By Jonathon Norcross
Billy Corben’s documentary Screwball, now streaming on Netflix, is a delightfully horrifying story about a fake Miami doctor and the Major League Baseball steroid era. The film uses child actors in its recreations to portray a cast of characters who at their best are charming doofuses and at their worst are pretty much full-on sociopaths. Covering similar ground as the book Blood Sport: A-Rod and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era by Gus Garcia-Roberts and Tim Elfrink (who is heavily featured in this film), Screwball somehow succeeds at being wildly entertaining, hilarious, adorable, shocking, and insightful all at once. It offers a powerful condemnation of Major League Baseball and its current commissioner Rob Manfred. The film suggests what we now know is certainly true: the steroid era was not a fluke or aberration. MLB, in many ways, is a shady and dishonest organization deserving of constant scrutiny.
Consider the following revelations presented in Screwball:
- When MLB launched an investigation into steroid use among its players, they created a department of investigations that paid people off for information.
- One of the investigators slept with a witness.
- Rob Manfred, then the head of the investigation into the Miami “doctor” that supplied Yankees star Alex Rodriguez with PEDs, authorized the payment of $100,000 in cash to a convicted felon in exchange for stolen documents.
This is the same MLB that unfurls the world’s largest American flags before opening day. The same MLB that presents its product as a sacred American pastime.
Consider also that these shady dealings were undertaken in response to even shadier dealings. Alex Rodriguez, who somehow has been resurrected as J Lo’s fun hubby, lied to everyone for nearly 2 years about using PEDs before prosecutors and the DEA forced him to confess. He was the client of an unlicensed physician (aka fake doctor) who orchestrated a scheme that allowed A-Rod to cheat without being caught. According to this “doctor,” in one of Screwball’s best scenes, he lost a vial of A-Rod’s blood on the floor of a Miami nightclub. (Watching the child actors playing A-Rod and his fake doctor scurry around the dance floor trying to find a vial of blood while Pitbull performs in the background is arguably one of the best recreations in any documentary ever made.)
The outrageousness of this story renders Screwball, appropriately enough, a farcical comedy with some nods to Goodfellas (the piano cue played during a montage of arrests is an obvious reference to the famous “Layla” montage in Scorsese’s masterpiece).
Beneath the slapstick, however, is an indictment of MLB’s failure to catch all the cheating players in the first place and its bungled attempts to investigate and punish those at fault. Learning these lessons from Screwball, it’s pretty much impossible not to see similar shades of corruption and buffoonery in the more recent sign-stealing scandal. The Houston Astros, who were World Series champions in 2017 and appeared in the World Series last year, orchestrated a scheme that was simultaneously sophisticated and involved someone literally banging on a trash can in order to communicate with batters. It was an odd mix of ingenuity and stupidity, much like the steroid scandal presented in Screwball. Watching Screwball today, one is amazed (through tears of laughter) that such events could’ve possibly occurred, yet somehow not at all surprised that America’s signature sport is so hopelessly corrupt.