In baseball and comedy, the term “screwball” has roughly the same meaning — something that breaks in a wildly unexpected direction. Or a series of them, in the case of director Billy Corben’s new documentary Screwball, which shines a light on the comedy of errors that led to the 2013 Biogenesis scandal, arguably the biggest in Major League Baseball history. Named for the Miami-area clinic where an unlicensed doctor dispensed performance-enhancing drugs to a variety of athletes, the affair blew up after a whistleblower walked off with boxes of medical records and leaked to a local indie paper. The records — which proved that pro baseball players were intentionally using banned substances — were then stolen from the whistleblower’s car trunk and sold, leading to the suspension of 14 Major Leaguers including All-Stars Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
The film focuses on the misadventures of the shady doctor, Anthony Bosch; the angry whistleblower, a patient-turned-disgruntled-business-partner; and Rodriguez and MLB’s race to buy back the damning evidence. Corben and producing partner Alfred Spellman, best known for the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, an exploration of the Seventies and Eighties Miami drug trade, retell the story the MLB and Rodriguez want forgotten as a memorably madcap caper. The film’s tagline is “A Batsh*t Tale of Steroids, Schemers and Baseball Stars,” but when I spoke with Corben his description of Screwball (which is in theaters March 29th and available on VOD April 5th) was even more uncensored: “Florida fuckery distilled — like freebasing Florida fuckery and crony capitalism.”
You’d made Cocaine Cowboys and the ESPN 30 for 30 film The U, about the sordid rise of the University of Miami’s athletic programs in the Eighties, so you knew about drugs and sports in South Florida. But when did you first decide this story was going to be your next film?
In November of 2013, we got a call from Alex Rodriguez’s publicist, who said, “Alex would like to meet.” This was in the midst of his arbitration with MLB [over the length of his suspension, which was eventually reduced from 211 to 150 games]. We figured we’d meet at a quiet place. Instead they made it a power lunch at [Coral Gables, Florida, restaurant] Hillstone’s at like high noon. Alex is holding court at a back-center booth, on literally an elevated platform. So we were escorted down the center aisle right to Alex, up on a stage. My ice-breaker was actually “So, who’s gonna call Page Six, you or us?” It did appear in Page Six. I’d never felt like such a pawn on a chessboard before in my life. This was, as it turns out, all part of this kinda hastily coordinated PR offensive against Major League Baseball, to look like Alex was going to quote-unquote tell all.
Was there ever a real chance Rodriguez was going to come clean to you? Would his team even have allowed that?
They weren’t interested in really doing anything. A-Rod lied to everybody. Everybody. So I don’t take it personally. I make documentaries. When people ask me what I do for a living I’m like, “People lie to me for a living, that’s what I do.” I wasn’t offended or anything. Alex was trying to desperately salvage his reputation and his legacy and his career. And listen, [then-commissioner] Bud Selig and MLB were doing exactly the same thing. The truth may have been on their side, but it was how they pursued it.
Screwball’s release was planned to coincide with the start of baseball’s regular season, but it’s also following on the heels of A-Rod’s engagement to Jennifer Lopez. And he’s reinvented himself as a TV broadcaster for MLB and a real-estate magnate. Is his is radical image rehab now complete?
Well, I’m sure it was a total coincidence they got engaged the day after our trailer came out. I think it’s extraordinary. This is the guy who was never beloved. He was booed by his own fans, for crying out loud. Without so much as a mea culpa tour, he hasn’t rehabilitated his image, he’s created an entirely new one that never existed before. He’s now this beloved pop culture figure. My mom knows who he is — she calls him J.Lo’s boyfriend. It’s pretty impressive. I think it’s going to be a PR case study that people will teach in colleges.
Life in general is turning into the WWE. Like, when Alex was useful as a heel, he was the villain. When Bud Selig needed to salvage his own reputation as the steroid commissioner and was trying some kind of redemption and legacy-saving measures, Alex was the villain. And now that Bud Selig’s gone, [current commissioner] Rob Manfred, who was responsible for this entirely botched, potentially illegal investigation of Biogenesis, ascends [within MLB] into a position of power and decides, “Oh, Alex is an ally.” They let bygones be bygones now? Like after the shitshow that they put each other through? It certainly goes to show how not legitimate MLB’s concerns are about steroids and shooting up in baseball, because it’s obviously good for business.
Did you hear anything from Rodriguez or Major League Baseball as you were making this film?
No. But I’ll say that Alex and J.Lo can be my guests to any screening they’d like. Rob Manfred has to buy a ticket. To your point, we knew that we were dealing with very moneyed and litigious people and organizations, so we were meticulous. We’ve been making documentaries for almost 20 years, and this was our most meticulously researched piece. I don’t care about steroids. But what kind of role models are these men who lie, cheat and steal to get ahead? And that, to me, is what Screwball is about. It’s what I call the “New American Values.” And where we used to teach our kids honesty, integrity, tell the truth, do unto others as you’d have done unto you, now the message is: “Lie, cheat and steal, kids, and you too can be the highest-paid player in baseball history”; “Lie, cheat and steal, kids, and you too can be the commissioner of baseball”; “Lie, cheat and steal, kids, and you too can be President of the United States.”
People have remarked on the fact Tony Bosch looks a bit like Michael Cohen. But Bosch comes off strangely sympathetic, despite the fact he’s prescribing steroids to kids, cops and college and pro athletes, and blew the fortune he made on coke-fueled benders. Was that your intention?
Yeah. He’s a bit of a rascal. Tony is just a product of his environment, which is highly permissive. You have to understand: Miami is a gray-market economy. We exist in the gray here. There is no indigenous industry. We subsist from hustle to hustle. And usually people have multiple hustles, and their side-hustles got side-hustles. It’s a sunny place for shady people. It always has been. You see that in this case. You have a bunch of criminals from different places sort of hatching an insane conspiracy to steal stolen medical records and sell them not to the highest bidder, but to every bidder — every single one.
Well, both A-Rod and MLB were willing to pony up.
Here’s a funny thing: Alex actually paid six figures for a blank hard-drive. It had video of MLB buying the stolen records in the diner, but the guy got nervous and deleted it. Alex still bought a hard-drive. They allegedly sent it around the world to data recovery services, and weren’t able to recover it. So Alex is paying six figures for a blank fucking hard-drive, for crying out loud.
Among the other notable names in those records is the singer Jon Secada, who was treated by Bosch at Biogenesis. Was he bidding to buy them back too?
[Laughs] Well, Jon Secada was very clearly and publicly suddenly in very good shape. You know, showing up with his top off or what have you… Shirtless and svelte. But Jon Secada was not an athlete, you know? And I have no doubt that Jon Secada thought that Tony was a real doctor, prescribing legitimate HGH and testosterone, and administering safe and legal substances.
Bosch never took the advice Stringer Bell gave in The Wire: Don’t take notes on a criminal conspiracy. Bosch kept notebooks full of his steroid protocols for, among others Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun and A-Rod, who he called A-Rod. Couldn’t think up a code or at least a better nickname?
There’s total inconsistency in his nicknames, too. Sometimes there’s nicknames, and sometimes there’s not. He put Alex, he put A-Ro, he put A-Rod…. But I think it speaks to the hubris. I also think it speaks for the addiction. I mean, the man was pretty candid about his drug problem, and the fact that he was partying too much. And if he had just continued to operate sanely, it’s possible he could still be going now, you know?
The crazy, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction thing about this story is that Bosch’s multimillion-dollar Biogenesis empire all came undone because of ’roid rage, in a sense. When Porter Fischer, Bosch’s patient and business partner, blew the whistle he was pretty angry — over money.
Yeah, really what we were attracted to — and why we were like, oh, wait, A-Rod is not the story here — is the idea that the highest-paid baseball player in history’s career was ended over a $4,000 debt between a cocaine-addicted fake doctor and his fake-tan-addicted steroid patient, who blew the whistle on the whole thing. I mean it’s just too batshit to believe. When you meet Tony Bosch and Porter Fischer you know that they’re the story, you know what I mean? Alex Rodriguez was collateral damage, as Porter says.
A-Rod was a marked man, though. Rob Manfred, who led Major League Baseball’s investigation into Biogenesis, was willing to buy medical records he knew were stolen to get the goods on Rodriguez. Were you surprised at the lengths MLB would go to expose A-Rod?
No. I mean, how would you expect a multibillion monopoly to behave? They have their own internal law enforcement that behaves however it wants with no accountability. Then everybody signs NDAs so there’s no transparency either. Their business model has been, as with all the professional sports leagues, to go around pleading poverty to every municipality, to get taxpayers to finance venues, to get taxpayers to be on the hook for everything that they do. Privatize profits and socialize losses. And our government has allowed them to behave that way. And when a couple guys take too much vitamin C, they get dragged in front of Congress. But only the workers, mind you — not the owners, not the management or the commissioners — get raked over the coals.
The baseball player most raked over the coals for steroid use, Jose Canseco, recently came out of the woodwork and accused A-Rod of cheating on J.Lo with his ex-wife on Twitter. Are you surprised there’s bad blood among juicers?
Canseco’s a wild man. I don’t know if what he’s saying is true or not, but it certainly makes for good Twitter, man. And Canseco was the villain of this era for a long time. His book Juicing is like the Steele Dossier on steroids in baseball. Everybody thought it was a bunch of bullshit when it first came out, and then slowly but surely it got verified, and everybody’s like, “Ohhhhh.” In a certain way, Canseco sort of took the bullet for a lot of guys in this world. He’s this villain, this quote-unquote disgraced former cheater, and Alex is all good. I understand Canseco’s frustration, and I can appreciate the frustration of other guys who paid a price. I mean, look at Lance Armstrong — that guy would apologize to anyone that would listen. He’s got one nut and no one wants to talk to that guy.
Speaking of wild, you made the unorthodox choice to use young kids, in costumes and wigs, to re-enact the scenes between Rodriguez, Ramirez, Bosch, Fischer and the rest. Where did you get the idea for an underage Drunk History on steroids?
Listen, everybody acted like children in this story, and that’s what ultimately led us to cast kids. I said, “Oh shit, we can Drunk History this, and all the actors will be eight years old!” But the original inspiration was Spike Jonze’s video for Biggie’s “Sky’s the Limit.” Jonze had an interesting challenge doing a video for a posthumous artist and his solution was: I’m just gonna do the video, straight-faced, Bad Boy Records, late-Nineties music video with all the tropes — the fancy cars and the mansion and the girls and the hot tubs and the Versace — but they’re all gonna be eight-year-olds lip-syncing the song. I always loved that and thought it would come in handy at some point.
It’s not revealing a huge spoiler to note that as the credits roll we see those kids, out of costume, frolic on a baseball diamond, reminding us of the innocence baseball has lost thanks to its stars. After everything that’s transpired, is the game still America’s pastime?
Of course baseball is still America’s pastime — it’s filled with lying, cheating and stealing.