Alex Rodriguez set to return as drugs storm finally hits
THE tawdry saga of Alex Rodriguez, baseball's fallen superstar and still its top-paid player, moved to a bizarre climax last night. The man known by friend and foe alike simply as A-Rod was given the longest drugs ban ever handed down by his sport - but was nonetheless set to make his comeback for the New York Yankees after missing the season's first four months through injury.
Major League Baseball yesterday announced the suspension of Rodriguez as of Thursday until the end of next year, equivalent to a 211-game ban, for "multiple years" of illicit drug use. A dozen other players, including three current All-Stars, were banned for 50 games, all accused like Rodriguez of having obtained performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone, from an anti-ageing clinic in surburban Miami.
The sanctions were handed down by the MLB commissioner, Bud Selig, after a six-month investigation into allegations against the now defunct Biogenesis of America. The affair, arguably the biggest single doping scandal in baseball history, has already claimed one superstar in the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun.
Braun, the National League MVP for 2011, was suspended last month for the rest of the season, and decided against an appeal. Rodriguez, however, was certain to do so - a step which would allow him to play pending the outcome of that appeal.
Whatever happens, the latest developments surely usher in the final act in the career of an athlete who had everything - including, alas, the gift of self-destruction. Once Rodriguez was the brilliant future of baseball, the youngest player to hit 500 home runs, and thus seen as the best hope of expunging the career home-run record of the steroid-tainted Barry Bonds.
But he too fell victim to the temptation of drugs and in 2009 admitted using steroids in the past, because, he explained, of "an enormous pressure to perform". By then, however, the Yankees had already given him a 10-year, $275m contract, the richest in team sport anywhere, running until 2017.
That deal now appears a huge mistake. Injury-plagued and 38 years old, A-Rod is a shadow of the player he once was. Off the field he has made headlines too, amid tales of tensions with team-mates and a reputed affair with the singer Madonna. For his team, the most famous franchise in all US sport, the superstar player has become a giant distraction and a PR nightmare - not to mention a financial drain.
Under the 2007 contract, the team still owes him $100m (£65m). Suspension would remove some of that burden, but the only measure that would get the Yankees off the hook entirely would be a lifetime ban. By all accounts, MLB has considered that step, and rejected it for fear of a lengthy battle in the courts.
In the short term, however, the Yankees, decimated by injuries to key players, most definitely want A-Rod back in the line-up. So, pending the appeal, he was set to take the field last night against the Chicago White Sox. "It should be a bit of a circus," said Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells, in one of the sporting understatements of the year.
But baseball's authorities have not covered themselves with glory either. "JUST GO," was the stark front-page headline in yesterday's New York Post, purporting to reflect the views of fans. In fact, MLB's clumsy handling of the affair, in which they have given the impression of persecuting Rodriguez, has kindled some rare sympathy for one of the most unloved players in the game.
In this reading of events, Rodriguez is a convenient scapegoat, a symbol of how major league baseball has replaced the lax anti-drug regime that led to the infamous "steroids era" of Bonds and others, with one of the strictest in any sport.