Alex Rodriguez 211-game suspension historic for Major League Baseball

Alex Rodriguez was handed the longest non-lifetime ban in Major League Baseball history Monday. He will appeal, but the statement is important for baseball in its decades-long drug fight.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File
New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez awaits his turn in the batting cage prior to a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in Oakland, Calif., in this file photo. Rodriguez was suspended Monday for violating the Major League Baseball drug policy.

Alex Rodriguez, the mercurial New York Yankees superstar who signed the two richest contracts ever offered an athlete, was suspended by Major League Baseball Monday for 211 games, a punishment that will begin Thursday and extend through the entire 2014 season.

Rodriguez is scheduled to play Monday night for the Yankees in Chicago – after having missed the entire season so far because of injury – and he could continue to play during an appeal, which could last the rest of this season. The stakes for Rodriguez are enormous. Not only will he stand to lose $36 million of nearly $100 million the Yankees still owe him if the suspension is upheld, but at age 38, a 211-game suspension could effectively end his career. 

For Major League Baseball, the suspension is hardly less momentous. Rodriguez is by far the highest-profile player to be suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, and his suspension is the longest non-lifetime ban in the history of the league. He is also only one of 13 players suspended Friday for their connection to Biogenesis, a small antiaging clinic in Coral Gables, Fla., that provided athletes with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

The suspensions affirm that MLB has become the most aggressive of the four major American sports leagues in pursuing drug-cheats, and some analysts suggest the suspensions could create a momentum toward acceptance of drug-testing regimes and punishments more in line with the much-tougher Olympic standard.

It would be a shock, “if you don’t see the players step up and toughen the penalties during the offseason, because they think there’s no question that the possible rewards outweigh the risks at this point, and they want to change the equation,” said ESPN’s Buster Olney.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig called the suspensions a victory for the league's current Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, which was implemented in 2006 as a response to the so-called “Steroid Era,” which violated the integrity of some of the game’s most storied records.

“This case resoundingly illustrates that the strength of our Program is not limited only to testing,” said Mr. Selig in a statement. “We continue to attack this issue on every front – from science and research, to education and awareness, to fact-finding and investigative skills. Major League Baseball is proud of the enormous progress we have made, and we look forward to working with the players to make the penalties for violations of the Drug Program even more stringent and a stronger deterrent.”

Among the 12 other suspended players announced Monday are Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, Detroit Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and San Diego Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera. In July, 2011 National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun agreed to a 65-game ban because of his ties to the Florida clinic. The 12 announced Monday have agreed to 50-game suspensions as first-time offenders.

Rodriguez, however, has taken issue with his 211-game suspension, which he says is unfair because he is also a first-time offender. Selig has justified the suspension by saying Rodriguez impeded the MLB investigation.

None of the players, including Rodriguez, tested positive for use of performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, the punishments are based on evidence that MLB purchased from a disgruntled Biogenesis employee, as well as evidence later provided by the clinic’s founder, Anthony Bosch. 

These are “very dubious characters,” says Daniel Rosenberg, a professor of sports ethics and sociology at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., and that could help Rodriguez's case.

“The head of Biogenesis ... was some quasi, not-real doctor who wore a white coat,” he adds. “And, you know, both of those guys now involved as the major sources for Major League Baseball are what I would consider to be shady characters – and I gather that will be the basis of A-Rod’s appeal.”

The Yankees have often appeared eager to find a way to shed what has become a financial albatross for baseball’s richest and most successful team. Particularly with the Yankees' recent struggles – they currently sit in fourth place in the American League East – the prospect of paying another $100 million to a player whose skills appear to be in rapid decline is not an inviting one.

So on Friday, after playing a minor league rehab game in Trenton, N.J., Rodriguez all but accused MLB and the Yankees of conspiring to keep him off the field and void his contract.

“There is more than one party that benefits from me not ever stepping back on the field, and that's not my teammates and it's not the Yankee fans,” he said to reporters after the game. “I think that’s the pink elephant in the room. I think we all agree we want to get rid of PEDs – that’s a must. I think all the players, we feel that way. But when all this stuff is going on in the background and people are finding creative ways to cancel your contract, and stuff like that, I think that’s concerning for me.”

But others have suggested that, in this case, there is strong backing for Selig among major league players.  

“There’s a lot more support for [Selig] to do what he needs to do to get these guys off the field than than he believes there is,” said ESPN analyst Kurt Schilling Monday. “But I think he’s trying to make sure that he colors within the lines so there is precedent set here that he doesn't mess up.”

“I think at the end of the day, I think the saddest part about this is, I don’t think anybody wants to see Alex Rodriguez back on the baseball field, when all is said and done,” said Mr. Schilling, a former star pitcher for the Yankees' archival, the Boston Red Sox, and one of Rodriguez’s fiercest critics.

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