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New York Yankee's Alex Rodriguez leaves the field after batting practice before playing the Chicago White Sox in their American League MLB baseball game in Chicago, August 6, 2013. (Reuters)

New York Yankee's Alex Rodriguez leaves the field after batting practice before playing the Chicago White Sox in their American League MLB baseball game in Chicago, August 6, 2013.

(Reuters)

Alex Rodriguez

Union forced to defend baseball’s black sheep Add to ...

The Major League Baseball Players Association finds itself in the awkward situation of having to support Alex Rodriguez, even as many of its members applaud the punishment imposed on the New York Yankees slugger as a much-needed step toward ridding the sport of performance-enhancing drugs.

The MLBPA counselled Rodriguez to seek a settlement with the commissioner’s office rather than to appeal the 211-game ban that would have started Thursday, to the point of executive director Michael Weiner suggesting a specific number of games as reasonable, given the evidence in front of him.

Instead – hours after MLB suspended him for being linked to the Biogenesis clinic and performance-enhancing drugs – Rodriguez exercised his right to the case being heard by an arbitrator and continues to play through the appeal process.

A dozen players accepted suspensions of 50 games each, following negotiations that involved the MLBPA, as per the joint drug agreement for a first offence. Technically, this would be Rodriguez’s first offence, though he previously admitted to injecting steroids between 2001 and 2003.

The union is obligated to stand with Rodriguez, 38, as a matter of fiduciary duty. Further, it will seek to strike down the precedent commissioner Bud Selig is seeking to establish, with an arbitrary punishment that would more than double the 100-game penalty for a second offence.

Weiner called the length of suspension “ridiculous.”

Both baseball and the union may have incentive to encourage a settlement. While the process is confidential, so was baseball’s investigation and it sprung widespread media leaks.

“MLB may have concerns that managers and trainers were aware of Biogenesis and did not take steps to prevent or discourage players from working with Biogenesis,” says lawyer Michael McCann, director of the sports and entertainment law institute at the University of New Hampshire. “Other players who haven’t been suspended could also be implicated.”

Several players spoke out publicly in favour of baseball’s move toward tougher penalties. Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria tweeted: “It is a tremendous step in the right direction for the game we love.”

Reacting to the prior Biogenesis-related 65-game suspension accepted in July by Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Skip Schumaker told The Associated Press: “One strike, you’re out. It’s enough.”

However, Weiner said many players are not in favour of stronger punishment, leaving the union split. The PEDs issue is to be taken up at a general meeting this winter.

Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Rodriguez et al have helped to bring billions of dollars into the sport with their otherworldly home-run prowess. As the sport’s revenues skyrocketed over the past 15 years, so did salaries. By signing a 10-year, $252-million (U.S.) contract with the Texas Rangers in 2001, then opting out of that deal to begin a 10-year, $275-million deal with the Yankees in 2008, Rodriguez and agent Scott Boras have influenced the size of free-agent contracts and salary arbitration awards for other players.

“The MLBPA is in an awkward position in how much to advocate for Rodriguez, who despite his unpopularity has done a great deal for players’ earning power,” McCann said in an e-mail.

Longoria and others argued that PED users take jobs and money away from clean players, and therefore they advocate rigid testing regimes and harsh penalties. Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia told The Boston Globe: “We shouldn’t be competing against guys who use drugs like that. … As a player, this is what you want.”

Meanwhile, the big contracts awarded to suspected, accused, penalized or admitted PED users stand as a powerful incentive to cheat, says Montreal lawyer Dick Pound, former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The Toronto Blue Jays gave free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera a $16-million contract after he was suspended 50 games in the first wave of the Biogenesis scandal last year. Braun has $145-million guaranteed through 2020, and Rodriguez is owed $96-million through 2017.

While the Rodriguez hearing is supposed to be conducted during the next three weeks, there are suggestions it may drag into November.

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