Can Baseball Actually Ban Alex Rodriguez?

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Originally published in Bloomberg View.

So the Alex Rodriguez suspension is expected any day now. If you haven’t been keeping up with the rumors — which is to say the various leaks seeping out of Major League Baseball — the latest is that A-Rod could face a lifetime ban if he doesn’t accept a deal under which he’d miss the rest of the 2013 season and all of next season.

In other words, baseball really doesn’t want A-Rod’s case to go to an arbitration hearing, further dragging out the saga and airing a lot of dirty laundry that the league prefers buried at the bottom of the hamper alongside Curt Schilling’s bloody sock. (When one of your witnesses is the former head of a sleazy drug dispensary — oh, and you paid for his cooperation! — it’s probably best to avoid a public hearing.)

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Biogenesis scandal has been the virtual silence of the players union. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The union retreated years ago from its position that random drug-testing is a violation of players’ privacy rights; more to the point, it has opted to shrink from the PED fight in general. Of course, that was before Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig started channeling Saul Goodman in his Biogenesis investigation. If ever there were a case that seemed headed right for the fat part of the union bat, this was it. And yet the players association never even took a swing.


This week, I talked to Gene Orza, the former chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association, about A-Rod and Biogenesis. During his years with the union — he resigned before the 2011 season — Orza fought fiercely against baseball’s handling of the steroid controversy.

Orza told me that the lifetime-ban rumor is purely a negotiating tactic: “Baseball knows it can’t ban Alex for life.” The labor contract language that would presumably empower it — the specific clause says that players can be disciplined for “conduct that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of baseball” — was designed to prevent players from betting on games. If the provision applied to other situations, why wasn't it invoked during one of baseball’s previous scandals — the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, for example? Also, at the insistence of the union, Selig signs a letter attached to the labor contract every year assuring players that he won’t invoke it. So that’s that.


I asked Orza why he thought the union hadn’t been more proactive about attacking the Biogenesis case and undermining the credibility of the witnesses accusing players of using PED. He said there can only be one explanation.

“The Players Association is a historically aggressive defender of its members. This is not like them. My answer is that it’s not like them for a reason," he said. "There’s something else going on here. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were lots and lots of hard evidence. The very fact that the Players Association is not criticizing Major League Baseball for dealing with this rather unseemly character tells me that there’s a reason they’re not doing it."


Orza went on: "There’s a certain kind of joy in the way Major League Baseball is beating up on the players. This happens rarely in baseball history but it does happen," he said. "That’s a risky proposition if you fail. They must have a high degree of confidence that they will not fail.”

Even if Selig is sitting on baseball’s version of the Pentagon Papers — and he might just be — I’m still not sure how that justifies his handling of the Biogenesis investigation. If baseball is so confident in its evidence, and the means by which it acquired it, why is it so eager to avoid presenting it before a neutral party in an arbitration hearing? Whatever crimes Rodriguez stands accused of, doesn’t he deserve his day in court?


In any event, it's time to see what evidence of wrongdoing baseball is holding. Show us your hand, Bud.

Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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