Why Baseball Fans Shouldn’t Celebrate Alex Rodriguez’s Season-Long Suspension


Alex Rodriguez will miss the entire 2014 season for his connection to baseball’s Biogenesis performance enhancing drug scandal, a spokesperson for the New York Yankees third baseman announced Saturday.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig originally handed Rodriguez a 211-game suspension in August; after a lengthy appeal that allowed Rodriguez to play the remainder of the 2013 season, an independent arbitrator reduced the ban to 162 games. The effect, however, is the same: the Yankee slugger will not set foot on a Major League field for all of 2014.

The MLB Players Association, which worked alongside Rodriguez in appealing the suspension, said it “strongly disagrees with the award issued today…even despite the Arbitration Panel’s decision to reduce Mr. Rodriguez’s unprecedented 211-game suspension. We recognize that a final and binding decision has been reached, however, and we respect the collectively-bargained arbitration process which led to the decision.”

Rodriguez was not nearly as kind. “The number of games sadly comes as no surprise, as the deck has been stacked against me from day one,” he said in a statement. “This is one man’s decision, that was not put before a fair and impartial jury, does not involve me having failed a single drug test, is at odds with the facts and is inconsistent with the terms of the Joint Drug Agreement and the Basic Agreement, and relies on testimony and documents that would never have been allowed in any court in the United States because they are false and wholly unreliable.”

“I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged in the notice of discipline, or violate the Basic Agreement or the Joint Drug Agreement in any manner,” he added. As a result, the case isn’t yet over, as Rodriguez said he plans to continue pursuing the federal lawsuit he filed against Major League Baseball in October (that lawsuit, upset as A-Rod may be, probably won’t be successful).

Selig and Major League Baseball hailed even the reduced suspension as a victory in what has become the final cause célèbre of his tenure atop the league.

“For more than five decades, the arbitration process under the Basic Agreement has been a fair and effective mechanism for resolving disputes and protecting player rights,” MLB said in a statement. “While we believe the original 211-game suspension was appropriate, we respect the decision rendered by the Panel and will focus on our continuing efforts on eliminating performance-enhancing substances from our game.”

Though the evidence in this sort of case is kept confidential, that arbitrators thought a full-season suspension was justified would suggest MLB had a solid case against Rodriguez. Still, it’s hard to see any winners in the entire debacle.

Rodriguez is certainly a loser. The suspension will cost him all of his $25 million 2014 salary, and given his age — he turns 39 in July — it will raise questions about his future. Rodriguez is under contract with the Yankees through the 2017 season, and for his part, said he will “continue to work hard to get back on the field and help the Yankees achieve the ultimate goal of winning another championship.”

Though other Major League players were quick to condemn Rodriguez throughout the investigation and appeals process, they should be hesitant to celebrate anything. This case wasn’t a good one for the collectively-bargained Joint Drug Agreement, which the union and many players felt Selig set aside in trying to drop the hammer on an unpopular player who made an easy opponent in a public relations battle over drugs. The investigation, suspension, and the series of information leaks that came as part of it make it seem as if the commissioner’s office had little respect for the process it bargained, and the players would be justified in asking a simple question of Major League Baseball: if Selig and the league are willing to seek any way around the process now, what would stop them from doing so on this or any other issue in the future?

Even if Selig celebrates the suspension as a victory, it will be hard to find anything positive in the entire ordeal for MLB or the game of baseball. Yes, it is the longest suspension ever handed to a drug user, and yes, it sends a message that drug use won’t be tolerated. But even if some players and fans may support this “tough on drugs” approach, the saga brought the issue of drugs back to the fore in a sport that is otherwise healthy and during a season that was otherwise fantastic. The investigation into Biogenesis and Rodriguez was a nightmare, littered as it was with allegations of shady processes like paying off witnesses, the buying of evidence, and the seeming circumvention of basic standards of due process. Even if this decision ultimately proved MLB right, it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fun, and it seems hard to argue that it was good for anything but Bud Selig’s legacy.

The details of the investigation, meanwhile, could foster at least some mistrust from players and their union just two years before baseball and the MLBPA are set to return to the table to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. The current agreement expires after the 2016 season. It’s a worst-case scenario, but it’s possible, and if that mistrust jeopardizes baseball’s unprecedented period of labor peace — it hasn’t had a work stoppage since 1995 — it will be hard to argue that any of this will have been worth it.

And no matter what ultimately happens with Rodriguez, the game in 2014 will still feature a drug testing system that doesn’t seem to work. Rodriguez is the 13th player suspended as part of the Biogenesis scandal, yet many of them never failed a drug test (Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun had previously tested positive but had his original suspension overturned on appeal; other Biogenesis clients had tested positive and received suspensions before the scandal broke). Baseball’s testing system didn’t catch these players; an investigation from a Miami newspaper did. It’s almost impossible, then, to argue that the current drug testing policy is effective, or that the “more testing, tougher suspensions” solution many baseball writers, fans, and players have prescribed would be either.

That said, the Rodriguez decision — federal lawsuit aside — should give baseball and its players an opportunity to press reset on the entire issue. Selig plans to retire at the end of the 2014 season, leaving MLB with a new leader who perhaps won’t feel the need to seek redemption for years of sitting atop a steroid-addled game. The Players Association is also under new leadership after the November death of executive director Michael Weiner. Both sides may be willing to revisit and revise the current Joint Drug Agreement to outline a better system for preventing and testing for drug use and dealing with issues that were present in the Rodriguez case, including the cloudy language around “non-analytic positives” (that is, proof of drug use without a positive drug test, which is what ensnared Rodriguez and the other Biogenesis players) and the shoddy testing system. And both sides will have to find some common ground on the issue of drugs and many others to successfully negotiate a new bargaining agreement in 2016. The Rodriguez case may complicate all of that, but it doesn’t have to.

It may be easy for Selig and anti-drug players and fans to celebrate the Rodriguez decision as a good day for baseball. As a baseball fan who favors competent and effective drug policies, a game that is as clean as possible, and a healthy respect for the collective bargaining rights of players, I don’t buy it. This has been bad for baseball, and it’s going to take a lot of work from both sides to ensure that this entire ordeal doesn’t jeopardize the future of an otherwise thriving game more than it already has.