In the six years that Major League Baseball has had its anti-steroid program in effect, most of the “cheaters” have been lower rung players (utility fielders, end-of-the bench pinch hitters, or mop-up pitchers). Each of those caught have suffered the first-offense penalty of a 50-game suspension, while the affected teams made do with replacement scrubs who covered for the suspended player’s absence quite nicely. The results for the teams were minimal, as if to prove that all but the best players in the game are easily replaced, while the players themselves resumed their mediocre careers before retiring to oblivion.
And then, earlier this season, a big fish got caught. Manny Ramirez, long-time star for the Boston Red Sox, who had powered his new team, the L.A. Dodgers, to the playoffs after a spectacular two-month run following his trade last year, was suspended in early May for violating the game’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
To be specific, Ramirez was found to have a prescription for HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotropin) a naturally produced female hormone that assists women in pregnancy. In men, it can dramatically increase testosterone levels, which is why it is listed as a banned substance in baseball’s drug policy. It’s a performance enhancer.
Ramirez was banned because he could not deny that the drug had been prescribed for him (the doctor is said to be under federal investigation) and because the only legitimate reason he would be using it would be to elevate his testosterone (and, thereby, his performance). The nail in the coffin for Ramirez was the elevated levels of synthetic testosterone found in his urine sample in the random drug test he had during spring training this year.
His suspension began as soon as the prescription was found in his medical records (which are obtainable under the collective bargaining agreement MLB has with the players’ union). At the time, Ramirez was on his way to a typical Manny Ramirez season, with six homers, 20 runs batted in, a .350 batting average and a slugging and on-base percentage total that only hall of famers (or drug abusers) can attain on a regular basis.
The Dodgers had benefitted from that performance, by amassing the league’s best record by far (21 wins against only 8 losses), and appeared to be a runaway favorite to win their division, if not the National League pennant.
The immediate reactions to the Ramirez suspension were predictions of doom for the player and his team. Ramirez, many predicted, would never be able to gain the support of his massive fan base and would be run out of town by the stodgy Dodger ownership. And the team, the same prognosticators assured, would collapse without their big power guy and revert to the mediocre mess they were last year before he arrived on the scene.
But now that the suspension is over (it ended last Friday) and Manny is back in the lineup, with Mannywood waiting to be reopened on his team’s return to Dodger Stadium after the upcoming all-star break, the initial reactions seem overblown, to say the least.
Ramirez appears to have been completely forgiven by his loyal fans. Indeed, so many longed for his return that San Diego’s Petco Park, where the rival Padres hold fort, was loaded with Dodger fans over the weekend. They were there to cheer their hero’s return, and cheer they did, as Ramirez powered a classic Manny home run in his first at bat on Saturday.
Of course, the star only exerted himself to a point in his triumphant return. He left both Friday’s and Saturday’s games in the sixth inning and completely sat out Sunday’s game (to rest his sore legs, manager Joe Torre said). If they were sore, it was probably because Ramirez more or less loafed his way through his suspension, skipping half of the minor league games he was allowed to play in to get himself back in shape, and only playing in the first half of the games in which he did appear.
The Dodgers will coddle Ramirez for as long as he wants to be coddled (probably until around August, when he’ll decide to get serious about his stats and the team’s post-season prospects), because he’s their star and they don’t want him disgruntled. (God forbid he should pout or repeat the shenanigans that got him booted out of Boston in the first place.) They coddled him throughout his suspension, sending support staff to be with him whenever he travelled anywhere and generally protecting him from the press by keeping the lid on the full story of his illegal drug use. (Ramirez has refused to give any details, or to even admit to anything, and his single reference to the transgression has been an apology to his fans “for not being there for them.”)
His lost pay, amounting to around $7.5 million might hurt a tad, but we’re talking about a guy who has just completed an eight-year $160 million contract and is in the first year of a two-year deal worth another $45 mill. So his lost wages shouldn’t be too hard to get around.
He may have to kiss his spot in the Hall of Fame goodbye, but that remains to be seen. The odds are probably just as good that when the time comes, those who vote are likely to say something like, “he was still one of the best of his era,” and vote him in (along with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez among other “cheaters”).
So much for Ramirez and his fall from grace. What about his team?
The Dodgers, far from suffering during his absence, actually continued to win. They won 58 percent of the games and increased their division lead by one game. And, now that Manny is back, everyone on the team is starting to feel that sense of invincibility. They’ve proved they can win without him, and they know they can win with him.
So, bottom line, the big fish got caught, he suffered hardly at all, and his team is continuing its winning ways. Ain’t life grand?