The lights are growing dim for Alex Rodriguez. It is pile-on time. He no longer plays at a Hall of Fame level, which leaves him unprotected. His star power, batting average and home run total can no longer save him, making him more vulnerable than he's ever been in his professional life. Everyone who has been waiting for 20 years for this moment is standing in line to witness the final fall.
Depending on the skill of litigators, the disposition of an arbitrator and, somewhere in the hierarchy of priority, the truth, the next six weeks of the season could very well be the final six weeks of his career.
According to several sources, the commissioner's office, which has suspended Rodriguez for 211 games, believes its investigative unit has solid evidence from the Biogenesis investigation that he used steroids in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Rodriguez already admitted publicly in 2009 that he used steroids in 2001, 2002 and 2003 while with the Texas Rangers. Baseball hasn't even included in its evidence his links to shamed Canadian physician Anthony Galea, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to bringing banned drugs into the United States, including HGH to treat a client list that included several professional athletes, Rodriguez among them.
To many in the commissioner's office, each year of use should be considered a strike against him, which would make Rodriguez a candidate under baseball's drug policy to be banned for life. Twice. It is no secret, even though commissioner Bud Selig has yet to comment specifically on Rodriguez, that a fair number of people in MLB's security detail believe he has been using steroids his whole career, even though he's never failed one of its drug tests. To them, Rodriguez has recorded more strikes than Earl Anthony.
Yet when it was time to suspend the Biogenesis 14, with what appears to be an overwhelming amount of evidence against Rodriguez, plus the internal anger in the commissioner's office toward him for his defiance, Selig did not use his "best interest of baseball" power to ban Rodriguez for life.
The reason: In the framework of collective bargaining, Selig's "best interest" power is largely a symbolic hammer. Under close scrutiny and an arbitration challenge by the players' association, it would likely dissolve like rosin in a pitcher's hand. Imposing the best interest clause could actually weaken Selig's mandate and undermine what has been an unprecedented level of momentum the sport has toward punishing performance-enhancing drug use.
In what could finally be called the reform era, the commissioner's office weighed going for the death penalty on Rodriguez. During the weeks between the 65-game suspension of Ryan Braun and the announcement of 211 games for Rodriguez, Selig and MLB executive vice president of economics and league affairs Rob Manfred were continually angered by assertions out of the Rodriguez camp that he be treated along similar lines as Braun. It was a line of thinking they found ludicrous. As upset as Selig and Manfred were that Braun had the temerity to attack the integrity of the league's drug policy when he failed a test, the investigative unit yielded only enough additional evidence to support that 2011 positive, whereas they were convinced Rodriguez was a serial PED user. Thus Braun's suspension was based on the 50-game penalty he would have received had it his appeal been denied plus a punitive 15 games for publicly criticizing the integrity of the program and Dino Laurenzi Jr., the sample collector Braun slimed.
The dilemma for Selig was whether to use his best interest power against Rodriguez. Overreaching on Rodriguez threatened a delicate balance. Banning him for life meant making him, like Pete Rose, ineligible for the Hall of Fame. It meant keeping him from collecting the remaining $95 million owed to him by the Yankees, and the union would certainly defend a guaranteed contract. It also meant a public war of words with Rodriguez and his camp, which in the days leading up to his suspension grew increasingly vocal about what it saw as a double standard. Rodriguez believed he was being made an example of and would not likely go quietly.
A lifetime ban also would elicit an immediate reaction from the union. Baseball would have needed to show that prohibiting Rodriguez from taking the field while his suspension was appealed was in the best interest of the game. Preventing a player from playing while his suspension was appealed had no precedent; already in the days before the suspension, Rodriguez had begun to appear almost sympathetic. In the eyes of some fans and writers, he, after all the damage by many other players in the steroid era, was being singled out.
The blueprint was basically a loser: Baseball would have announced that Rodriguez was banned for life, even though he never tested positive for steroids. Rodriguez and the union would have immediately appealed and almost certainly won. Unlike an appeal of a suspension, which can take weeks or months, a ban would have prompted an emergency hearing with an arbitrator. Rodriguez would have likely been on the field that Monday night in Chicago, having beaten baseball, even temporarily. Selig risked sacrificing a perfect record -- not one of the 13 players before Rodriguez attempted to appeal his suspension -- but swinging and missing, with Rodriguez winning even minor battles against the commissioner and galvanizing the union, would be the major misstep the public remembered.
The suspension under the terms of the drug policy was the clearer, cleaner choice, and Selig took it. A 211-game suspension was massive, it was decisive, and it had the desired effect on Rodriguez, who in his first news conference after the suspension was announced said he was "fighting for his life."
One person's paradigm shift is another's scrubbing of history. If baseball has chosen to draw a line at 2007, with the release of the Mitchell Report and subsequent amnesty of the players mentioned for previous transgressions, and it appears that it has, an overaggressive approach to Rodriguez still would have exposed the sport and commissioner. Selig would have had to explain how banning Rodriguez for life was in the best interest of the sport when numerous players, post-Mitchell, did not receive a similar penalty. Selig would have to answer for Barry Bonds, for example, who was convicted of obstruction of justice in 2011 and is still eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Selig would have had to explain how Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire, who as a condition of his hiring by Tony La Russa as hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010 admitted using anabolic steroids, didn't violate the best interests of the game. McGwire did more damage to the image of the sport than Rodriguez when he hugged the Maris family in the middle of his fraudulent home run chase in 1998 and embarrassed himself during the infamous March 17, 2005, congressional hearings. Selig would have had to explain how during those hearings with the House Government Reform Committee baseball struck a deal with committee chairman Tom Davis to essentially protect McGwire yet felt no hesitation to go after Rodriguez.
He would have to explain why denying Rodriguez due process was in the game's best interest when Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty to lying about PEDs to federal investigators in 2009 yet is currently the third baseman for the Kansas City Royals. Selig would have to explain why La Russa, who one day will be entering the Hall of Fame with help from home runs off the bats of McGwire and admitted steroid user Jose Canseco, works in the commissioner's office. Selig would have to explain why Roger Clemens, acquitted but not innocent, has been working for the Houston Astros.
The steroid era contained too many contradictions and casualties and too much responsibility to overreach and isolate only Rodriguez.
In the end, Selig, Manfred and his team chose wisely to lean on the 211-game ban with the narrow view of his Biogenesis infractions instead of pursuing a Rodriguez lifetime ban. Given Rodriguez's health and toxic reputation, the end result may be the same. Rodriguez has few allies. Mike Trout, a rising star, is writing a massive verbal check on PEDs, adding his name to the list of young, elite players who say they support lifetime bans for first offenses. Numerous baseball sources on both the player and management sides say it is likely that Selig will attempt to have the CBA reopened yet again to revise the league's joint drug policy to implement even stronger penalties. He is getting what he wants.
Selig didn't overreach because, in a sense, he didn't have to. He has a powerful weapon his office has never had before on the PED front: the players, who through their muscular public comments are already doing much of the commissioner's work for him. Attempting to use his best interest power in this instance would have exposed baseball to the truth that it is a cudgel that doesn't really exist anymore.