Some of baseball’s most prodigious, iconic sluggers have fallen before — and fallen hard — so at some level it was just Alex Rodriguez’s turn Monday. Major League Baseball suspended the New York Yankees third baseman for the remainder of this season and all of 2014 for, the league said, using performance-enhancing drugs and covering up his transgressions while essentially obfuscating the investigation.
But on a day that MLB suspended a dozen other players for 50 games apiece — all caught up in dealings with a Coral Gables, Fla., anti-aging clinic — two things became clear: Rodriguez, fifth on the all-time home run list, has now taken the baton from Barry Bonds, the game’s home run king, as the face of the sport’s drug problems.
And those drug problems, once hoped to be washed away by the breadth and depth of a damning report from former Sen. George J. Mitchell six years ago, are still prevalent, stretching from the game’s greatest stars to minor leaguers clinging to jobs.
Rodriguez, 38, joined three 2013 all-stars — San Diego shortstop Everth Cabrera, Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz and Detroit shortstop Jhonny Peralta — in drawing suspensions Monday because of MLB’s investigation into Biogenesis, the Miami clinic that baseball officials say supplied illicit drugs to at least 18 players. Last month, the league suspended former National League most valuable player Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers for 65 games because of his ties to the clinic, and three other players have already completed 50-game suspensions because of their involvement with Biogenesis.
Rodriguez, who had missed the entire season following hip surgery, made his debut Monday night as the Yankees’ cleanup hitter in Chicago because he intends to fight his suspension, which was scheduled to begin Thursday. With an arbitrator’s decision not expected to come down until November at the earliest, Rodriguez will almost certainly play the rest of this season — delaying the 211-game penalty he was issued — while receiving his $28 million salary.
At a pregame news conference in Chicago, Rodriguez would not say whether he had used performance-enhancing drugs. “I’m sure there’s been some mistakes made along the way,” he said. “We’re here now. I’m a human being. . . . I’m fighting for my life. I have to defend myself. If I don’t defend myself, no one else will.”
Gio Gonzalez, the only Washington Nationals player whose name surfaced publicly in the Biogenesis investigation, was exonerated by MLB, which said it had no evidence that the left-hander was ever a client of the clinic. But the fallout of the suspensions was felt in every major league clubhouse.
“Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, those guys are unbelievable talents, and they were gonna be good baseball players anyway, and that’s unfortunate that they had to use those things for whatever reason they thought they had to use those things,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But to have some closure and suspend and punish some guys that are that high up in this league shows that nobody is safe.”
Yet Biogenesis is just one clinic, and even its tainted clients have remained in the game and reaped its riches. Melky Cabrera, a key outfielder for a San Francisco team that went on to win the 2012 World Series, served his 50-game suspension last season and received a two-year, $16 million contract from Toronto last winter.
MLB said in a statement Monday that Rodriguez’s suspension is “based on his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including Testosterone and human Growth Hormone [sic], over the course of multiple years.” It added that he received additional punishment “for attempting to cover-up his violations of the Program by engaging in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner’s investigation.”
Michael Weiner, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the union agreed with Rodriguez’s decision to fight the penalty. Weiner said in a statement that the union believes Commissioner Bud Selig “has not acted appropriately under the basic agreement.” In a conference call with reporters, he would only say the penalty was “way too harsh” without providing specifics about the union’s disagreement with the league.
“We’ve never had a 200-plus [game] penalty for a player who may have used drugs,” Weiner said, “and among other things, I think that’s way over the line.”
Other players decided against appealing their penalties, and they began serving them Monday night — when most teams had roughly 50 games remaining in the regular season. Players such as Cruz and Peralta, whose teams are in pennant races, would be eligible to return for the playoffs.
Cruz, an essential cog in the Rangers’ offense, said he lost 40 pounds due to a gastrointestinal infection in the 2011-12 offseason, and that he used performance-enhancing drugs to get himself ready to play that spring.
“Faced with this situation, I made an error in judgment that I deeply regret,” Cruz said in a statement, “and I accept full responsibility for that error.”
Peralta, whose Tigers reached the World Series last year and are in first place again, didn’t specify his violation but admitted to “a terrible mistake that I deeply regret.”
The other players who were suspended: Philadelphia reliever Antonio Bastardo, catcher Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees, Houston reliever Sergio Escalona, Seattle catcher Jesus Montero and outfielder Jordany Valdespin of the New York Mets, along with minor leaguers Fernando Martinez (Yankees), Fautino de los Santos (San Diego) and Cesar Puello (Mets), and Jordan Norberto, a free agent.
“We pursued this matter because it was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do,” Selig said in a statement.
When Mitchell released his report in late 2007, Selig labeled it “a call to action.” Baseball bargained with the players’ union for a more stringent testing program — more tests each year, with more substances banned. Home runs totals subsequently decreased, and the popular narrative became simple: The sport had a problem, addressed it, exposed at least some who violated the game and the “steroid era” was over.
Yet the reminders are still here. Bonds, long linked to a notorious California clinic, broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2007 but was convicted of obstruction of justice in 2011. He and Mark McGwire, the gargantuan slugger who became the first player to hit 70 homers in a season, have been denied entry to the Hall of Fame.
And six years after Mitchell’s report, baseball has suspended the most players since the infamous “Black Sox” scandal nearly a century ago because of their involvement with a single clinic.
“That’s not a good thing,” Weiner said. “We have to talk about how we can deal with it.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
The clinic was first exposed in January by the Miami New Times newspaper, which tied it through financial transactions and appointment books to several major leaguers. MLB officials extensively interviewed the firm’s founder, Anthony Bosch, during their investigation. MLB also paid for documents that showed links between the firm and baseball players.
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