this day forward," he sang. MLB has done just as he requested.
What is more surprising is how the players' association's position on drugs and drug cheats has evolved, and what it could mean from here. Marvin Miller, the revolutionary former executive director of the MLBPA, went to his grave believing that agreeing to steroid testing was a mistake that could hurt union solidarity. Under executive director Michael Weiner, however, the MLBPA has become staunchly anti drugs, with rank-and-file voices speaking up. What had always been a top-down organization on the drug issue has become more bottom-up than ever before. "Michael has made it clear to us many times: This is your union, and I will do what you want," says one veteran player. "He said, 'I will give you the pros and cons, but I'm here for you.' I would think we will talk about harsher penalties."
What the players want more than ever is a clean, even playing field, and that's why the Biogenesis case is so important. Since it hit the news last January, players such as Skip Schumaker, Matt Holliday, Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer have spoken out in forceful tones rarely heard in the first decade of the testing era. The Biogenesis case—specifically, as it relates to Rodriguez—may be the agent of further change.
Here is why: Rodriguez was said to be blindsided by the severity of the punishment and is expected to base his appeal not on a proclamation of innocence but on a failure to receive due process. While he was taking drugs and beating tests (as the MLB investigation found), he assumed that as someone not previously in violation of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, he was risking only a 50-game suspension, the penalty for a first-time offender. Such a suspension would have cost him $8.95 million this season.
Instead, MLB nailed Rodriguez not for failing a test but for "just cause" violations of the CBA as well as the joint drug agreement, an avenue that allows commissioner Bud Selig wide latitude in deciding discipline. A 211-game ban could effectively end Rodriguez's career (New York might much rather buy out the $64 million remaining on his contract for 2015, '16 and '17) and cost him $34.2 million. Rodriguez spent last weekend telling friends he was digging in for a long, earth-scorching fight that could lead to a courtroom battle.
As drug scofflaws Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon proved last year, you can use steroids and, upon serving the 50-game suspension, be richly rewarded with new contracts. But a one-year ban upon first offense, for instance, would alter the risk-reward math for players considering PED use.
There is one more lesson for ballplayers in the disgracing of Rodriguez: Drug-policy enforcement goes beyond testing by necessity and by agreement of the players. Rodriguez beat the tests for years. He became the focus of MLB investigators only because former Biogenesis employee and investor Porter Fischer handed over documents to the Miami New Times after he had a dispute over finances with clinic founder Anthony Bosch. MLB, often accused of looking the other way during the Steroid Era, was obligated to follow the trail. Had no evidence surfaced against Rodriguez, as was the case with Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez (whose name also appeared in Biogenesis documents), Rodriguez would have had nothing to worry about.
Instead, the trail led to a trove of information, including direct communications between Rodriguez and Bosch, according to a source familiar with the evidence. The union is no longer in the business of protecting drug cheats. It also has signed off on a policy that includes not only the most rigorous testing in American professional sports but also investigative powers that put union members at risk of discipline even without a failed test.
Rodriguez isn't even the first player subject to such rigorous investigation and the commissioner's latitude on discipline. Last month, also in connection to the Biogenesis scandal, Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun was banned for 65 games for violations of the joint drug agreement and the CBA. Braun accepted the punishment without appeal, and the union fairly greeted the news with a standing ovation. "I am deeply gratified ..." was how Weiner began his prepared statement.
A new era has dawned. Drug cheats are subject to harsh discipline even without a positive test, and the union is applauding. It is a new era Rodriguez is unwilling to accept.
What the players want more than ever is a clean, even playing field.
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THE FALLOUT: SUSPENSION IMPACTS
Cruz's decision not to appeal his suspension was a mild surprise and leaves the Rangers without their second-best hitter, after Adrian Beltre. Manny Ramirez (hitting .267 in Triple A) won't be the answer. Texas may have to make a waiver deal (for Alex Rios?) or risk fading in the AL West.
The Tigers acquired infielder Jose Iglesias at the trade deadline in anticipation of Peralta's absence. Because Iglesias is so much better defensively than Peralta and Detroit's pitching staff induces so many grounders, the suspension may turn out to help more than it hurts.
One of the mystery names that dropped when MLB announced penalties on Monday, Bastardo has been a top lefthanded reliever since 2011—3.12 ERA, 32% strikeout rate. Losing him hurts the Phillies, but they were done for 2013 even with Bastardo in their bullpen.
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