In a decision that further defines major league baseball’s cultural standards regarding performance enhancing drugs and the players who use them, New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season and post-season by an arbitrator yesterday. Rodriguez, a long-time superstar who was once considered a lock to break baseball’s career home run record, and who is the highest paid player in the game, was suspended for illicit drug use without testing positive under the game’s union-negotiated testing system. He was, instead, suspended for a violation of the player’s Basic Agreement under baseball management’s right to police the game and do what is in its best interests.
The evidence that Rodriguez was a flagrant and long-time steroid abuser came from documents obtained from Biogenesis, a lab that developed drugs for athletes and others, as well as convincing testimony. Rodriguez had challenged the suspension in a grievance procedure after MLB handed down a 211 game suspension during the 2013 season. The arbitrator’s ruling, which is confidential, apparently concluded that the player not only cheated, but obstructed efforts to enforce baseball’s intensified anti-drug measures in the wake of the wide-spread use of PEDs in the 90’s and thereafter.
As expected, the result produced the usual complaints and rationalizations from the disturbingly large contingent of baseball fans and writers who remain obdurate regarding the offensiveness of steroid cheating, claiming that it was “a part of the game,” that the objections to it are inconsistent, and that baseball’s vilification of users is hypocritical. They had been practicing these and related arguments for months as they waited for the baseball Hall of Fame voting results announced last week, in which about 65% of the voters showed that they regarded steroid use as a disqualification for the honor, even when a player-user had excelled on the field. Rodriquez’s defeat deeply undermines the cause of the steroid defenders, and the likelihood that their argument will ever prevail.
It is an especially hard blow to the redemption chances for the Dark Prince of the steroid area, Barry Bonds,the Human Slippery Slope. Bonds, like Rodriguez, was a super-star whose greed and ego caused him to cheat despite having extraordinary natural talents and being a superior player without surreptitious chemical enhancements. He shattered records and made millions while parading his steroid-created bulk on the field, showing fellow players that drugs were a smart short-cut to stardom if you were careful not to get caught. Baseball chose to watch its integrity and competitive fairness being mocked and diminished by Bonds season after season, and did nothing to stop it until late in his career, when no team would disgrace itself by hiring him. If Bonds is elected to the Hall of Fame, it will mean that steroid cheating, and therefore cheating itself, will officially and forever be treated as trivial and, by definition, since election to the Hall is an honor, honorable, by Major League Baseball. One cannot, as the steroid-enablers argue, claim that Bonds’ on-field accomplishments can be recognized without implicitly endorsing, or at least excusing, the dishonest way they were achieved.
If Bonds, the worst, most defiant, most destructive and most successful of the steroid cheats eventually is deemed worthy of baseball’s biggest career honor, then there will be no way to deny the honor to his lesser followers. His election will be the ultimate triumph of lies over truth, selfishness over loyalty to one’s profession, and greed over integrity. Most of all, it will be a toxic cultural statement going far beyond baseball that the ends justify the means. Or so I was preparing to write in a post following the Hall voting results, as I listened to and read smart commentators and blithering idiots alike pronouncing the same false and unethical arguments in favor of Barry Bonds that I have been batting away—not difficult, by the way– since he was playing. The arbitrator’s decision, however, means that excusing Rodriguez becomes part of the slippery slope that the Bonds defenders and anyone they convince must leap down with gusto, if they continue to argue that Barry Bonds should be honored as one of the game’s “all-time greats.”
While I personally regard Bonds as more reprehensible, unethical and damaging to his sport even than Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod is far more unpopular than Bonds, who mostly kept his non-steroid related misconduct confined to his personal life. Rodriguez, in contrast, always presented the image of an arrogant, money-obsessed and selfish individual, and engaged in multiple examples of unsportsmanlike conduct in games, as well as getting caught in a succession of highly -publicized lies. He feuded openly with his team, and is, by a large margin, the most disliked player in the game, if not all of sports. Yet it would defeat the parsing skills of Bill Clinton to make a convincing case that Rodriguez’s misconduct is significantly distinguishable from Bonds to justify honoring the most successful of all steroid cheats while snubbing the next best, simply because he’s bit more despicable.
True, Bonds was never suspended because baseball commissioner Bud Selig didn’t have the guts to fight the players’ union, but the evidence that he cheated was and is equally convincing. No, if Bonds goes into the Hall of Fame, it will be impossible to keep A-Rod out, and the stench those two emit will make admitting lesser but still odiferous stinkers like Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens an afterthought. At that point, I find it impossible to believe that many of the untainted Hall members will want to continued to be enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Cheaters, or that many baseball fans will want to bring their children to Cooperstown, N.Y. to learn the lesson taught by the likes of A-Rod, who made over 300 million dollars, so far, by betraying his profession.
The worse the Rodriguez saga gets, and it will get worse, the uglier Bonds’ slippery slope looks. A-Rod continues to be defiant, claims that he will fight the decision in the courts, and threatens to force the Yankees to let him train with them in Spring Training, which will require the team to change its official log to this:
I hope he does all of it, so that the Pandora’s box of steroid cheating in baseball flung wide open by Barry Bonds cannot be credibly denied. Alex is one of the ugliest things that flew out of that box, and the uglier he is seen to be, the more likely it is that the rationalizations being pushed in defense of Barry Bonds will fail to undermine the ethical ideals of baseball, sports, and society.
A few last (for now) observations related to the arbitrator’s decision:
- Tom Verducci makes the interesting observation that the decision so completely shreds A-Rods credibility that it raises the question of whether he was ever unjuiced. Interesting, and of course correct. He is unbelievable and untrustworthy: why is it assumed that he is a great talent that just got greedy, and not a manufactured talent whose entire career was a fraud on us all?
- This is just one more reason to flush what has emerged as the rationalization of choice for Bonds supporters and Hall of Fame critics who argue that Bonds should be voted in because he had a Hall of Fame level career before he decided to morph himself into the baseball version of The Fantastic Four’s “the Thing.” I truly hate that argument: it bypasses the character and sportsmanship requirement in the Hall’s standards and ignores that fact that it is the cheating itself, not what may have resulted from it, that is disqualifying. It also bizarrely argues that what is especially nauseating about Bonds (and others) is mitigation, when in fact it makes what they did less excusable. These were the stars and the role models, who have an obligation to be exemplary. Moreover, they had their success, and yet cheated to get more, and more—more money, more records, more seasons. While borderline players who use steroids to hang on to a roster spot are still unethical, the non-ethical consideration that persuaded them to cheat—professional survival— is not as reprehensible as what motivated A-Rod and Bonds…narcissism, selfishness and greed. Verducci suggests that we should challenge the whole premise of that bogus argument. Why should we trust anything players like Rodriguez or Bonds accomplished in their careers? We know they are cheats and liars; we can never know when the cheating and lying began.
- Craig Calcaterra, the lawyer turned NBC baseball blogger that I admire (and envy) in every other respect, inexplicably defends steroid-users, and made the argument that one reason no one will raise legitimate defenses for A-Rod is that he’s such a reviled jerk. True enough (though there are no legitimate defenses), but signature significance is also in play here, as it is with Clemens and Bonds. These players demonstrated anti-social, untrustworthy, self-centered and unsportsmanlike tendencies early in their careers, and this helps to explain why they cheated and lied. These are not ethical people, by definition. The statement that we would be fairer to cheaters if they weren’t such jerks is a tautology. Cheaters are almost always jerks, and those who cheat when they they will thrive without cheating are the biggest jerks of all.
- I can’t read very far in comment threads on this issue before someone makes an argument that causes my head to start rumbling ominously, and one comment that turns up fast in all the threads is that the suspension was unfair because the evidence would not be sufficient to convict A-Rod in a court of law. Maybe, but so what? A-Rod isn’t being imprisoned; the standard isn’t guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and baseball doesn’t have to judge him by criminal justice standards. An objective, neutral arbitrator looked at all the evidence and by all accounts found him guilty as hell, in a procedure that his union negotiated on his behalf.
- It should be noted that the New York Yankees, who save about 22 million dollars as a result of this decision, signed Rodriguez to his ridiculous contract in 2009 (they will still owe him nearly 60 million after 2014) knowing he had previously used steroids, knowing he lied, and knowing the kind of World Class sociopathic creep that he was. This was the Star Syndrome, an organization holding its high-performers to lesser ethical standards, at its worst. They have been embarrassed, and deserve to be.
- As a Red Sox fan, I relished the prospect of Rodriguez playing a sub-par third-base for the Yankees as they paid millions for the privilege. As a baseball fan, I found the prospect of a smug and shameless cheater continuing to deface the sport I love sickening. Thus my final comment on A-Rod’s well-earned demise is…