“Blood Sport” Misses the Mark

Alex Rodriguez's vanity has been well documented, but the authors still regurgitated it (via Keith Allison).

Alex Rodriguez’s vanity has been well documented, but the authors still regurgitated it (via Keith Allison).

It has now been over a year since the Biogenesis suspensions were handed down. It was, in the moment, considered one of the biggest scandals to ever hit baseball. One year later, it’s hard to tell it even happened. Jhonny Peralta is in the first year of a $53 million contract. Nelson Cruz leads the league in home runs. Ryan Braun is still batting third in the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup and is still cheered voraciously by their fans. Alex Rodriguez is preparing for a comeback in 2015 and just bought a $4.8 million mansion from Meryl Streep.

Major League Baseball is as it always was. The impact of Biogenesis is scantly recognizable to the baseball fan or anybody else without access to the league’s inner institutional workings. For all the talk about Biogenesis as a massive scandal, perhaps the biggest since the 1919 Black Sox, it’s hard to find a way in which Biogenesis actually matters now, unless you think the Yankees would have been contenders in 2014 with Alex Rodriguez at third base.

But the Biogenesis story was not just about Major League Baseball and the players implicated in the scandal. The story has a massive scope, ranging from the effect of poverty on the life of young ballplayers, to the lax regulations on the medical industry in Florida, to the massive spending and ethical violations committed by MLB’s investigative force. The new book Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era comes directly from those who have reported on the scandal since its beginning, Miami New Times reporter Tim Elfrink and Newsday reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts. The book promised to deliver details beyond what had yet been reported in newspapers.

And how many potential delicious details existed beneath the surface of this seedy story? It was blown open not by MLB’s investigators nor the FBI nor the Florida Department of Health, but by a 40-something compulsive tanner willing to go to all lengths to exact revenge against a fake doctor with a degree from a Belizean medical college over a mere $4,000. This is high drama capable of showing just how deep sport penetrates into society, and just who Major League Baseball is willing to deal with in order to sell its workers out.

These stories — the story of Porter Fischer, the fomerly flabby steroid hog and tanning connossieur who became the “marketing director” of Biogenesis, the story of Gary Jones a.k.a. “Bobby from Boca,” the ex-con who robbed Fischer of the smoking records and sold them to MLB’s cops, and the story of Dan Mullin, the leader of MLB’s department of investigations, who gave “Bobby from Boca” hundreds of thousands of dollars for the stolen records and continued his history of affairs with witnesses — are fascinating. They show the depravity of the steroid black market, and more illuminating, the depravity of baseball’s multi-million dollar brand police.

“We spent a lot of money on the investigation,” Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred admitted when pressed by Alex Rodriguez’s attorney, Joe Tacopina, during Rodriguez’s arbitration hearing. Elfrink and Garcia-Roberts counted at least $876,000 on bodyguards for Tony Bosch, $125,000 for his notebooks, and another $1 million for Bosch’s lawyers. That total, in excess of $2 million, accounts solely for the cash spent directly on Bosch. It does not include the substantial lawyer fees for Rodriguez’s arbitration case, investigators hired to snoop around South Florida, and the traveling expenses for MLB’s in-house investigators like Mullin.

One of the new scoops in Blood Sport concerned Mullin and his sexual proclivities. In 2011, the former NYPD deputy chief was accused of using a sexual relationship with a DEA employee in California for access to confidential pharmaceutical information about an ongoing steroid case. Only two major leaguers were suspended for performance enhancing drug us in 2011: Mike Jacobs and Manny Ramirez. Judging by the California location, the case in question is almost certainly Ramirez’s. MLB investigated the claims but did not publicly punish Mullin. Mullin claims to have no knowledge of any investigation into his actions. But the actions of Mullin and the rest of MLB’s Department of Investigations (DOI) throughout the Biogenesis saga suggests the 2011 allegations are entirely plausible.

Lorraine Delgadillo was a registered nurse who worked under Bosch for years. After two interviews with Mullin and fellow DOI investigator Ed Maldonado, Mullin and Delgadillo swapped phone numbers and, according to text records obtained by Elfrink and Garcia-Roberts, began dating and had sex “at least twice.” Mullin excused the affair because Delgadillo had no knowledge of Bosch’s ties to baseball players and was thus outside the scope of the examination. But considering Mullin’s alleged history, the excuse rings hollow.

Mullin and the DOI’s other evidence-gathering strategies were hardly squeaky clean. Kevin O’Rourke, a local private investigator on the DOI’s payroll, posed as a Miami-Dade cop to gain entrance to the apartment of a former University of Miami baseball player and told him “MLB would sue him into destitution” if he didn’t cooperate. And indeed MLB did sue, naming him in the same Miami-Dade Civil Court case that eventually forced Bosch to surrender. When the former Hurricane player filed a demand to depose MLB’s investigators, MLB dropped him from the suit. Multiple people involved in the case signed sworn affidavits alleging harassment by the DOI, ranging from pressure on landlords to threats of deportation.

Mullin was dismissed from the DOI last spring, although the relationship with Delgadillo was not cited by Rob Manfred, then MLB’s chief operating officer. “We had two major investigations in two years, and we learned a lot,” Manfred told the New York Daily News. “We made a decision to have a more effective unit, and to do that we needed to make some structural changes.” Pefect PR speak, and Mullin had become bad PR. Four other unnamed DOI members were also fired as part of the “structural changes.”

The Department of Investigations was a product of the Mitchell Report, a direct suggestion from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. He suggested the department should be “led by a senior executive who reports directly to the commissioner” and should respond “vigorously to all serious allegations of performance-enhancing substance violations.” Bud Selig created the department within a month of Mitchell’s report, and although MLB does not release internal budgets, Elfrink and Garcia-Roberts report an estimated $7 million annual budget.

And what did MLB do with this budget? Mostly, it was spent on digging up dirt on teenagers in the Dominican Republic and across Latin America. The DOI was made responsible for investigations into the ages and identifications of Latin American players in 2009, a responsibility requiring “dozens of contractors around Latin America” according to Elfrink and Garcia-Roberts. The DOI’s impact was humongous in the case of top Twins prospect Miguel Sano. Nelson Tejada, another former NYPD officer who was assigned to Sano’s case by the DOI, conducted extensive interviews on Sano’s family and neighbors and ordered a “full bone scan” on Sano. Meanwhile, Pirates scout Rene Gayo offered Sano $2 million to sign with the Pirates, roughly 40 percent of the bonus many experts expected for the massive prospect. Sano claims Gayo offered “amnesty” from MLB’s investigation, and Tejada pushed Sano to sign with the Pirates.

“I don’t understand why Tejada would tell me to sign with the Pirates and they would stop the investigation,” Sano said, “That’s why I believe money was exchanged under the table.” Sano signed with the Twins for $3.15 million, his value deflated by the MLB investigation, even though the tests all eventually confirmed Sano’s age and identity. (For more on this story, see the documentary Pelotero: Ballplayer.)

Unfortunately, the DOI is but a small part of Blood Sport. The authors spend pages upon pages on tangential details sensationalizing the stories of Bosch and Rodriguez, such as Bosch’s cousin Orlando, a Cuban exile accused of terrorist acts and connected to Fidel Castro, even though Tony and Orlando never spoke and Tony’s immediate family rarely discussed him. Rodriguez’s consistent playoff failures are routinely brought up as evidence of his lack of character, despite the fact his .263/.369/.464 playoff slash line is scarcely distinguishable from Derek Jeter’s .308/.374/.465 career mark.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The authors were up against a difficult task. Blood Sport is meant not just to cater to baseball fans, but to the general scandal-loving public. Hardcore baseball fans, thanks to a trade media obsessed with degrading those who would dare take steroids and taint the all-important MLB brand, are predisposed to hate Rodriguez and find his actions horrific. But what of someone who doesn’t care about major league baseball, and specifically the integrity of its competition? How do you convince someone who doesn’t believe in an inherent immorality of steroid use that Rodriguez’s was a great evil?

Of the 400-plus pages of Blood Sport, roughly the first 250 can be described as exposition. Bosch’s life as a Miami failure is given in excruciating detail, building him up as a tragic hero who could never let go of his ambitions to become a respected doctor. Rodriguez’s personal life, similarly, builds him up as an eccentric and a control freak, willing to do anything to maintain his baseball career and reputation. Unfortunately, none of these details are new, nor do they serve any other purpose but to make the supposed scandal of Rodriguez’s steroid use more scandalous via the dirty histories of those involved. It is blatant sensationalism and takes away from the truly important stories of the book.

And there are real stories buried beneath MLB’s attempts to keep its brand clean. Bosch’s client records include multiple coaches and men otherwise involved with youth athletics in Miami. Multiple Bosch clients report seeing teenagers served at Biogenesis, and other names are marked “HS” or “high school.” The Florida Department of Health, thanks to its governor, Rick Scott, failed to investigate Bosch’s clinic even after a DOH investigator found Bosch had been practicing medicine without a license, a felony which could have landed Bosch in jail for a year even before accounting for his involvement with illegal steroid and HGH sales.

Between the DOH’s reluctance to investigate and MLB’s later offer of immunity for the fake doctor, powerful people did everything they could to ensure Bosch escaped without punishment despite selling dangerous drugs to minors, all without any licensed or accredited medical training, all in the service of business — the burgeoning anti-aging industry in Florida, the industry Rick Scott was involved in before heading into politics, and of course, the business of baseball. This corruption is rampant, and with high school and college sports still extremely important in American society in general and Florida in particular, young athletes remain at a high risk of being pushed into steroid or other PED use, whether via coaches, parents, or simply the ever-increasing pressure to perform.

But thanks to the need for juicy scandal, everything else takes a back seat as Elfrink and Garcia-Roberts gawk at the broken life of Tony Bosch and the well-documented narcissism of Alex Rodriguez. It shows a complete misunderstanding of why the story they spent so much time reporting on has value to the general public, and it’s a shame so much of the book’s space is wasted on a largely artificial story with no impact on anything other than Major League Baseball’s formidable brand. Why are the readers supposed to care about Rodriguez’s steroid use, or Braun’s, or Cruz’s, or anybody else? Blood Sport assumes the evil of steroid use is self-evident, and in taking this view, the real issues of the story are missed.

There are about 150 pages of excellent work in Blood Sport, the pages detailing the DOI’s misdeeds and the odd figures who eventually led to Bosch’s downfall in Porter Fischer and Gary Jones. Unfortunately, Blood Sport is a 400-page book. Many of its key insights are drowned out by its insistence on amplifying a scandal relevant only to Major League Baseball’s public relations department, and the few new details are scarcely enough to justify its length.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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9 years ago

Of all the cudgels we use to show we are oh-so-much-smarter than Those Guys, I’ve never seen a sillier one than fondness for MLB steroid use. If sabermetrics was more important, it would make for a fascinating socio-psycho-cultural study. Man you guys are weird this way.

Paul G.
9 years ago

I’m not sure what the point of comparing A-Rod’s and Jeter’s slash lines. A-Rod is well established as the better hitter of the two. By the most superficial of analyis Jeter’s numbers in the playoffs outperform his regular season while A-Rod’s underperforms, though not by anything horrific. I do agree that playoff slash lines do not tell us much about Alex’s character or any other player for that matter.

As to your book review, I honestly have no idea what to make of it. I would think that a book covering a scandal would retread the old ground for the sake of readers who are not familiar with the whole story when it came out. It would be rude to skip over to the new stuff unless that was the point of the book. As to the information that you think should have been focused upon, was that in the book or are you providing additional information that the book lacked? It is difficult to gauge if the book is missing key facts or if those facts are simply not analyzed to your satisfaction.

Also, is this the only book out there about the scandal, or would you recommend something else. Yes, I know that it has been in the papers but that is not the same thing for someone learning about the subject now.