The central question, maybe, is the one asked quite seriously midway through Screwball: “How could you possibly do that much drugs?”
Such is the tenor of director Billy Corben’s new documentary, a deep dive into the Biogenesis doping saga, which in 2013 led Major League Baseball to issue suspensions against some of baseball’s biggest stars, including then-Yankee and now beloved retiree Alex Rodriguez. South Florida–bred Corben, whose previous work includes 30 for 30’s The U, a look at the University of Miami football program in the 1980s, and Cocaine Cowboys, an exploration of the 1970s Miami drug war, has a way with the Florida Man. Here he applies that lens—less rose-colored than able to pick up the full spectrum of panhandle oddities—to steroid skulduggery. (“Yeah, we tell a lot of stories about Miami, drugs, and sports—which are all very interconnected themes,” he told WBUR’s Only a Game last month.) His take on the scandal, equal parts documentary and dramedy, is fun, strange, colorful, and generally too absurd to be believed, except that everything therein is recent history.
A quick refresher for anyone feeling rusty on baseball’s last major PED dustup: In 2012, a man named Tony Bosch, who was not exactly a doctor (he had a medical degree from a dubiously credentialed school in Belize and was not licensed to practice in the United States) but was, in his view, not exactly not a doctor (he had a white coat and a stethoscope), opened Biogenesis, a health clinic in Coral Gables, Florida. There, under the aegis of Florida’s minimally regulated anti-aging industry, he furnished clients with a variety of, ahem, solutions, including testosterone and human growth hormone. The latter, in particular, allegedly caught the interest of a number of MLB players, some of whom—including Manny Ramirez and Bartolo Colón, whom Bosch nicknamed “DUI” (womp, womp)—tested positive for PEDs.
This occurred during the final days of the commissionership of Bud Selig, whose 23-year reign over Major League Baseball just so happened to coincide with the sport’s late-’90s steroid boom (see: the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which was, among other things, very good for ratings) and early-aughts steroid reckoning, wherein the Bay Area–based (and Barry Bonds–implicating) BALCO scandal caused such a ruckus that no less a body than the U.S. Congress launched an investigation, eventually publishing the Mitchell Report in 2007. By 2013, the league was keen on making sure that everyone—players, fans, members of Congress—knew they were Very Serious about policing PED use, and suspended Ramirez, Colón, and other Biogenesis clients who failed drug tests. Eventually, after a most Floridian knockout punch of infighting and an expensive cocaine habit, Biogenesis went belly up, right around the time that MLB got wind of the clinic’s full client list, which included bigger stars yet. Enter A-Rod.
Screwball suggests that even if you remember the broad contours of the saga, you might not recall the unbridled seediness and bumbling incompetence of virtually everyone involved, from Biogenesis to Major League Baseball to the Department of Health. As MLB’s investigation—one neither beholden to nor, as becomes apparent, particularly interested in the rule of law—got underway, there were payoffs and illicit romances and double-crossings galore. “Fraud,” one principal tells us, “is basically the unofficial state business of Florida.” And so it is.
Bosch is an enthusiastic participant in Screwball, as are a number of other primary sources with varying degrees of self-awareness: Porter Fischer, the Biogenesis associate who blew the whole thing open and refers to himself as a “tanning professional”; Jerome Hill, a frazzled Department of Health investigator; and Tim Elfrink, the Miami New Times reporter who first published many of the Biogenesis revelations, and who is given the tall order of explaining both the scandal and, well, Florida. The documentary flips between their narration and reenactments, which are, and I swear that I am not messing with you, carried out by a cast of young kids getting spray tans and chomping Tums. Seriously, go check out the IMDb page.
But there is one notable person who absolutely did not agree to participate in the making of Screwball: Alex Rodriguez.
In this era of Emmy-winning commentary, charming interviews, and J.Lo engagement, you may faintly recall a time when A-Rod was not so widely loved. Loathed by Yankees fans and people who loathe Yankees fans alike, he preened and strutted and chomped on popcorn mashed into his face by Cameron Diaz.
After he was named as one of Biogenesis’s clients, A-Rod aggressively appealed his MLB suspension (which lasted the entire 2014 season), at one point throwing a fit during his arbitration meeting with MLB officials that included kicking someone’s (eventual Selig successor Rob Manfred’s?) briefcase and then storming out to go on WFAN. Screwball captures those scenes, plus much more that calls Rodriguez’s recent charm offensive into question: Bosch accuses him of throwing his own teammate’s Biogenesis habit into the open to get the heat off himself, while others describe him bribing and threatening anyone he could in his attempts to keep his name clean.
America’s sweetheart he is not. But there’s one thing he can’t deny: From the day his family moved to Miami when he was a child, A-Rod has been a Florida Man. Settle in and let Screwball show you his natural habitat. Just don’t forget to take your Tums.