Monday, August 5, 2013

No Joy In Mudville

Want to know why people have turned off baseball? Just look at the Alex Rodriguez drug scandal, if you're not already sick of it. What galls me isn't that he doped, or refused to admit he doped, it's that he still thinks he's too cool to take his lumps, unlike his all-star colleagues Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and nine others who are agreeing to at least 50 games on suspension without a fight.

Those guys could have appealed, but they didn't. They knew they were busted and accepted reality. Not A-Rod. His people have been working behind the scenes, trying to cut him a deal to preserve his playing time and what's left of his $62 million contract. Here's where Major League Baseball fouled -- they actually negotiated with these people.

You can argue to me that's no different than plea-bargaining in the criminal justice system. But that's law. This is baseball, Major League Baseball, an organization that -- unlike the NFL, NBA, and NHL -- has been chronically unable to effectively deal with its performance-enhancing drug problems. The doping should've essentially ended after the fallout from Jose Cansecos' tell-all Juiced. Instead, players simply found new ways to game the game and the managers running it. Now Team A-Rod is trying to game the sanctions.

So far, he's swinging at air. He got the equivalent of 211 games out -- the rest of the season plus all of next season -- but the numbers are academic. The appeals process means Rodriguez could potentially play through the rest of this season because a decision from an arbitrator isn't expected until at least November. And A-Rod has some powerful bargaining chips: he hasn't played this season until now because of injury rehab, and he hasn't failed any drug tests. An arbitrator could slice the suspension down, buying arguments that could include claims of excess given the circumstances, and that MLB is making A-Rod its whipping boy because he's a unlikable creature with a filthy-rich paycheck. Like I said, it's baseball, not law.

Commissioner Bud Selig resisted the temptation to go nuclear and bench Rodriguez without recourse under its equivalent of the double-secret-probation clause:  Major League Baseball can deal swiftly with people who pose a threat to the game's integrity. Yes, I just used "Major League Baseball" and "integrity" in the same sentence. I'll wait while you stop laughing. As much as I would've liked to see Selig hit a home run on A-Rod's behind, the commissioner did the math. He knew the hurtin' he could deal to the Yankees' star wouldn't be worth the hurtin' he'd get from MLB's players union, which would probably take him to court and saddle him with more labor headaches for years to come, the kind of headaches that lead to strikes and convince more people to give up watching baseball.

Still, 13 players suspended today does not constitute success on commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to clean up the game. In all, 17 players have been punished for their connections to the Florida clinic that helped them dope. The clinic is closed, and apart from A-Rod's appeal, this scandal is over. But the doping isn't. It isn't because the majors are still trying to rebuild from the disastrous 1994 aborted season, and the players' union can still call some crucial shots, which gets in the way of Selig and others putting the fear of the baseball gods into any potential artificially-enhanced slugger.

The union is backing Rodriguez. But maybe it should just back off. New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden reports MLB players are getting so sick of dope and dopers tainting the game, they're willing to consider letting front offices rip up the contracts for PED cheats. Hitting the wallet harder may be exactly the message that will keep players away from the juice. I don't expect the union to throw A-Rod under the bus, but I would find it refreshing if it got out of the way.

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