Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 8, 2013

A-Rod Agonistes

So the other shoe has finally been dropped; landing with such force as to drive a shock wave throughout the Great Game, and indeed across the entire landscape of sports. Major League Baseball’s seemingly interminable investigation into the shuttered Biogenesis anti-aging clinic, its owner Anthony Bosch, and the distribution of banned substances led to the suspension of thirteen players last Monday, including five currently on 25-man big league rosters. Add to that number Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers slugger suspended last month, and the Biogenesis case has produced by far the single biggest PEDS crackdown on players in any of the major North American sports leagues. That in turn generated days of predictably overwrought reaction from both media and fans.

Braun was suspended for 65 games, and twelve of the thirteen suspensions this week were for fifty games. The effect in each of those cases was to end the player’s 2013 season. A fifty game suspension is the prescribed penalty for a first positive test under the current joint drug prevention and treatment program. Though there were no actual failed tests, baseball’s investigators had clearly compiled sufficient evidence to persuade each player to accept the penalty without exercising his right to appeal. The extra fifteen games for Braun was seen as payback for his having escaped on a technicality a suspension at the end of the 2011 season after he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone.

In a marked departure from past practice, accepting a suspension without appeal was the course recommended by the players association. Up until now the union has usually mounted a fierce defense on behalf of any player threatened with a suspension. But under pressure from an increasingly vocal majority of its membership who are clean the association played an important role in getting so many players to go down without a fight.

But the union is supporting the one player who did file an appeal, third baseman Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees. Rodriguez was hit with an unprecedented suspension of 211 games, covering the remainder of this season and all of the next. Union chief Michael Weiner said that the association had given Rodriguez a number that they recommended he accept, but that “The commissioner’s office didn’t meet it. They were much higher.” He also pointed out that no player has ever been suspended for that length of time because of doping.

In the wake of all this there was gushing praise for commissioner Bud Selig. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head Travis Tygart said “Obviously they learned in the late 90s and early 2000s this (doping) is the biggest threat to sport and to have the commissioner of one of most popular pro leagues in the world to take a firm stand and support it is really refreshing and gives all clean athletes hope.” ESPN’s Jayson Starks couldn’t figure out which superlative best fit the event, instead offering up a series of one word sentences, “Historic. Unforgettable. Career-altering. Sport-altering.” And of course, the line of fans and commentators waiting to heap scorn on Rodriguez extended out the door and around the block. By Thursday a New York Times poll found that even among Yankees fans in Gotham only 1 in 5 had a favorable opinion of A-Rod, with twice as many viewing him unfavorably.

On the other hand there were those who insisted that it was a sad day and proof that baseball has been irretrievably ruined. The head of a sports management firm in Los Angeles insisted the sport “has been rotting to the core since the late 1980s.” Conspiracy theorists saw Selig helping the Yankees by relieving them of A-Rod’s bloated salary next season, when they are determined to get under the salary cap to obtain relief from onerous luxury tax payments. No doubt some of those same folks ready to paint Rodriguez as a victim would insist they have proof of a second shooter on the grassy knoll in Dallas fifty Novembers ago.

The opinions at both extremes miss the mark, as extreme opinions usually do. Certainly baseball is to be commended for coming down hard on those who would try to go outside the rules and gain an advantage over their fellow players. Likewise the players association deserves praise for finally realizing that it is not obligated to defend every one of its members to the bitter end, especially if there is evidence that a player’s actions are indefensible. And observers who dismiss the Great Game as ruined might take a moment to ask themselves what other sport has done what baseball did this week?

But the outcome of the Biogenesis case is not some climactic victory in the effort to clean up sport, because such a victory is unobtainable. Human nature guarantees that there will always be those willing to risk suspensions or even careers to gain an illegal edge. From corked bats and excessive pine tar to Vaseline rubbed on a ball, from amphetamines or DMSO to anabolic steroids and synthetic testosterone, it has always been and will always be so. If today’s instruments and methods are more extreme, it is largely because the potential rewards have grown exponentially. Whatever form cheating may take, combating it will always be a long, twilight struggle. It is worth remembering that not one of the players suspended this week failed a drug test. Had it not been for a falling out between clinic owner Bosch and an unhappy investor, and the subsequent release of documents to the Miami New Times, the biggest story of this week would have been Atlanta’s sweep of Washington, or perhaps the end of the Dodgers’ remarkable road winning streak.

The fight may not be one with a final victory; but it is not a struggle for the soul of the game. If cheating is inevitable, cheaters are also the exception. Had Rodriguez not appealed, the Biogenesis suspensions would have removed six players from major league diamonds. The most extensive PEDS investigation ever, and caught in its net were less than one percent of current players. Even if five times as many players are actively using banned substances and somehow avoiding being caught, that still means that more than 95% of the players who take the field at ballparks all across the land are clean. Hardly the stuff of a sport in ruin.

Then there is Alex Rodriguez. Perhaps Selig thought he would look especially tough by coming down with unprecedented severity on the player whose 2007 contract broke all records. In truth A-Rod is a pathetically easy target, a narcissist who seems incapable of an authentic moment, on or off the field. Had he accepted the suspension through all of next season he would be closer to 40 than 39 before he could play again. His skills already eroded and his body breaking down, Selig’s order must have carried the heavy weight of an enforced retirement to Rodriguez. There were commentators who called for a lifetime suspension for A-Rod, and lamented his decision to appeal. But it was his absolute right to do so, and so he plays on. Night after night as the Yankees lost season winds down, hearing the chorus of unrelenting boos. Even in the Bronx when the Yankees return home on Friday, the very best he can probably hope for is a mixed reaction. But drafted at the age of 17, what does he know besides baseball? A-Rod is wealthy beyond imagination, but ultimately alone. Perhaps letting him continue the struggle, and thus letting the fans have their say, is the ultimate punishment.

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Responses

  1. Very well balanced and level-headed analysis of the situation. To me the key sentence is, “Had it not been for a falling out between clinic owner Bosch and an unhappy investor, and the subsequent release of documents to the Miami New Times, the biggest story of this week would have been Atlanta’s sweep of Washington….”
    And that’s the major point. Bud Selig, in my opinion, is willing to drag the game into the gutter in the present in the hopes that his reputation will be restored in the future. He wants badly to be remembered as the man who cleaned up baseball, though no such possibility exists that baseball, or any sport, will ever be completely clean. So, instead of fans discussing their favorite teams, and the great young stars of the game, now we are stuck with discussions about PED’s once again.
    This is not to excuse the behavior of the players involved, but I fail to see how baseball emerges better and stronger for this episode than it otherwise would have had it not come to light. Rather than fans responding to this situation with greater respect and love for the game due to this house-cleaning, it is my observation, based on so many comments I’ve read, that the fans are more disgusted and tired of MLB than they’ve been in years.
    If Selig’s job is at least in part to market MLB, to generate goodwill and positive feelings among the fans, he’s doing about as poor a job as humanly possible.

    • Excellent points Bill. I think you are absolutely right that Bud Selig desperately hopes that he can undo the past. But in my experience attempting to do so is nothing more than a fool’s errand. I have heard from some fans who like A-Rod (yes as amazing as it may seem there are such people), and of course from fans who despise him. The one thing they share is a fervent wish for a new commissioner.

      Thanks as always,
      Mike


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