WASHINGTON — When the 2007 baseball season began, Alex Rodriguez was still one of the sport’s untarnished stars, the home-run-hitting antidote to Barry Bonds and other sluggers who had already been linked to the use of performance-enhancing substances.
That season, playing third base for the New York Yankees, Rodriguez led the major leagues with 54 home runs and 156 runs batted in, and he went on to be awarded with his third Most Valuable Player award. After the season, he audaciously opted out of his existing 10-year contract, which had been the biggest one in the sport, and then signed an even larger deal to stay with the Yankees, this time for $275 million over 10 years.
But what has not been known until now is that Rodriguez, during that standout season, took the performance-enhancing drug testosterone with the blessing of the doctor who oversaw Major League Baseball’s drug-testing program.
According to a new book, “Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era,’’ which was written by Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts and which was excerpted on Sports Illustrated’s website Wednesday, Rodriguez applied for and was granted a therapeutic use exemption to use testosterone by baseball’s drug doctor, Bryan W. Smith. A year later, the authors wrote, Smith gave Rodriguez another exemption to use the drug clomid, which is typically used by bodybuilders to boost their production of testosterone after they cycle off the use of steroids.
The fact that Rodriguez was allowed to use these substances is particularly embarrassing for Commissioner Bud Selig, who has spent a good part of the last decade toughening baseball’s drug-testing regimen and pushing it to the forefront of professional sports. To a considerable degree, he has been able to do so, which has allowed him to recast his initial legacy as the commissioner who allowed drug use to go unchecked in the sport in the 1990s.
But the disclosure that baseball gave Rodriguez, who has subsequently emerged as baseball’s No. 1 drug offender, a green light to use drugs in 2007 and 2008 will raise new questions about how baseball’s therapeutic use exemptions are granted and how the program operated in the latter part of the last decade.
On Wednesday, after the book excerpts appeared, the commissioner’s office said it did not know in either 2007 or 2008 that Rodriguez had been given permission to use the drugs in question and defended Smith’s actions in letting him do so.
“All decisions regarding whether a player shall receive a therapeutic use exemption under the joint drug program are made by the independent program administrator in consultation with outside medical experts, with no input by either the office of the commissioner or the players association,’’ it said in a statement.
The statement went on to say that the standard for receiving a therapeutic exemption for a medication considered a performance-enhancing substance was “stringent’’ and that only a few such exemptions were issued each year by baseball’s program.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez received one.
It is not clear exactly how Rodriguez made his initial case to Smith in 2007 so that he could use testosterone. According to one baseball official, who declined to be named because he did not want to be quoted publicly discussing a major league player, Rodriguez used a doctor to provide medical information to Smith about his condition, which the book identified as hypogonadism, which occurs when the body does not produce enough natural testosterone.
According to the book, Major League Baseball’s top drug-testing official, Rob Manfred, testified about the 2007 exemption in connection with the appeal that Rodriguez filed last fall after he was hit with an initial 211-game suspension because of his involvement in the Biogenesis drug-distribution scandal in South Florida.
In that testimony, the book said, Manfred said that testosterone was “the mother of all anabolics,’’ a powerful performance-enhancer.
Exemptions to use such substances in baseball, Manfred went on to say in the testimony, were “very rare.’’ He said that was because “some people who have been involved in this field feel that with a young male, healthy young male, the most likely cause of low testosterone requiring this type of therapy would be prior steroid abuse.’’
Yet while Rodriguez’s request to use testosterone in 2007 may have been a tipoff that he had previously used steroids as a major leaguer, it apparently did not deter Smith, who went forward with approving it.
“If you have a player who has low testosterone because he has used for years and is no longer using, do you treat him or not?’’ the baseball official said Wednesday in defending Smith’s decision back in 2007. Of Rodriguez, he said: “Everyone knows now that he’s a steroid user, but at the time we didn’t have anything to go on.’’
In 2012, Smith was dismissed as the doctor overseeing the drug program because the players union felt that he had made it too difficult for players to receive exemptions, according to two baseball officials. However, Smith still oversees baseball’s minor-league testing program, which is outside the union’s domain.
It was only in 2009 that Rodriguez admitted that he had previously used steroids. That admission came in response to a report in Sports Illustrated that he had tested positive in 2003, when Major League Baseball conducted its first drug testing, on an anonymous, nonpunitive basis.
When he made his 2009 admission, Rodriguez said he had used performance enhancers while playing for the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003 but had stopped doing so after joining the Yankees for the 2004 season.
In 2010, Rodriguez was linked to a Toronto-based doctor, Anthony Galea, who had treated Rodriguez after he underwent hip surgery and who had subsequently been arrested on charges of smuggling performance-enhancing drugs into the United States from Canada. Rodriguez later testified before a federal grand jury in connection with the case and Galea ultimately reached a plea agreement.
Rodriguez avoided any punishment from baseball until he was suspended by Selig last year in connection with baseball’s investigation into the activities of the now-defunct Biogenesis clinic.
Rodriguez received a 211-game ban, and fought it. That led to the arbitration hearing last fall, Manfred’s testimony, and now, the disclosure of the drugs that Rodriguez was allowed to use in 2007 and 2008. As for Rodriguez’s suspension, it was eventually reduced to 162 games, which will keep him from playing until 2015.
As for Selig, the disclosure that Rodriguez had drug exemptions in 2007 and 2008 adds an uncomfortable footnote to the efforts he was making back then to convince Congress that he and the players union had the ability to police doping in baseball.
It also raises renewed questions about the therapeutic exemption program, which first came under fire in 2008 after it was disclosed, during a congressional hearing, that the number of players receiving drug exemptions for attention deficit disorder had mushroomed to 103 in 2007 from 28 the previous year.
The clear inference at the hearing was that the increase came from players who were trying to get around baseball’s 2006 ban on amphetamines by claiming an attention disorder that would allow them to use stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. In the wake of the hearing, the number of those exemptions has stabilized.