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In Baseball, Punishments Often Come With An Asterisk

By suspending New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez for 211 regular-season games — through the end of the 2014 regular season — Major League Baseball stopped short of the lifetime ban that had been threatened.

But a look at MLB's history shows that its lifetime bans often have translated into suspensions that last only months, or even weeks. And the current rules say that players who earn a lifetime ban for violating baseball's drug agreement can apply for reinstatement after two years away from the game.

Rodriguez's suspension could be delayed or reduced by an appeal. But by some measures, his ban for more than one season equals — or even exceeds — the punishment of players who were given lifetime bans in the past.

Consider the case of Ferguson "Fergie" Jenkins, the pitcher who was banned from baseball after a customs search found him to be in possession of drugs (cocaine, hashish, marijuana) in 1980. But within weeks, the ban was revoked in arbitration. Jenkins continued playing until 1983; he was voted into the Hall of Fame eight years later.

Like Jenkins, Rodriguez faces punishment in his late 30s, toward the end of an accomplished career.

In 1992, left-handed relief pitcher Steve Howe was banned after prolonged struggles with cocaine and alcohol. He was reinstated five months later. Howe retired in 1996; he died 10 years later, in a car crash.

In the past 50 years, Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose is reportedly the only player whose lifetime ban has been sustained. But the agreement that brought Rose's ban also includes a clause that allows him to apply for reinstatement periodically.

One of the longest bans in baseball was levied upon Ray Fisher of the Reds, who was banned in 1921 when he left the team to coach baseball at the University of Michigan. The former pitcher's banishment stood for nearly 60 years, until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reinstated him in 1980. Fisher died in 1982.

You can read more about Rose, Jenkins, and other players who have face MLB punishment in the slideshow we've assembled, above.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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