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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 8: Biogenesis scandal

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 8 : The Biogenesis Scandal 

By early 2013, Major League Baseball felt like it was in a pretty good place with respect to performance enhancing drugs. The Mitchell Report was several years in the rear view mirror. The biggest offenders of the Steroid Era — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and the rest — were long gone and, for the most part, out of the spotlight. The drug testing and penalty system put in place years prior had been tested and normalized. Most importantly, the heat from the press and from Congress had died down.

Then a report came out in The Miami New Times on January 22, 2013 which (a) shattered the illusion that baseball had its PED problem under control; (b) showed just how far Major League Baseball would go in order to reestablish that illusion; and (c) led to the suspension of over a dozen players, including Alex Rodriguez, who was then still the game’s most famous figure.

The Miami New Times had obtained documents from a disgruntled former employee of a Coral Gables, Florida health clinic called Biogenesis. Biogenesis — run by a guy with a phony medical degree from Belize named Anthony Bosch — purported to be a “rejuvenation clinic,” the sort of which there are many in Florida, specializing in weight loss and hormone replacement therapy. In reality, the clinic sold many of its patients performance enhancing drugs such as human growth hormone and testosterone. The documents linked Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colón and Yasmani Grandal – all players who had been suspended after positive drug tests in 2012 — to the clinic. They further revealed that several star players including Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and Nelson Cruz were Biogenesis clients.

This, obviously, was a massive story. And, almost immediately, the focus shifted to Major League Baseball, with people wondering what the league might do. The problem: what could the league do? It read the story just like everyone else, but none of the newly-named players had tested positive for drugs. The Miami New Times, likewise, was not about to turn over the documents it had to MLB, as news organizations aren’t typically in the business of doing that. And, of course, while MLB had private investigators on staff, it’s not a governmental entity, so what could it really do to investigate all of this?

One way it could’ve proceed would be to partner up with the DEA — which was also interested in the Biogenesis story — and try to persuade its players talk to investigators in an effort to root out a major source of drugs into its business. That’s generally how drug investigations go outside of sports, anyway, with users being seen as less destructive than dealers. In baseball, however, a precedent had been set with the BALCO scandal and the Mitchell Report in which, for various reasons, highlighting and perp-walking the drug users was the primary goal of both governmental and league investigators alike. MLB stuck to that script here. Bu, instead of merely ignoring the drug dealers, this time it basically partnered up with the kingpin in an effort to get the biggest-named starts in the report, Ryan Braun and A-Rod.

At first it wasn’t on the same side as Tony Bosch. It sued him and Biogenesis, alleging that by selling drugs to major league players, Biogenesis and Anthony Bosch “enabled” them to breach their contracts and that, as a result, “MLB suffered damages, including the costs of investigation, loss of goodwill, loss of revenue and profits and injury to its reputation, image, strategic advantage and fan relationships.” If you want that last part in English, it basically says “we took a big PR hit here and we’re mad about it.”

For reasons I wrote about at length at the time, the lawsuit should’ve been thrown out of court. The short version:

  • Your employer can’t sue a drug dealer because his product caused you to be late for work, and that’s what MLB’s theory here basically was;
  • There was no contractual or business relationship between MLB and Biogenesis and the latter owed no legal duty to the former, so it couldn’t expect to recover damages on its own, right?
  • Likewise, MLB could not have suffered legal damages by the players’ alleged breaching of their contracts because MLB had no financial interest in the specific contract — the Joint Drug Agreement — that had allegedly been breached. Indeed, calling a player taking banned substances a “breach” is silly anyway. It’s the violation of a rule with a specified sanction. MLB doesn’t sue a player every time they fail a drug test, do they? Of course not. Because it’s not a breach of contract cast; finally
  • If laws were broken it was a criminal matter for the government, not a civil matter for MLB to sue on.

Indeed, at the time I was shocked that MLB found someone who would file the suit for them. Most legal experts sat back and waited for this spurious piece of litigation to be tossed out of court. Then things got super weird.

Bosch, freaking out from the criminal and civil heat, reportedly approached Alex Rodriguez and asked him for money. A-Rod reportedly rebuffed him as he was busy trying to defend himself (more on that in a second).

Then it was reported that Bosch was cooperating with Major League Baseball. The same people who sued him. He had allegedly asked A-Rod for money. Was he getting money from MLB too? No one ever said. Was MLB agreeing to dismiss the lawsuit against Bosch? Well, no. Indeed, the lawsuit remained pending for nearly a year. He was helping MLB out for, basically, the hope that they’d help him down the line, it seems.

For reasons that still remain perplexing to me, the court allowed the lawsuit to remain pending despite the fact that the primary defendant was now working on the same side as the plaintiff, making the lawsuit a sham. What’s more, the courts stood by while the plaintiff and the defendant worked together and used the power of the court, via subpoenas, to get the medical records and cell phone records of the players involved in the scandal. The cell phone companies — AT&T, Verizon, etc. — apparently happily turned the stuff over without putting up a fight on behalf of their customers, the players, handing over phone records and texts. I’d ask you to put yourself in their position and imagine that this was your employer doing this to you after it was reported in the newspaper that you were seen on the corner with a joint.

But it gets worse. As the suit was going on, Major League Baseball was doing its best to get copies of the documents on which the original Miami New Times story was based. In the spring of 2013 MLB investigators became aware of a person who had the documents. He — like everyone else in this story — was pretty shady, involved in the tanning business and had axes to grind with everyone involved. MLB purchased the documents from him. Florida police later told reporters that not only had those documents been stolen from some dude’s car, but that Major League Baseball had been told that they were stolen before they purchased them and warned that doing so would interfere in an official investigation by the State of Florida, to whom the rightful owner of the documents — well, kind of rightful owner; he took them from Bosch’s office in the first place — had planned to give ’em. MLB did it anyway. Later, Tony Bosch and Biogenesis got only small fines from the state, with the Florida Health Department saying that it had no choice but to slap him on the wrist given that a thief — and, subsequently,  MLB — deprived them of the evidence it needed. Oops.

But hey, thanks to a gamed-up sham lawsuit and the purchase of stolen goods, Major League Baseball was about to get its men, and ain’t that the most important thing?

The first man it got was Ryan Braun, who struck a deal with Major League Baseball to accept a 65-game suspension. Why 65-games? For one thing, that was exactly the number of games remaining in the season at the time it came down, which worked out nicely for a guy (a) who was going through an injury-plagued season in which the Brewers weren’t going anywhere; and (b) whose contract was structured as such at the time that he was making far less in 2013 than he would be in the future, making it a good financial deal for him to not have any docked-pay-per-game discipline extend beyond 2013.

Sort of problematic in all of that was the notion that Braun got more than the standard 50-game suspension for a first offense because of his previous brush with the drug testing system back in 2011 when he tested positive for PEDs but won his appeal on the grounds that his sample was mishandled. We all know that was a really complicated situation in which Braun did not distinguish himself (i.e. he attacked the integrity of the sample collector), but (a) he still was cleared of that charge; and (b) you tend not to get enhanced punishment as a two-time offender when one is cleared the first time around, even if it was on a technicality. But hey, he and the union agreed to it, so no one was interested in complaining about it.

In early August of 2013 the hammer came down on the rest of the Biogenesis-associated players. Receiving 50-game suspensions: Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero, Jordany Valdespin, Sergio Escalona, Fautino De Los Santos, Cesar Puello, Fernando Martinez, Antonio Bastardo, and Jordan Norberto.

And then there was Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod, who had been injured all season long, made his season debut on August 5, 2013, which was the same day Major League Baseball handed him a 211-game suspension. That would cover the remainder of the 2013 season and all of the 2014 season. The reason it was so long? For starters, MLB claimed that the evidence of his drug use was “the most egregious” doping case in baseball history. Maybe more significantly, MLB claimed that A-Rod had impeded their investigation. And to be fair, A-Rod was talking to and dealing with a lot of the Biogenesis-connected guys as this was all being investigated and there were reports that he had considered buying information from sketchy witnesses — just like MLB had done — so that probably pissed off Major League Baseball as a matter of principe. I mean, that was their move. At the time the suspension came down, however, they let him play for the rest of 2013 as he appealed. I choose to view that as a professional courtesy. You know, a case of investigation-obstructing game respecting investigation-obstructing game.

Then it got even more fun.

That fall, when Rodriguez and Major League Baseball faced the arbitrator hearing his appeal, A-Rod punched a wall, pounded his fist on a table, told Major League Baseball’s then-COO Rob Manfred that the process was “f***ing bulls***,” and stormed out. He then immediately made a beeline to a talk radio station where he vehemently denied ever using PEDs, called Bud Selig a liar and said he planned to fire off lawsuits left and right. It was kind of unhinged. And, if you weren’t personally involved in it, a whole lotta great fun for a random day in November.

The theatrics didn’t do him any favors, either legally or in the court of public opinion: The following January arbitrator Frederic Horowitz upheld A-Rod’s suspension, though it was practically reduced from 211 to 162 games since he was allowed to play the 49 games between the ruling and the appeal. That still cost A-Rod the entire 2014 season. On the PR-side, A-Rod was a pariah. Baseball’s most ridiculed and hated figure. Though still under contract with the Yankees, there would be almost no contact between him and the team for the next year. His future in baseball was clearly in doubt.

About a month after A-Rod was suspended, Major League Baseball dropped its lawsuit against Tony Bosch and Biogenesis. Made sense: they no longer needed to pretend that they were actually suing for an injury as opposed to using the court system as their personal investigative arm.

Meanwhile, as the year wore on, A-Rod quietly began to cooperate with the DEA in its prosecution of Tony Bosch. Bosch pleaded guilty. For its part, Major League Baseball submitted a letter to the court vouching for Bosch and praising him for all of the cooperation he provided the league, saying that Bosch’s help assisted in “sending an important message to young athletes who emulate their heroes.” MLB failed to note that Bosch pleaded guilty to charges related to dealing drugs to teenage athletes. He received a 48-month sentence.

In early 2015, A-Rod made an icy return to the Yankees. Things warmed up considerably, however, after (a) he released a hand-written letter of apology to “Major League Baseball, the Yankees, the Steinbrenner family, the Players Association and you, the fans”; and (b) when he started to have a shockingly productive season for a guy who turned 40 just after the All-Star break. He finished the season with 33 home runs, 86 RBI and a pretty respectable line of .250/.356/.486. In the midst of a final, “yeah, he’s done” season in 2016, A-Rod retired.

The beginning of 2015 also saw a change for Major League Baseball, as Rob Manfred — the man who quarterbacked the Biogenesis investigation for all of the good (i.e. MLB got what it wanted) and bad (the way they got what they want was SUPER shady) it entailed — ascended to the Commissioner’s office, succeeding the retiring Bud Selig, who was sent into the sunset with people claiming that he cleaned up baseball from the scourge of performance enhancing drugs. Bud was also praised for presiding over labor peace, revealing that irony simply does not exist in the world of baseball.

Ryan Braun has continued to get a lot of boos as his now-14-year long career marches on. People have almost completely forgotten that guys like Nelson Cruz, Francisco Cervelli and Yasmani Grandal were caught up in this mess. Basically, if you were not A-Rod, Biogenesis didn’t stick to you. You just did your 50 games and got back to business. It certainly did not stick to you in the way showing up in the Mitchell Report or the BALCO scandal stuck to those guys. I suppose in some ways that’s progress.

Of course, it’s an open question if it has really even stuck to A-Rod. After his 2014 in the wilderness, his 2015 comeback and his retirement, Rodriguez has undergone a complete image makeover. He now portrays himself as a businessman and a family man. Getting engaged to Jennifer Lopez hasn’t hurt his image. He’s also, shockingly, a pitchman once again, appearing in TV commercials as if he wasn’t, a few short years ago, the most loathed figure in the game. Most notably, he is now the top analyst for Major League Baseball’s flagship broadcast, Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. He even makes high-profile appearances with his old nemesis, Manfred, at official events honoring legends of the game:

(Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

 

I guess time heals all wounds. And, I would guess, that the Biogenesis Scandal can properly be called the final chapter of The Steroid Era.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over the Game
No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal