The endgame of Alex Rodriguez has begun, with the particular steep path downhill left to Rodriguez himself. He can crib from Ryan Braun and craft his own retreat, with evidence kept sealed and Rodriguez fessing up to nothing beyond generic "mistakes" that ran afoul of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, or he can scorch the baseball earth with a vigorous appeal that threatens the lucrative owner-player business partnership and dumps the details of his dirty baseball career into public domain virtually needle by needle.
Major League Baseball appears so confident in the PED-related evidence it has collected about Rodriguez that reports last night by the Associated Press and New York Daily News indicate it could discipline him under the special powers of the commissioner rather than as a violator of the Joint Drug Agreement, a significant distinction that would remove his right to play while suspended. That is a serious distinction and not the play of someone who holds a weak hand.
Rodriguez tried to make his own strong-arm play by having attorney David Cornwell speak yesterday to ESPN New York radio, a move that if you listened closely, fell flat. Subsequent reports breathlessly shouted that Cornwell said Rodriguez will appeal any discipline -- but the lawyer never said that. What he said was that Rodriguez hired him "to represent Alex in connection with this inquiry by baseball and to prepare an appeal on behalf of Alex in the event that any discipline is handed down."
Said Cornwell, "My expectations are that we are going to be working though the process toward an appeal."
And again: "My job is to represent Alex in connection with an appeal, and that is what I am going to focus on."
In other words, he was hired to prepare an appeal when and if it is needed. There was no promise that Rodriguez will appeal rather than settle. It's Cornwell's specific job to prepare for appeal and that's what he is doing as "the process" unwinds.
Here's what you didn't hear: Cornwell professing that Rodriguez never used PEDs. He did not take to the airwaves to profess his client's innocence. His prospective appeal (while Rodriguez's many other lawyers can work back channels toward a settlement) appears to be taken from the same playbook Cornwell used for Braun after that dirty 2011 urine sample: lawyer up on technicalities, not innocence.
For instance, here is the one insight he gave into the appeal he is preparing, and it relates to Porter Fischer, the former Biogenesis employee who delivered the documents to the Miami New Times that first caused the scandal to go public:
"What's been made public are various documents that a disgruntled, ex-employee of Biogenesis allegedly stole. I would imagine we would spend some time talking with the arbitrator about the documents . . . their authenticity, their relevance, their reliability."
The old "disgruntled employee" gambit? Fischer is a secondary player in this drama. He's not very relevant to MLB's case. The key player is Anthony Bosch, the Biogenesis faux doctor. MLB is said to be sitting on a trove of evidence from Bosch as it relates to the baseball players in question, which is why Braun rolled over without an appeal within 23 days of sitting down with MLB officials. Sources indicate the evidence is detailed and extensive, including but not limited to text messages Bosch provided regarding direct communication with ballplayers, including Rodriguez.
Indeed, the evidence must be voluminous for baseball to consider disciplining Rodriguez either as a PED scofflaw or someone guilty of conduct "materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of baseball" -- a fancy way of describing a lowlife who simply is bad for the game. Such conduct, based on reports and sources, could involve misleading baseball about his 2009 association with Anthony Galea, the disgraced Canadian doctor with expertise in HGH, obstructing and lying to baseball officials, attempting to purchase documents or the cooperation of persons of interest in the Biogenesis case, and influencing minor league players about the acquisition or use of banned substances -- and that's without even considering any actual purchase, possession or use of banned substances.
If commissioner Bud Selig does swing his "materially detrimental" hammer, it would mean baseball (and this very much includes the New York Yankees) never wants Rodriguez to step on a field again -- not even while he appeals, which an appeal of a JDA violation would allow. And a challenge by Rodriguez could come in legal form, sending baseball into a courtroom and forcing the players association into a predicament at a time when its leadership and rank and file never have been more vocal about not violating the rights and reputations of clean players while fighting for dirty ones.
With money so flush in the game today -- there is no more talk about "competitive balance" problems or small market teams "needing" to unload contracts -- the owners and players are very content. Would they go to war over Rodriguez? Would they re-open the CBA? And does Rodriguez want a year's worth of investigation into what he's been up to aired in a courtroom? MLB started sniffing around in Miami a year ago, after the Melky Cabrera PED bust, and the trail led to Rodriguez.
The path of resistance by Rodriguez should be apparent soon. Discipline regarding players connected to the Biogenesis case could begin to come down Thursday or Friday. Baseball is particularly interested in buttoning up cases by the middle of next week for the first-time offenders facing a 50-game suspension -- before fewer than 50 games remain for their teams, so as not to bleed the notoriety of the case into the 2014 season.
Rodriguez likely faces more than a 50-game suspension, especially given the 65-game ban for Braun, who cooperated quickly. The most likely scenario involves Rodriguez being banned for at least 150 games, a discipline that would leave him out of baseball for all or most of two seasons before trying to come back after his 39th birthday. Retirement, with a settlement from the Yankees, might be a more palatable option than such a challenge.
The question now becomes how much fight will Rodriguez muster. A lifetime ban or the use of the "materially detrimental" clause might trigger a lengthy appeal if only because any MLB discipline that establishes precedent becomes a cause for the union.
Moreover, Rodriguez may not go away as easily as Braun because he has been emboldened by a lifetime of taking wrong turns without being held accountable -- from using and lying about PEDs to poker games to a sloppy charitable foundation to messy real estate endeavors. He has never been disciplined. He keeps a coterie of advisors, agents, lawyers and publicists. He has Cornwell preparing an appeal, looking into a "disgruntled ex-employee."
"We believe that we have good, valid and strong defenses for Alex," Cornwell said.
The lawyer did spring Braun from the rap in 2011, though victory on a technicality then brought nothing close to exoneration and, with Braun's admission last week, simply deferred embarrassment at the charade of it all.
Braun went away quietly. The endgame here is more complicated. This is about far more than one test sample. This is about years of behavior. It's about a team against its own player, players against owners and players against players. It's about possible labor unrest and legal challenges. And it's about Alex Rodriguez, so if anybody tells you they know exactly how it's going to end, just laugh at them. The only certainty about the ending is that it will be messy.