SPORTS OCTOBER 4, 2013
In case you thought you could just pleasantly focus on a New York Yankees-free baseball playoffs, Yankees star Alex Rodriguez has sued Major League Baseball and outgoing commissioner Bud Selig, alleging tortious interference—essentially, that the league’s 211-game suspension without pay, currently delayed on appeal, due to Rodriguez’s alleged violation of the league’s banned-substances policy has the goal not of maintaining the game’s integrity and rules but, to quote the suit, “to destroy the reputation and career of Alex Rodriguez.”
Without going into the details of the revelations surrounding the Miami clinic called Biogenesis—partly because the granular details are only so relevant, partly because even I don’t understand all of them—it seems obvious, based on the suspensions 13 players have accepted as well as the Major League Baseball Players Association’s tacit acquiescence to those suspensions, that the league got their hands on some pretty damning evidence. Rodriguez’ camp has implied that Rodriguez will not claim that he did not knowingly take banned substances.
The stronger argument both Rodriguez and the union make is that the punishment—211 games—is excessive. And it pretty clearly is. Though Rodriguez admitted to using banned substances a decade ago and has been credibly accused of using them since, he is (allegedly) a first-time offender under these rules. Given that, a look at precedent reveals 211 games to be extremely excessive. All the other Biogenesis players were suspended for 50 or 65 games. “I don’t want to give a number [of games], but there was a number that I gave A-Rod and we advised him to take it,” the union chief has said, adding, “He was never given that number.”
To be plausible, Rodriguez would presumably need to come up with a theory for why the league would impose an excessive penalty on him. He has. Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky has the best rundown of the lawsuit I’ve seen. And a crucial component is naming Selig as a co-defendant and dedicating an entire section to “The Disastrous Tenure of Commissioner Selig.”
While, overall, Selig’s tenure has been mixed, on steroids it clearly was a disaster—he responded to the obvious flood of performance-enhancing substances into the sport too little, too late, and then with great arbitrariness. Now that Selig is set to retire after next season, it is legacy time, the suit argues, and A-Rod is the perfect legacy scalp: “Taking down Mr. Rodriguez would vividly demonstrate that Commissioner Selig had learned from the errors of his previous explicit or tacit tolerance of steroid use.” Petchesky notes that this is where “the suit gets personal.” But it gets personal precisely in response to what it sees as Selig’s having gotten personal first.
So this is the nub: Rodriguez accuses Selig of using Rodriguez to bolster Selig’s own long-damaged credibility. It makes sense that Selig would choose Rodriguez for this task. To call Rodriguez—unlikable, steroid-using, Yankee, playoff-choking, overpaid Rodriguez—the perfect heel is an insult to heels everywhere. But unless and until we know more, the fan’s default allegiance, it seems to me, should lie with A-Rod. It isn’t just that Selig is management and is backed by the 30 billionaire team owners, while Rodriguez is an employee (like nearly all baseball fans) standing up against the even-more-powerful. It is that Selig is fighting for an abstraction, his legacy, and one that he is not likely to improve substantially even if he is vindicated in this instance. By contrast, Rodriguez is fighting for money ($33 million—hey, I admitted he’s overpaid!), which is actually something you can definitively have or not have. It is, in other words, something—unlike legacy—whose denial should require a much more persuasive case than the league and Selig have presented.