By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez will be suspended for the entire 2014 Major League Baseball (MLB) season and playoffs for doping after an independent arbitrator on Saturday rejected the All-Star third baseman's appeal.
A defiant Rodriguez said he would take the fight to clear his name all the way to federal court and according to reports has plans to take part in the Yankees' spring training next month.
Arbitrator Fredric Horowitz notified both MLB and the Players Association that Rodriguez, who is baseball's best paid player, "will be suspended for a period that includes 162 regular season games in the 2014 regular season as well as the entire 2014 post season", the league said in a statement.
The ban, the longest ever in baseball but reduced from his original 211-game suspension, will cost the 14-time All-Star $25 million in salary and cast an even darker shadow over his bid to claim MLB's home run throne.
The 38-year-old slugger currently sits fifth on the all-time home run list with 654. Barry Bonds, who was under investigation for performance-enhancing drugs during his career, tops the list with 762.
Rodriguez was handed the 211-game ban by the league last season after he was implicated in an investigation into the now shuttered Florida anti-aging clinic Biogenesis that is alleged to have distributed performance enhancing drugs.
He appealed the ruling and later sued both MLB and Commissioner Bud Selig, accusing them of trying to destroy his reputation and career.
"For more than five decades, the arbitration process under the Basic Agreement has been a fair and effective mechanism for resolving disputes and protecting player rights," MLB said in a statement.
"While we believe the original 211-game suspension was appropriate, we respect the decision rendered by the panel and will focus on our continuing efforts on eliminating performance-enhancing substances from our game."
The Yankees, who will still owe Rodriguez a total of $61 million for three more seasons plus bonuses for reaching home run milestones after he returns from his suspension, said in a statement that they accepted the arbitrator's decision.
"The New York Yankees respect Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, the arbitration process, as well as the decision released today by the arbitration panel," said the Yankees.
Rodriguez, who has never failed a drug test but admitted using performance-enhancing drugs early in his career, issued a lengthy statement maintaining his position that he has been the victim of an MLB witch hunt.
"The number of games sadly comes as no surprise, as the deck has been stacked against me from day one," said Rodriguez.
"This is one man's decision, that was not put before a fair and impartial jury, does not involve me having failed a single drug test, is at odds with the facts and is inconsistent with the terms of the Joint Drug Agreement and the Basic Agreement, and relies on testimony and documents that would never have been allowed in any court in the United States because they are false and wholly unreliable.
"I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged in the notice of discipline, or violate the Basic Agreement or the Joint Drug Agreement in any manner, and in order to prove it I will take this fight to federal court."
Commissioner Selig handed down the initial season-plus punishment last August for violating MLB's joint drug agreement through the three-time most valuable player's alleged involvement with the anti-aging clinic.
Thirteen other players were suspended for their alleged ties to the Biogenesis clinic, with 12 of them agreeing to 50-game suspensions, and former National League most valuable player Ryan Braun accepting a 65-game ban.
Rodriguez, in appealing the suspension, has denied any wrongdoing and argued he was singled out for excessive punishment by MLB and called into question the way evidence has been gathered in the case.
The soap opera looks set to drag onto the new season with A-Rod, as Rodriguez is popularly known, vowing to take his fight to the federal courts.
" I am confident that when a federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension," continued Rodriguez.
"No player should have to go through what I have been dealing with, and I am exhausting all options to ensure not only that I get justice, but that players' contracts and rights are protected...and arbitration process cannot be used against others in the future the way it is currently being used to unjustly punish me.
"I will continue to work hard to get back on the field and help the Yankees achieve the ultimate goal of winning another championship."
(Reporting Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes and Gene Cherry)