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'Screwball' Documentary Explores Miami's Connection To MLB's Steroid Scandal

Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
Blake McCall as Alex Rodriguez at the plate in the film Screwball. Director Billy Corben used children to re-enact scenes from the documentary.

A film now streaming on Netflix explores the massive steroids scandal that rocked Major League Baseball and its deep roots in Miami.

"Screwball," directed by Billy Corben, takes viewers back to the 1990s and 2000s in South Florida when elite baseball players like Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez purchased performance enhancing substances through the former company BioGenesis.

BioGenesis owner and founder Anthony Bosch made millions of dollars selling steroids to baseball’s elite athletes and high school stars aspiring for a chance to play in the major leagues. Corben, whose Rakontur media studio produced documentaries like "Cocaine Cowboys" and the ESPN 30 for 30 films' "The U," spoke with Luis Hernandez on Sundial about bringing the story back into the spotlight.

WLRN: When did the idea to make this film start with you?

Corben: It started in November of 2013 when I got a call from Alex Rodriguez's publicist to be precise, who said that Alex was in the midst of the arbitration with Major League Baseball in New York at their headquarters. Alex had been given the longest suspension in the history of the game and he was the only one of the players in the 13 or so involved in the Biogenesis steroids scandal who was appealing his suspension. So this was kind of dragging the story out and Alex was engaging at the time in — we'll call it a PR offensive — against Major League Baseball. And meeting with Alfred Spellman, my producing partner and I, was part of that offensive. He was proactively shopping his story around perhaps up a book.

It was described to us as a meeting to explore the possibility of a tell-all documentary and we thought we were going to meet in his office. We were told he had an office in Coral Gables and we were going to meet kind of quietly on the down low because I thought this was a sensitive issue. Instead they said meet us at noon, at Hillstones on the corner of Miracle Mile and Ponce de Leon which has to be the most prominent intersection in the city of Coral Gables. And it was slammed when we walked in and we realized very quickly that, we were on display here. We're very specifically kind of being carted out so that people will see us with Alex.

An important character in this story is Porter Fisher, basically the guy who brought down Biogenesis. But who was Fisher?

Corben: Yeah, I guess, he's the whistleblower in the Biogenesis case. He is a Miami man, as well. Born and raised in Miami, I attended Christopher Columbus High School actually at an overlapping time period with Tony Bosch and Alex Rodriguez. Alex attended as only a freshman at Columbus. Porter is an interesting character. He was a guy who was kind of looking for a place to fit in and found that at the 24-hour tanning salon Boca Tanning in South Miami, across from University of Miami right by Sunset Place, and it's gone now. But it was open 24 hours and he would hang out there.

He described himself as Norm at the end of the bar in "Cheers." He was there at all hours. I don't know hanging out, chatting up coeds, I don't really know but that became his world and then when Tony Bosch came in and started his anti-aging clinic inside the tanning salon originally, pre-Biogenesis. Porter went in, got a protocol from Dr. Tony as he was called, and I'm doing air quotes. That's how he started. Tony was providing anti-aging services, human growth hormone, testosterone for just laypeople. People looking to lose weight, build muscle, reverse the effects of aging. And that's when word of mouth started to spread and then the athletes started to come in.

Your documentary has re-enactment scenes. You used children as the actors in the reenactment. Where did that idea come from?

Corben: I got the idea from my friend Jack. Jack Daniels. We were up late one night together and I was looking for a solution. What do they say, write drunk but edit sober. I was looking for a solution to a problem that we had. I didn't have sports footage here. You know, we do a documentary like "The U" for example and you have athletes or coaches or the press are talking about sports games, you talk to the sports people and you use the sports footage intercut with them right. So there was no sports footage here. This isn't about baseball. They only cite two or three baseball games in the entire documentary. What do we do for the other hour and 40 minutes to support the stories being told? We did a lot of fact checking, I'll tell you that.

But then we needed to find some way to depict this, to have B-roll, to have something on screen as a visual medium. It's not a podcast. So we needed to do something and I realized "Oh crap" we are going to have to do reenactments. And the reason why I say "Oh, crap" is as a documentarian, I don't really like reenactments. First of all, they're very tough to do and they can be very expensive and very complicated and they're not real. You know you're a documentarian, you're transmitting facts and you want everything to be authentic. You want to use actual news, archive footage, real pictures but we only had so much of that. How do you to pick these events that occurred in locker rooms, at Liv nightclub, in sports bars and how do you how do you do that? We needed a solution that gibed with the story and they were all acting so childlike, so why not use children.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.