NEW YORK — Alex Rodriguez certainly leads the New York Yankees in headlines this season even though he hasn't played a single major league game.
Injuries have kept him away from the team since last year's playoffs, and now Rodriguez faces discipline from Major League Baseball in its drug investigation, possibly up to a lifetime ban.
"The likelihood of a severe punishment for Rodriguez is very high," former Commissioner Fay Vincent said Wednesday.
The three-time AL MVP who turns 38 Saturday is among more than a dozen players MLB has targeted following allegations they were linked to a Florida clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs.
After Ryan Braun's agreement to accept a 65-game suspension earlier this week, attention has turned to Rodriguez, who four years ago admitted using PEDs while with Texas from 2001-03. He has repeatedly denied using them since, and MLB has never said he failed a test.
Lawyers for MLB and the players' association were set to resume discussions about the Biogenesis investigation Thursday. Though it was unclear who might be penalized next, all eyes were on A-Rod.
The Yankees expect Rodriguez to be accused of using PEDs over multiple seasons, of recruiting other athletes for the clinic, of attempting to obstruct MLB's investigation, and of not being truthful with MLB in the past when he discussed his relationship with Dr. Anthony Galea, who pleaded guilty two years ago to a federal charge of bringing unapproved drugs into the United States from Canada.
"The mess seems very large indeed," said John Thorn, baseball's official historian. "If a lifetime suspension is being brooded about and a plea bargain would involve something lesser but still very substantial, that's a whole bucket of tar dumped on his legacy."
With 647 home runs, fifth on the career list and 115 shy of matching Barry Bonds' career record, Rodriguez is among the most prodigious sluggers in baseball history. And his record contracts have put him in the spotlight, first a $252 million, 10-year deal with Texas that started in 2001 and later a $275 million, 10-year agreement with the Yankees that began in 2008.
But his body has been breaking down and he's been on the disabled list six times in six years. Right hip surgery in March 2009 was followed by left hip surgery this January, three months after the Yankees repeatedly pinch hit for A-Rod and benched him during the playoffs.
Just when it appeared he was ready to rejoin the Yankees this week, the team said he strained his left quadriceps.
Rodriguez has acknowledged taking PEDs before baseball started penalizing their use. In 2009, he attributed his decision to being "young and stupid" and agreed to work for the Taylor Hooton Foundation to combat steroids.
If it turns out he was violating drug rules all along, his reputation may be beyond repair.
"There's no question it's been diminished, and more than many of his contemporaries that also were involved, because in his case the perception now is that the use has been ongoing," NBC and MLB Network broadcaster Bob Costas said. "Now that could change if he somehow successfully defends himself, but if that doesn't happen, then the perception would be that it was not confined to a certain period of time, so it would be impossible to parse how much of his performance was unaided and how much was aided. The shame of all of it is that he clearly would have been an all-time great player without ever using performance-enhancing drugs."
Fox broadcaster and former major league catcher Tim McCarver said he regards Rodriguez "unfortunately, the way I view Ryan Braun, and that's not good. And I viewed A-Rod as a really good guy. Tarnished is understated in these times."
While positive tests lead to a set series of punishments – 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third – MLB is not bound by that for players in the Biogenesis probe because the fixed penalties are only for failed urine and blood tests.
"In theory, they could be suspended for five games or 500 games," union head Michael Weiner said.
Braun negotiated the length of his penalty rather than contest it before an arbitrator. If Rodriguez were to file a grievance, a suspension probably would be pushed back until after a decision and would be delayed until next year.
Vincent learned in the Steve Howe case that lifetime bans are difficult to enforce. He suspended the pitcher for life in June 1992 for Howe's seventh incident related to drugs or alcohol, but Howe was reinstated that November by arbitrator George Nicolau.
Despite that, Vincent feels current Commissioner Bud Selig should not be reticent about pursuing a stiff penalty against Rodriguez.
"I think he ought to come down very hard. I don't think he has much to lose, and everything to gain," Vincent said.
Rodriguez has been a non-factor in the Yankees' season, and much of his $28 million salary this year is being covered by insurance. He is owed an additional $86 million in salary over the next four seasons.
Costas sees a rules change regarding the salary in long-term contracts as the most effective deterrent to drug use. He says management and players should reopen the labor contract and add a new provision.
"If you are found to have used PEDs and you exhaust your appeals ... and you're in the midst of a long-term contract, the team has the right at its discretion to void the contract," he said. "That's an enormous disincentive."