664. As of this writing, that's the number of home runs Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees has. It's enough to put him into fourth place all time, behind Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds. And it's enough to earn him $6 million in bonuses from his contract with the Yankees. But the Yankees have reportedly said they won't pay.
This state of affairs has made for some awkward soul searching for both the media and the general baseball fan. On the one hand, Rodriguez is almost universally loathed for his perceived arrogance and greed. On the other, everyone understands that he's being railroaded.
It's more than plausible that the swing in public opinion on Rodriguez comes from the public's real feelings about the team owners and league commissioner's office. Everyone knows -- or should know -- that the men at the top were cognizant about the spread of PEDs in professional baseball. The use of these drugs and their effect on the game saved baseball.
If this were only about Alex Rodriguez, it wouldn't be as much of an issue for the players and fans. Rodriguez is hardly a sympathetic character, both on and off the field. He has almost zero charisma. But this is not just about Alex Rodriguez.
It's about the ever present labor struggle in Major League Baseball. It's about the victory the players won in achieving free agency and the desire of the owners to roll that achievement back. And it's about the gross hypocrisy of the owners and Commissioner of MLB in prosecuting players for using PEDs after the use of the drugs arguably saved the industry.
Steroids Save the Game
It seems like so long ago now, but two decades ago, baseball was on its deathbed. After the players' strike in 1994-1995, the public's interest in baseball had sunk to record lows. Attendance and viewership had dropped off. The nation seemed poised to be done with the sport altogether.
Then it happened. The great single-season home run record chase of 1998. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were neck and neck for most of the season. McGwire ended up setting the record at 70. Fans came back, thanks in no small part to the drama and excitement of the chase.
This was the peak of the so-called steroids era of Major League Baseball. From the late 1980s to approximately 2004, steroid use was rampant in the industry. Players of all levels of talent were using the performance enhancing drugs. Steroids were an open secret in MLB.
Public Backlash to the Steroid Era and the Consequences
The strike of 1994-1995 had almost killed the baseball industry. The steroid driven home run heroics of the late 90s and early 00s brought it back. But with the new accolades from the fanbase came negative attention on the use of PEDs and their relative "fairness" in the game.
Major League Baseball, the organization, would use the PED scandals for their own ends. The crusade against steroids in baseball is a peculiar one. It consumed the media for the better part of 2006. Under the leadership of Bud Selig, whose tenure spanned the latter half of the steroid era, MLB sought to use the PED scandals to undermine the rights and power of the players, especially in regards to free agency.
Free agency, in a nutshell, is the ability of a player to exercise his right to determine where he goes to play after a predetermined amount of playing time in the major league. This right, which is the reason for the huge contracts that baseball has become known for, was not easily won. The owners fought it tooth and nail. But eventually the players won and their autonomy has been the better for it.
Ever since the advent of free agency, the owners have been trying to find a way to roll back the players' power and self determination. With steroids, they've found their golden goose. The suspensions the league can lay down for PED use save a team money by defraying the cost of contracts. This sudden change in the balance of power in a relationship that has long been weighted rather evenly is a big deal. And how better to send the message than to take down one of baseball's biggest stars.
A-Rod's Path to PEDs
Alex Rodriguez began his Major League Baseball career with the Seattle Mariners at 18 in 1994. By 2001, at 25, he had proven he was on track to become one of the greatest players of all time. Accordingly, he had taken a huge contract with the Texas Rangers as a free agent, a move that was seen in Seattle as an indication of Rodriguez's greed. From Texas, Rodriguez landed in New York in 2004, with the Yankees. There, where he would sign another monster contract, he cemented his reputation as a league wide villain.
By his own admission, Rodriguez took PEDs in both Texas and New York. To what extent he used them and how much they helped his game is unknown. If we take Rodriguez at his word, he began using the substances when he went to Texas in 2001. The Texas Rangers in 2001-2003 were a bad team. Rodriguez excelled on a personal level, putting up great numbers in home runs, runs, and other hitting statistics. How much of an asset his PED use was in putting up those numbers is an open question.
In New York, what's known of Rodriguez's PED use is a little more specific. We know he may have been using PEDs since 2009 and that he was involved in the Biogenesis scandal. 2009, of course, was the year in which Rodriguez helped propel the Yankees to their 27th World Series due to an incredible season and postseason at the plate.
Whatever the legality or sportsmanship of PEDs, someone with Rodriguez's experience with the substances would have a hard time reconciling the "right" thing to do with the advantage. For someone like Rodriguez -- whose insecurity and desperation to please is legendary -- using PEDs to maintain the numbers and power that gained him repeated acclaim made sense. The benefits outweighed the cost of potentially being caught.
Alex Gets Suspended
Rodriguez's steroid abuse could not have been an unknown factor when his 2007 contract was drawn up and signed. The New York Yankees front office is one of, if not the, best in the business. To suggest that Rodriguez's use of PEDs with the Rangers was unknown by the Yankees in 2004 strains the imagination. To suggest that Rodriguez's use of PEDs was unknown by the Yankees in 2007, after Rodriguez had been in the organization for three years? Impossible.
Yes, Alex Rodriguez took performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, his remarkable achievements are at least slightly tainted by that fact. And yes, when it comes right down to it, Alex Rodriguez continued to use PEDs in flagrant violation of league policy. And finally, yes, becoming involved with the Biogenesis clinic was a great mistake.
But the initial 211-game suspension MLB handed down to A Rod was obscene. Everyone, even the most rabid Bostonian, knows this. Rodriguez was eventually suspended for a full year of playing baseball for his role in Biogenesis. A full year, even though:
- No direct evidence exists of Rodriguez taking PEDs
- Even if there was direct evidence, it would be the first time he had been caught by the league, not the fourth as is stated it must be for that penalty to apply
By suspending Rodriguez for a year for his involvement in Biogenesis, MLB sent the following message to players: You can get your big free agent contracts, but we hold the power. It also sent a message to the team owners: You can count on us to save you money.
The Ripple Effect
Today, the Yankees front office is taking full advantage of the opening the Commissioner's Office has given them. When Rodriguez was suspended for a year, it arguably threw into question the validity of his achievements. Therefore, say the Yankees, it is impossible for them to market Rodriguez's breaking of records and thus they are not on the hook for paying him his bonuses.
The bonuses are padding on Rodriguez's contract with the Yankees. $6 million apiece for breaking Mays', Ruth's, Aaron's and Bonds' home run records. While we don't know the language of the contract, we do know that the parameters are $6 million per record. It's a large portion of one of the biggest contracts in sports history.
It's not surprising that the Yankees would want to rid themselves of the financial albatross that is Alex Rodriguez's contract by any means necessary. It's a good business decision. All things being equal, Rodriguez has been a headache for his entire career in New York (sometimes through no fault of his own). So of course the Yankees would have tried to use Rodriguez's suspension without pay in 2014 against him to avoid paying him for his bonuses.
But the longer term implications of such a move, if the Yankees end up successful, are grim. If the Yankees can deny Rodriguez his bonuses for his achievements- as tainted as they may be- the other team owners can use it as precedent in negotiations to deny players pay and even the rights to their own labor. The hypocrisy is glaring. The same group of men who benefited from the surge of PEDs into their industry are now using the public backlash against the drugs to fight against the power of the players.
It's time for the Yankees to pay A-Rod.