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Wednesday, January 15, 2014
A-Rod and a looming labor strife

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Major League Baseball's investigative unit, the one concrete result of the 2007 Mitchell report, won its greatest victory yet in its takedown of Alex Rodriguez and the rest of the players associated with Biogenesis. It was achieved with checkbook justice (paying for the stolen documents it used as evidence against Rodriguez and later punishing Rodriguez for attempting to use the very same tactics), with intimidation (suing the "key witness," Tony Bosch, to persuade him to work with baseball to finish Rodriguez) and with muscle (cornering Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Everth Cabrera and other Biogenesis suspects into accepting suspensions rather than risk greater sanctions by pursuing their rights to defend themselves to the fullest).

Rodriguez alone chose to see the process through to the end, and he paid dearly. The arbitrator decided he must go away "only" for all of the 2014 season instead of the 211 games originally levied by baseball, but the outcome is being hailed as a win for MLB.

Anthony Bosch
Anthony Bosch's evidence clinched the case against Alex Rodriguez, but there are questions about how MLB gained his cooperation.

It is certainly a Pyrrhic victory, though, because when Rodriguez dragged baseball into this street fight, it lowered its standards and employed the very behaviors it says it is trying to discourage in its players. The game does not necessarily look better for its zeal, and in many ways it looks worse. Baseball and its players and its standing and its Hall of Fame have all been diminished by the steroid era, no question. But it is hardly good policy for a sport to take down its players and then dance in the end zone on "60 Minutes" immediately thereafter.

The Biogenesis saga makes one thing clear: MLB's investigative unit is the biggest hammer the league has had during the steroid era. By extension, that means it is the biggest hammer ownership has had over the union in decades. The rhetoric of the Rodriguez suspension as proof of the efficacy of the league's testing program is just public relations hocus-pocus, for the testing program did not catch Rodriguez. The league's relatively new investigative arm did.

The true power of the game, in this context, is now in the nonanalytic leeway the Joint Drug Agreement provides baseball, empowering its investigative unit to be very aggressive. That a player did not fail a drug test -- a point used by fans to criticize media coverage of suspected PED users from Lance Armstrong to Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to, especially, Mark McGwire -- now means nothing. If baseball officials think they have enough information without a positive test, they have the power to suspend a player for a full season or more. The game's new position is similar to that of USADA, WADA and the Olympics.

The game does not necessarily look better for its zeal, and in many ways it looks worse.

The tactics of baseball's information gathering might be considered questionable or unethical, but it has confronted another truth unflinchingly: In a dirty business, the dirty way might be the only way.

Drug testing is already obsolete for the smart and savvy user in a world of low-dose, fast-absorbing testosterone. The dumber ones such as Braun, Bartolo Colon and Melky Cabrera get caught. The smarter ones, such as Rodriguez, do not. Testosterone lozenges or other stackable substances can disappear from detection before a player likely will be tested.

Up against sophisticated drugs, testing won't catch anyone who isn't being reckless, leaving baseball no choice but to rely on nonanalytic avenues: the compiling of data. Text messages, calendars, documentation of use, and cycle schedules are doing what urine and blood tests cannot.

Baseball has decided that if it must go into the sewer to find gold, it will. In the case of Rodriguez, consorting with a convicted felon and professional fraud (the doctor who was not) and lowering its standards was the way to do it. MLB went into the sewer and concluded, as did arbitrator Frederic Horowitz, that no matter where Bosch's information came from, it was gold. In many ways, it is the same attitude taken by federal prosecutors nationwide. This is not a compliment.

Rodriguez might again play Major League Baseball in a Yankees uniform or some other, but for all purposes, he is gone from view in any meaningful form. He has broken from himself in a way that makes it impossible for him to ever be whole again, if he ever was in the first place.

So baseball won the battle with the man once supposed to be its face. Rodriguez was the hope, the anointed. He had been in the big leagues a little more than two seasons when first-year Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane declared him the greatest shortstop of all time, better than Ripken, better than Banks or Wagner or Jeter. Much of baseball's ill will toward Bonds was tempered by the hope that he wouldn't hold Henry Aaron's record for long because Rodriguez was coming. Rodriguez would rewrite the all-time home run record book and cleanse it for baseball.

Alex Rodriguez
The Rodriguez case is likely to be a factor in baseball's next collective bargaining agreement.

Baseball, however, might have lost the war, for its takedown of Rodriguez surely has inflamed the players' association. The spirit of cooperation that appeared possible during Michael Weiner's succession of Donald Fehr as executive director may very well be the price of the victory, and the bitterness that existed for nearly 30 years before the 1994 strike may very well be back in play. Nobody likes to lose, and MLB's glee over the Rodriguez result won't be forgotten by the union during the next collective bargaining negotiation. The current CBA expires after the 2016 season.

In its victory lap, baseball also gave players a road map of how not to be caught. Players now know not to deal with their drug sources directly. They know not to text-message or send money directly to anyone who can link them to the drugs. It is not an accident that the players who have been caught are the ones who have dealt at the lowest level with nonprofessionals, receiving PEDs from strip-mall joints like BALCO and Biogenesis.

Through the PED discord, the game has been returned to a central conflict: owners versus players. Trumpeting the fall of Biogenesis as vindication for a testing program that caught only a small handful of players is absurd. It is, however, proof of the effectiveness of MLB's investigative unit, questionable ethics and all. Baseball could be celebrated for finally committing itself to getting drugs out of the game, and perhaps it should be -- except for the gnawing feeling that its motivation is beating the union at least as much as having a clean game. The only entity in the conspiracy that has paid a reputational price is the players, something to remember as Tony La Russa -- whose managerial win total was inflated by the performance-enhanced players he consistently defended -- smiles holding his Hall of Fame plaque this summer.

In that sense, the steroid era is really just another play in the old game, and it is only a matter of time before baseball returns to its roots of strikes and lockouts and leverage. Marvin Miller, better than anyone, knew this. In the final years of his life, when home run totals were going haywire and players were lying to the public and Congress was demanding answers, Miller, often derided as aging and out of touch, stayed steadfast to the old ways, the old principles. He implored his old union not to reopen the collective bargaining agreement to satisfy congressional pitchforks, because he knew it would tilt the balance of power back toward the owners, who would not hesitate to pounce.

Today, with baseball crowing on "60 Minutes," Miller might never have looked smarter.