Amidst noise, a simple truth: A-Rod finally accountable for PED use
Alex Rodriguez, blessed with talent and motivated by baseball history, put his name in the record books Monday. He received the longest PED-related suspension in the history of the game, a 211-game ban that takes effect Thursday, a particularly impressive achievement given the hundreds of players over more than two decades who juiced and also given that he did not fail a drug test -- at least not this time around in his serial use of steroids.
Rodriguez filed an appeal, which will allow him to play for the Yankees until it is decided by an arbitrator -- likely to cover the remainder of the season. Rodriguez will claim as a first-time violator of the Joint Drug Agreement that he is being treated more harshly than due process should allow. MLB will argue that Rodriguez violated the JDA multiple times, including three years of PED use through the Biogenesis clinic (2010-12) as well as obstructing its investigation.
MLB does have the precedent of the Ryan Braun settlement to wield against Rodriguez. Braun, like Rodriguez, never officially had been found in violation of the JDA previously. But Braun was suspended beyond the 50 games defined for those who fail a test for the first time -- he took 65 games -- because he also was found to have lied at that Shakespearean summer stock press conference of his in March 2012 after a failed test in 2011, one he beat on a technicality. Braun took a punishment for violations (plural) of both the JDA and the Collective Bargaining Unit and the union responded with applause for what a "gratified" executive director Michael Weiner hailed as a "bold move."
Rodriguez's gambit seems to be a play to get his suspension knocked down to something between Braun's 65 games and the 211 he faces today. Every game knocked off the suspension next year means $154,321 saved for Rodriguez.
The longest PED suspension served is 100 games, a discipline handed to pitcher Guillermo Mota for a second failed test.
This was not the sort of history Rodriguez and his sycophants envisioned. He was supposed to be the "clean" home run champion. That nonsense ended in 2009 when Sports Illustrated revealed he flunked a steroid test in 2003, part of baseball's "survey" testing that season. Rodriguez fessed up, but (cough, cough) said he only started using right after he signed the richest deal in sports history ($252 million) and stopped cold turkey right before his trade to the Yankees, a preposterously convenient window of 2001-03, before testing with penalties.
Nearly simultaneous to the revelation, Rodriguez was being treated by disgraced Canadian doctor and HGH proponent Anthony Galea and it was just the next season, 2010, that baseball believes his long run with Anthony Bosch and Biogenesis began.
"If you believe he started using [PEDs] in 2001, when he said he did, you're a fool," a former teammate said. "The likelihood is that he never played a day clean in the major leagues. Why? Insecurity. Alex doesn't know how good he could be without drugs, and didn't trust himself to find out."
Rodriguez can spend millions on lawyers and investigators to appeal the suspension, even take his beefs into court (though no court has shown any appetite for intervening in disputes among parties that have a collective bargaining agreement with provisions for appeals). Talk shows can knock themselves out as to whether Rodriguez is being treated "fairly," being "singled out," is less guilty than MLB "looking the other way" a generation ago on PEDs, or is a victim of that tired chestnut, the old "witch hunt."
All of it is meaningless noise compared to the heart of the matter: Rodriguez finally is being held accountable a corrupted career. I can't recall another player, regardless of talent level, who was more insecure about himself and less respected by his peers. Just last year Rodriguez "won" an SI poll among players as the phoniest player in the big leagues, gaining more than twice as many votes as anyone else. There was a game against Boston once in which Rodriguez yelled to teammate Gary Sheffield to run into Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek on a play at the plate. Varitek sneered back, "You would never do it." Varitek would also shove his glove in Rodriguez's mug, and later, reacting to Rodriguez's claim that Boston threw at him, say, "We don't throw at .220 hitters."
In one of his first seasons with the Yankees, Rodriguez's neediness became so awkward around the team -- he insisted a clubhouse kid be deployed as his personal dresser, laying out his uniform and undergarments each day as would be done for a king -- that one of the Yankees was in near tears when he went to a club official to ask that Rodriguez be traded.
Former Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, in speaking to me for The Yankee Years, cut to the difference between Derek Jeter and Rodriguez: motivation. Jeter, he said, was motivated to win. Rodriguez? What drove him was selfishness.
"Alex may end up calling attention to himself, but he's not loud about it," Mussina said. "Alex has this motivation to be the best player in the game. When all is said and done, he wants to be the best player ever. That's his motivation in this. That's fine. That's good. Everybody needs a motivation, whatever it is."
Rodriguez wanted to be the best player in the game. He wanted the status, the money and the fame, but none of the responsibility. The man who claimed to cherish the game's history spit upon it by using PEDs. All in the name of . . . what? To have every record? To be better than great?
Selena Roberts, who broke the 2009 story about Rodriguez's drug use, has suggested his PED use dates to high school. At least a huge chunk of his career has been a fraud, but Rodriguez never has taken accountability for it. (Ever diversionary, he reacted to Roberts' dead-on report by shamefully accusing her of stalking him and his family.)
In 2002, after one of Rodriguez's teammates, Ken Caminiti, detailed to me about the prevalent scandal of steroid use in baseball, I visited Rodriguez at his hotel room after a game in Chicago. He had ordered room service. Outfielder Kevin Mench, a rookie newly promoted to the big leagues, stopped by for a bit. (As one former Texas teammate described to me, Rodriguez forges friendships with clubhouse kids and young players, at least until they get to know him, but has trouble connecting to veterans; he may be in trouble for steering young players to Biogenesis.)
I asked Rodriguez about steroids, the worst kept secret in baseball. He looked at me with wonder. Steroids? What do they do? Why would players take them? It was chilling to listen to his feigned ignorance. He had played in two especially dirty clubhouses in Seattle and Texas and by 2002 steroids were an open secret in the game, and yet here was Rodriguez asking me questions about steroids. Of course, by his later admission, at the time he was loaded to the gills on Primobolan, a steroid favored by bodybuilders that can be taken orally or by injections.
His years in Texas, all of them dirty, made for the worst investment in baseball history. Rangers owner Tom Hicks paid him $150 million for three years (including $71 million to just go away) in which the Rangers finished in last place every year and Rodriguez didn't play a day clean.
Rodriguez brought his fraudulency to the Yankees next, and with it came the discomfort caused by being teammates with Jeter. People speculated that their friction stemmed from a 2001 Esquire article in which Rodriguez took an unsolicited shot at Jeter, saying, "Jeter's been blessed with talent around him. He never had to lead. He can just go play and have fun. And he hits second -- that's totally different than third or fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O'Neill. You never say, 'Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern."
The article didn't help, especially for a guy like Jeter, who demands cold-blooded loyalty. But associates of Jeter knew what also bothered Jeter was Rodriguez's PED use, a whispered secret among players. It wasn't so much the popular comparison among the AL shortstops -- Jeter, Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra -- in which people (including Rodriguez himself) degraded Jeter for his relative lack of power, his price for playing the game clean. It was that Jeter knew the two of them were wired so differently, with Rodriguez choosing the deceit of steroids to play the game.
Both Rodriguez and MLB did well to reach a compromise today. Baseball could have used the power of the commissioner to keep Rodriguez off the field while his appeal is heard. Bud Selig was smart not to overplay his hand. Let the appeal be about Rodriguez's doping regimen and not about the commissioner's power.
And Rodriguez rightfully gets to play baseball again. No athlete wants to have a career end like this -- with a suspension after a brutal postseason and an extensive rehab after surgery. Rodriguez at least gets to get on the field again, to see what he has left in a body that is breaking down. Maybe he can't play the game at a high level any more. But at least he will get to find the answer. It is what athletes do; they compete until they have nothing left.
We don't know what Rodriguez has left. Maybe the next two months while the appeal is heard are as ugly as last October. Maybe they hint at a renewal of his skills. He deserves the chance to find out. The problem lies not with what is left in his career. It lies with trying to find any authenticity in what it was.