On the heels of Major League Baseball suspending Ryan Braun for the remainder of the season, a report surfaced Tuesday claiming the league was eyeing an even stiffer punishment for Alex Rodriguez: A lifetime ban.
The league has aggressively pursued players who allegedly purchased banned substances from a Florida health clinic, Biogenesis. And as the Braun suspension proved, the league is, in fact, willing to mete out unprecedented suspensions in the case.
So could Rodriguez, an admitted former doper, really get the boot for good?
The short answer: Probably not.
The league could certainly try to ban him forever. Under MLB's drug-testing agreement, a player "who tests positive for a Performance Enhancing Substance, or otherwise violates the Program through the use or possession" of a performance-enhancing drug is subject to escalating suspensions of 50 games for the first offense, 100 for the second, and a lifetime ban for the third.
The league has reportedly considered arguing that, in lieu of a failed test, each purchase from Biogenesis could constitute a separate offense, or that lying to investigators in itself could count as one of those three strikes. So MLB could, if it really wanted to, argue that Rodriguez struck out by repeatedly violating the drug policy and trying to cover his tracks.
It doesn't help Rodriguez that he allegedly tried to buy Biogenesis' documents to hide his connection to them, nor that he refused to answer questions about his involvement when approached by the league.
The league has also made it clear with Braun's suspension that the standardized punishments aren't set in stone. Despite listing Braun's transgression as a first offense, the league tacked on 15 games to his 50-game suspension because he had lied about taking the drugs.
However, Braun's punishment came as part of a plea deal in which he apologized and (sort of) admitted to cheating. If the league arbitrarily came down with a lifetime ban, Rodriguez would almost assuredly appeal the decision. While the league has free rein to punish players, an arbitration panel can overrule those decisions via an appeal process that places a high burden of proof on the league.
Here's Fangraphs' Wendy Thurm on that point:
If the league suspends a player for violation of the Joint Drug Policy — or based on the "just cause" provision of the collective bargaining agreement — the player can challenge the suspension by appealing to an arbitration panel. In the arbitration proceeding, MLB has the burden of proving that the Joint Drug Policy was violated.
If MLB relies on [Biogenesis clinic director Anthony] Bosch and his documents to suspend a player or players, the league will have to present Bosch's testimony to the arbitration panel. The players will then have the opportunity to challenge the authenticity, reliability and credibility of Bosch and his documents. This is done through cross-examination of Bosch and through other witnesses who may contradict Bosch and reveal his penchant (or lack thereof) for truthfulness. [Fangraphs]
Bosch, it's worth remembering, only began to help the league after MLB brought a lawsuit against him. His willingness to save himself, and the fact that he has been widely characterized as an untrustworthy drug-peddler, won't make him the most reliable witness.
Add to all that the conflicting reports surrounding the case, and a lifetime ban seems even more unlikely. CBS reported the lifetime ban was on the table, and A-Rod was trying to cut a deal; USA Today said that A-Rod faced a 100-game suspension and that he would not bargain with the league; other reports floated 150 games as a possible length.
The only thing clear at this point is that the league is going to hit A-Rod with something. Just how harsh of a message they will send could be pretty much anywhere between 50 and infinity.