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Baseball's death penalty: Lifetime ban an option in A-Rod case, but rarely invoked

Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds in 1985, four years before he was banned from baseball. Rick Stewart / Getty Images

Baseball fans are waiting for the hammer to drop on one of the game’s biggest stars — Alex Rodriguez, the key figure in a vast steroid scandal.

Speculation is rampant over what will become of the New York Yankees player known simply as A-Rod,” and one option before Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is the most severe sanction in his power — lifetime ineligibility, baseball’s version of the death penalty.

For Rodriguez, whose 647 home runs place him fifth on the all-time list, the death penalty would stain his career in a way unseen since Pete Rose, who was banned in 1989 after he was accused of betting on Cincinnati Reds games while serving as the team's manager. He denied it until he published an autobiography, “My Prison Without Bars,” in 2004.

A lifetime ban is almost never invoked. Along with Rose, the other famous example was the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which eight players were banished for a questionable allegation that they conspired to lose the World Series.

But the Rodriguez case stands out, combining his enormous stature in the game with the unusual nature of the perceived offense. Rodriguez reportedly tried to buy documents from the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic to keep them away from baseball investigators.

“I don’t know if there’s a parallel for this particular moment,” John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

While Selig could pursue action against Rodriguez under baseball’s drug rules, the sport’s labor agreement also gives him the power to punish players for conduct “detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of baseball.”

NBC Sports’ HardballTalk, citing a source familiar with the investigation, reported Wednesday that baseball plans to ban Rodriguez for life if the two sides can’t settle.

In the event of a ban or even a suspension, Rodriguez appears ready to fight it. His lawyer, David Cornwell, told ESPN New York radio on Monday that he and Rodriguez were “focused on an appeal.”

Baseball understands that an independent arbitrator might commute the sentence, partly because Rodriguez has never been disciplined for performance-enhancing drugs, HardballTalk reported. But the league believes Rodriguez would still not be cleared of wrongdoing on appeal and would get a tough suspension — 150 games or more, almost a full season and on par with what baseball is offering him in the first place, according to the report.

The Associated Press has reported that the Yankees expect baseball to accuse Rodriguez of recruiting athletes for Biogenesis and of not being truthful with baseball about his ties to Dr. Anthony Galea, who has admitted bringing unapproved drugs into the United States from Canada.

Major League Baseball declined comment on the Biogenesis investigation. Rodriguez’s lawyer did not immediately return a request for comment.

The number of people given baseball’s ultimate punishment is a matter of debate among baseball historians but is generally estimated to be several dozen — mostly players, but with an occasional owner thrown out, too. Major League Baseball officially counts 19 people who were banned and never reinstated.

In the modern history of the game, the precedent was established by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner, who was brought in to clean up the sport after the Black Sox scandal.

He banned roughly two dozen players, including superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson, and sometimes for reasons other than gambling and game-fixing. Landis banished one player who was accused of stealing a car, and one for suggesting to another player, while drunk, that he would desert his own team if the reward was right — because he hated the manager.

'Shoeless' Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox uniform, 1919. Apa / Getty Images

Landis gave himself “authority that no one had,” said Daniel Okrent, who has written several books on the sport and is credited as the inventor of fantasy baseball. “He was a dictator.”

His successors have used the power much more judiciously, in part because of the establishment of the baseball players union, which secured the right for players to appeal lifetime bans to arbitrators.

Before Rose, it had been 45 years since anyone was banned without later being reinstated. The commissioner who imposed the ban on Rose was Bart Giamatti, a baseball romantic who spoke in reverent terms about the unique place the game holds in the American psyche, its “purchase on our national soul.”

“Let no one think that it did not hurt baseball,” he said of the Rose matter. “That hurt will pass, however, as the great glory of the game asserts itself and a resilient institution goes forward. Let it also be clear that no individual is superior to the game.”

Speculation about a suspension or ban has festered in the sport during a week when clubs are completing crucial last-minute trades and at the beginning of the two-month stretch that determines who makes the playoffs.

Even if Selig sought to ban Rodriguez under the clause that allows him to act to preserve the integrity of the game, Rodriguez would almost certainly get an appeal before an arbitrator.

Selig could try to bypass the arbitrator, but he has told the players union in a letter: “While I have difficulty seeing that this is a real problem, I am quite willing to assure the Association that the Commissioner will take no such action.”

And lifetime bans often don't last a lifetime. Ferguson Jenkins, who pitched for the Chicago Cubs and three other teams, was banned by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in August 1980 after a drug arrest. He was reinstated by an arbitrator less than a month later and voted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.

Steve Howe, who pitched primarily for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, was banned for life in 1992 after repeated drug arrests. He was reinstated after the season by an arbitrator and made scattered appearances over the next four seasons.

“This is always a flexible thing,” Thorn said Wednesday, before leaving home to moderate two panels at a convention of baseball historians and statisticians in Philadelphia. “America is a land of second chances, and baseball is, too.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.