As a life-long Dodger fan, I took the news of Manny Ramirez’s suspension for failing a drug test hard. After Ramirez came on board last year (the result of a bitter divorce with the Boston Red Sox that had Boston shipping the star slugger to L.A. complete with the balance of his salary for the year), the underachieving young Dodgers became world beaters.
The team had been a mediocre also-ran before Ramirez arrived for the last third of the season, but with him they charged into the playoffs (sweeping the Cubs in the first round before losing to the eventual world champion Phillies), as Manny hit close to .400 with power and run production to match. He elevated the offensive production of his new teammates as well, as if they all suddenly had learned how to make the most of their talent, instead of squandering it.
This year had been no different, perhaps even better. Over the first month of the season, Ramirez was hitting .350, helping the rest of the lineup to score runs in bunches as the team jumped out to a league-best 21 and 8 record, unbeaten in their first thirteen games at home.
Then, suddenly, the news broke. Ramirez had failed a random drug test, one of those required as part of the league’s seven-year effort to rid the sport of steroid use. His 50-game suspension began immediately. Details were at first sketchy, but now, two weeks later, it is clear that the drug Ramirez was taking is one that steroid users use to restore their testosterone levels. While Ramirez initially claimed he had received the prescription for the drug to deal with a “personal health issue,” it is now apparent that the “issue” was the typical drop in testosterone that steroid use can produce.
Put simply, Ramirez was cheating, thereby joining a too-long list of superstars of the sport who have succumbed to the temptation to take performance-enhancing drugs to enhance their performance. That list now includes these once Hall of Fame-bound players: Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Tejada, and, now, Ramirez.
As one who loves the sport, lives and dies with the team, and had fallen hook, line and sinker for the star, my reactions to Manny’s fall from grace are distinct and vivid.
As a fan of the sport, my reaction is extreme disappointment. The game is such a wondrous one, so perfectly conceived that even after over 150 years of play, a batter will still be thrown out by a step on a ground ball to the shortstop. It is the only game of the major team sports that is not controlled by a clock, the only game that is never over until the last out is recorded (or the tie-breaking run is scored), the only game that matches its history with that of the country that gave it its birth. This perfect sport should never be sullied with cheaters.
As a fan of the team, my reaction is anger. Manny had been given just about everything to make him happy: riches galore (a sweet $45 million two-year deal that allowed him to opt out of the second year to get even more money) and the equivalent of the keys to the city, in this case Dodger Stadium, that included the naming of the left-field bleachers (Mannywood) after him. All we, the team’s fans, asked of him was to do what he always had done in his 16-year career: hit the ball like few others can. The rest, we figured, would take care of itself, just as it had last year. The team would return to the playoffs, and this year we dared to hope a World Series championship would follow.
Instead, the team is in danger of losing its edge. Even with the ascension of Juan Pierre, hitting over .400 as Manny’s replacement, the ball club has only played .500 ball since Ramirez began his suspension. Whether it will recover from the loss of its leader or slide back into terminal mediocrity is the immediate test before it. But either way, Ramirez has hurt his team, and as a true fan, I’m mad at him for doing so.
But as a fan of the player, I’m saddened and dismayed. My heart is broken, but I’m also perplexed. Sure, I understand how the pressure to perform can lead to temptation and how temptations can easily be accepted when that pressure gets intense. But we aren’t talking about a struggling minor leaguer, a rookie, or even an up-and-coming young star here. We’re talking about one of the best hitters of his generation, maybe even of all time, a guy who could have retired at the end of last year and been guaranteed a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Moreover, Ramirez has reached that rarified level of superstar status where he has everything provided for him, where all of his cares are met. He has the top agent in the game representing his interests. He has every coach on his team ready to do anything for him. He doesn’t need to do anything but play the game he plays so well. Why cheat when you are at that level?
The answer is probably unfathomable for us mortals. Those of us who struggle at our jobs just to remain minimally competent and who rejoice when every once in a while we hit the equivalent of a home run in our work cannot begin to comprehend why a superstar would feel the need to cheat.
And, as one of those mere mortals, I am unable to come to grips with the demise of Manny Ramirez.
I am sad because I have learned again that we can have no heroes. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” said the young boy to the disgraced Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. Ninety years later, another young boy, the young boy who still resides in this 62-year-old man, is saying the same thing to another fallen star.
“Say it ain’t so, Manny. Please. Say it ain’t so.”