Six years after supposedly closing the books on its “steroid era”, baseball is embroiled in a new drug scandal that has already felled one of its top stars, and could end the career of Alex Rodriguez, its highest-paid player.
The latest dark shadow has been cast by a now-defunct clinic in south Florida called Biogenesis of America, outwardly specialising in anti-ageing products, but which appeared to have peddled Human Growth Hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs (PED) to a score of top players.
This week the affair claimed its first big victim, as Major League Baseball suspended the Milwaukee Brewers’ slugger Ryan Braun, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011, for the rest of the season without pay, a 65-game ban. Three more leading players have also been linked to the clinic. But the biggest name allegedly involved is Rodriguez, the New York Yankees’ third baseman, known as A-Rod.
Over a glittering career he has hit 647 homers, fifth on the all-time list. But he has also been dogged by allegations of PED use, even after he admitted in 2009 having once used steroids but insisted he had been clean since. Now his name is said to be on the list of Biogenesis’ baseball customers supplied by its founder Tony Bosch, who is co-operating with the MLB.
A-Rod is variously said to be negotiating a deal with baseball officials (which his representatives deny), or facing a long suspension, even a life ban. Today the New York tabloid Daily News proclaimed him “the most wanted criminal in baseball history”, claiming he not only lied about using drugs, but tried to interfere in the investigation.
For his part Rodriguez denies any involvement with Bosch or his clinic, saying he will fight any charges and appeal against any ban.
But if he is proved guilty, such disgrace would surely leave the Yankees with mixed feelings. Their injury-hit line-up could use A-Rod in the battle to reach the post-season, though he has now been put on the Disabled List, and so cannot play until mid-September.
On the other hand, the franchise might be relieved of some of the burden of the biggest (many would say, the most foolish) contract in baseball – his $275m 10-year deal of 2008 may still be the richest for any in team sport: $170,000 (£110,000) per game.
When he signed, Rodriguez was 33, elderly in baseball terms. On Sunday he turns 38, having missed more than half the Yankees’ games since the start of 2011, plagued by injuries. Yet the Yankees still owe him $100m – barring disqualification for drugs.
A few years ago, baseball had one of the laxest drug regimes in sport. But after the 2007 Mitchell Report naming 89 players who had used steroids, attitudes changed. A first offence warrants a 50-game suspension (almost a third of the 162-game season); a third means a ban for life. And if baseball is serious about ridding itself of drugs, so are the players. “If guys cheated, they should be punished, and we should clean the game up once and for all,” St Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright told USA Today.