Major League Baseball wanted to “get” Alex Rodriguez on steroid charges in the worst possible way, and that’s pretty much what it accomplished.
Today, the much-reviled A-Rod writhes in the coils of an unprecedented punishment — a full year’s suspension. He now hopes, almost certainly in vain, to convince a federal judge that last week’s arbitration ruling was born of corruption.
The ruling was less corrupt than bizarre. But it — or, more accurately, the process that led to it — carries the very real risk of doing more harm than good to the goal of combating performance-enhancing substances in baseball.
MLB touts its drug-testing program as the most rigorous in pro sports, which it may well be (the bar, frankly, isn’t very high). But the Rodriguez suspension doesn’t come out of the program, or even out of the Joint Drug Agreement between MLB and the players union. It arises out of a slimy investigation that involved paying witnesses and buying stolen documents from a shadowy person named “Bobby.”
The JDA calls for a ladder of penalties: 50 games for a first offense, 100 for a second offense, lifetime ban for a third. It doesn’t allow for plea deals and does demand confidentiality. The idea: Scrub or star, violators are to be treated equally.
One struggles to fit this 162-game penalty (plus postseason) into that format. The ruling, unsealed when Rodriguez filed his federal lawsuit, cites the 2007 Nefti Perez suspension for amphetamine use as precedent for “stacking” penalties. The arbitrator held that Rodriguez had been proven to have used three different performance-enhancers over a sustained period; thus he was given three first-time penalties (150 games), plus another dozen on the basis of overall non-cooperation.
It’s an odd conclusion. Fifty games for a first violation would be understandable, especially since the other players identified in the Biogenesis investigation were likely on a similar regimen and no stacking of penalties was sought. Or, if one really buys the three separate violations approach, a lifetime ban would be understandable.
This result is exactly what the JDA was intended to avoid. It was designed expressly to take Rodriguez out of the game. Perhaps not coincidentally, it relieves the New York Yankees of a heavy financial burden for the coming season — Rodriguez loses more than $20 million in salary as a result of the suspension — and may well allow the Yankees to evade the “luxury tax” on their bloated payroll for the first time.
Rodriguez would have done well to take the union’s advice last summer and take his losses. He kept fighting and lost. He would probably do well to quit fighting now, but he wouldn’t be Alex Rodriguez if he did bow to reality. But the ruling and its aftermath matters beyond Rodriguez. Denting the JDA in this manner does not sit well with the union. Nor did the unseemly victory dance the commissioner’s office performed on “60 Minutes” the day after the ruling.
Commissioner Bud Selig and his No. 2 and likely successor, Rob Manfred, would have done the sport better by forgoing the gloating and focusing instead on assuring the union that the Rodriguez witch-hunt is not standard operating procedure.
The Joint Drug Agreement is, after all, a joint venture. It exists in large part because the players wanted to rid the game of performance enhancers. And the union exists in large part because baseball’s owners for generations treated players unfairly. If Selig and Manfred are going to go their own way in the drug war, they may find that the union is no longer a partner.
Other View on this topic:
“Say what you will about Alex Rodriguez — hate him for his arrogance, disdain him for his ego, be jealous of his salary, etc. — shouldn’t he nevertheless be accorded the same due process as anyone else? I guess that concept doesn’t apply to pro athletes. There has been a lot of chatter on social media about the latest “60 Minutes” feature on Rodriguez. My non-scientific analysis reveals the majority of the comments came down on his side of Rodriguez and against MLB for “buying testimony.”
Believe me, I’m not an A-Rod apologist, but I’ve yet to hear anything from anyone I consider unbiased coming down against the ballplayer.”
Ron Kaplan, sports editor, New Jersey Jewish News