NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was suspended for a record 211 games on Monday for his involvement in one of American sport's biggest doping scandals.
Another 12 players, including three All Stars, were handed 50-game suspensions following a Major League Baseball investigation into a Florida clinic accused of supplying them with performance enhancing drugs.
"Despite the challenges this situation has created during a great season on the field, we pursued this matter because it was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do," MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
Rodriguez was suspended until the end of the 2014 season in what is the longest doping penalty ever handed out by MLB.
The highest-paid player in the sport, he stands to lose about $36 million if he serves the full suspension but immediately lodged an appeal against the ban.
"I'm fighting for my life," he said. "I have to defend myself. If I don't, no-one else will."
Under MLB rules, Rodriguez is allowed to play until his appeal has been heard. Hours after his suspension was announced, he played his first game of the season for the Yankees, who lost 8-1 to the Chicago White Sox.
Booed by spectators each time he came to the plate, Rodriguez batted four times for one hit.
The other 12 players all accepted offers of 50-game bans, which is about eight weeks in MLB. The bans will be completed just before the end of the regular season, allowing the players to rejoin their teams for the playoffs if they make it.
The dozen included three current All Stars - Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, San Diego Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera and Detroit Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
The others were: Philadelphia Phillies reliever Antonio Bastardo, New York Mets outfielder Jordany Valdespin, Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, Seattle Mariners catcher Jesus Montero, New York Mets outfield prospect Cesar Puello, San Diego Padres pitching prospect Fautino De Los Santos, Houston Astros pitching prospect Sergio Escalona, New York Yankees outfield prospect Fernando Martinez and free agent pitcher Jordan Norberto.
They were all treated as first-time offenders. Three more players - Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera, Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon and Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal - were also found to have connections with the Biogenesis clinic.
But they did not receive any additional sanctions because they had already served 50-game suspensions for failing doping tests.
The players' union said the 50-game bans were all fair but they would support Rodriguez's appeal.
"We believe that the Commissioner has not acted appropriately under the Basic Agreement," the union's executive director Michael Weiner said.
"Mr. Rodriguez knows that the union, consistent with its history, will defend his rights vigorously."
Selig said Rodriguez received a stiffer penalty because he was a long-time drug user who had committed other offences.
"Rodriguez's discipline under the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program is based on his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including Testosterone and human Growth Hormone, over the course of multiple years," Selig said.
"Rodriguez's discipline under the Basic Agreement is for attempting to cover-up his violations of the Program by engaging in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner's investigation."
Although Rodriguez had never previously been punished for doping, he had admitted to using steroids when he was with the Texas Rangers but said he stopped using them about a decade ago.
One of the greatest players the sport has seen, the 38-year-old is currently fifth on the all-time home runs list with 647 home runs but the ban threatens to ruin his prospects of overtaking Barry Bonds (762) as the all-time leader.
Any suspension would also cost him financially with Selig saying he would not be paid while he was serving his ban. Rodriguez earns around $25 million a season with the Yankees and is under contract to the end of 2017.
He has about $100 million left to be paid and stands to lose about a third of that if he is suspended until the end of next season.
"We are compelled to address certain reckless and false allegations concerning the Yankees' role in this matter," the team said in a statement.
"The New York Yankees in no way instituted and/or assisted MLB in the direction of this investigation; or used the investigation as an attempt to avoid its responsibilities under a player contract; or did its medical staff fail to provide the appropriate standard of care to Alex Rodriguez."
Before Monday, only one player had been suspended over the Biogenesis investigation, which was launched earlier this year following revelations about the anti-aging clinic published in a Miami newspaper.
Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, the National League's Most Valuable Player just two years ago, accepted a 65-game ban, ruling him out for the rest of this season.
"Although today will be a day of infamy for MLB, it is a tremendous step in the right direction for the game we love," Tweeted Tampa Rays third baseman Evan Longoria.
"All players may have been negatively affected by others selfishness."
MLB has a murky history concerning doping allegations and the sport's administrators have been heavily criticized in the past for a lax approach, including being accused of turning a blind eye to steroid use, not conducting enough tests and failing to impose stiff penalties.
Despite the recent "steroid era" where the sport's batting records were destroyed, no player had ever been suspended for more than 100 games before this latest investigation.
"Upon learning that players were linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, we vigorously pursued evidence that linked those individuals to violations of our program," Selig said.
"We conducted a thorough, aggressive investigation guided by facts so that we could justly enforce our rules."
The United States Anti-Doping Agency issued a statement applauding MLB for taking action.
"All clean athletes won an MVP award today," USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said.
"This is a strong and powerful message that their rights and the integrity of the game will be protected."
Reporting by Julian Linden; editing by Gene Cherry/Peter Rutherford