National / Sports / May 13, 2009

On Manny

As admitted steroid user Alex Rodriguez prepped to make his much-ballyhooed return this past Friday, Major League Baseball suspended Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez for 50 games under section 8.G.2 of the Joint Drug Agreement. Essentially, Ramirez was found using performance enhancing drugs (section 8.G.2 refers to “other” drugs, rather than stimulants, narcotics, or steroids).

Yet again, Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB find themselves in something of a crisis. Ramirez was one of the biggest stories last season as he carried the Dodgers to a fantastic second half and an appearance in the National League Championship Series.

After a dramatic offseason, that saw Manny flirt with leaving L.A., only to return on a one or two year deal (Ramirez may opt out after the 2009 season, if he so pleases).

The Dodgers are off to a quick start and looked primed to contend prior to the suspension, due in large part to Manny’s contributions. Through 27 games, Ramirez hit his way to a slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of 348/.492/.641 and a BB/K ratio of 26/17. While no one (with any sensibility, that is) anticipated Ramirez to continue his torrid pace, the Dodgers look a hell of a lot worse now with Juan Pierre or Xavier Paul manning left.

Pierre, despite his bloated contract, is the antithesis of Ramirez: no power, no patience, and no discernible hitting skill (other than the eternally cited ability to “put pressure on the defense” or even “put the ball in play” – two traits that don’t really mean anything). Pierre is similar to Ramirez in that they both possess little defensive ability, with Pierre having the leg up solely due to his speed, which slightly makes up for his bad reads and jumps.

Xavier Paul actually possesses a little potential, as he’s improved year in and year out in the minor leagues, and is somewhat reminiscent of Twins OF Denard Span. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Paul bats (like Pierre) left-handed, and struggles mightily against left-handed pitching. With two lefties in the running for playing time at the same position, a platoon is not possible.

Of course, I look rather foolish at this point, as Pierre is batting over .500 since supplanting Ramirez in the starting lineup, but in a few weeks, when the sample size becomes more meaningful, and infielders remember to play Pierre on the grass, his numbers will fall back down to his customary slash line (these days at least) of .280/.330/.330 or so.

Of course, there are much broader implications for MLB and the sporting world in general in this scandal. For MLB, they must once again deal with one of their star players being busted for performance enhancing drugs. Other than A-Rod, the Manny dilemma is the biggest ever – it can only be touched by the Rafael Palmeiro ordeal in August of 2005.

As for the actual details of the suspension, the terms performance-enhancing drugs (PED) and steroids have become all too synonymous. While steroids fall under the PED umbrella, Manny Ramirez has not used steroids or, at least, no proof exists linking Ramirez directly to steroid use. Rather, Ramirez was busted for the use of HCG (human chrorionic gonadotropin), a supplement that boosts testosterone heavily, and is thought to be a stimulant in bed as well as the batter’s box.

According to Ramirez, the drug was used for a “personal health issue.” HCG is thought to increase both the quality and quantity of a male’s sperm, so Ramirez may simply want to increase his fertility, which will coincidentally increase his testosterone.

Of course, there exists a much darker possibility – one that the budding baseball cynic within me may embrace. According to sports medicine extraordinaire Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus, HCG may also be used by men coming off a round of steroids, as the loss of testosterone that results from steroid use may be remedied by a steady dose of HCG. So, although there exists no hard evidence linking Ramirez to steroids, the use of HCG certainly raises the proverbial red flag.

HCG is also a non-testable substance, which means Ramirez never tested positive for the substance, but rather was implicated in some other fashion – more likely in the form of a doctor’s prescription. To the credit of Ramirez and his physician, MLB did not place HCG on the banned substance list until this last offseason, which makes his indiscretion appear to be the result of malaise, rather than poor judgment.

As is customary with any PED controversy, we must once again evaluate how large the PED effect is – that is to say, how much do players benefit from steroids, if at all? At this point the answer, is a resounding yes. As we’ve seen in the era of Bonds, aging hitters can benefit from PED use, as it will slow their inevitable decline and prevent them from falling off the production cliff that claims so many sluggers in their mid to late thirties.

And while there may be evidence that steroid and PED usage can improve a player’s ability or sustain his peak, what do performance-enhancing drugs do for truly great players? I’m not talking about the Ken Caminitis of the world, or even the Miguel Tejadas, but guys like Rodriguez and Bonds – once-in-a-lifetime players without the aid of supplements. In evaluating this question, one who looks only at Bonds will conclude that PEDs have an exorbitant effect on a player’s ability and performance.

Conversely, I’m still not convinced that steroids made A-Rod a better ballplayer. Perhaps they kept him healthy, or allowed him to play through nagging injuries, but his numbers before and after the start of his PED regiment look fairly similar (spare me the Selena Roberts-driven accusations of use in high school – I’ve got little patience for supercilious journalism).

Given this, should the allegations that have surfaced against Ramirez invalidate his performance the last few seasons, especially his time in Los Angeles? I would lean towards no, but I do believe wholeheartedly that Ramirez used steroids of some sort at some point in the last two seasons. After Ramirez was traded from Boston to L.A. in July of 2008, he was ridiculed and scorned in the sports media for his seemingly selfish and immature behavior that sparked the trade (or dismissal, depending on your perspective).

In the eyes of the average Bostonian, Ramirez went from an icon to a petulant child in the course of four months. After the deal with the Dodgers, Ramirez took off and proved the doubters and critics wrong. It would be unfair to assume that Ramirez used in this time period and that his massive second half in Los Angeles was the result of PED use rather than sheer talent and determination. But I believe the circumstances under which Ramirez went to L.A. may have contributed to the start of some sort of PED usage.

Similar to my feelings toward A-Rod, I can’t help but be a bit empathetic towards Ramirez. I’ve always felt that Ramirez received a raw deal from media and peers alike, as they misinterpreted his zaniness for a lack of care, and labeled him a cancer rather than a quiet, productive ballplayer. When, in July and August of 2008, the media took the gloves off and turned on him just as they did to Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. Ramirez probably felt a burden he’d never carried before. And, like many human beings, he made a mistake of some sort.

Conversely, I can’t help but be angry with Ramirez and Rodriguez – as well as the litany of other steroid/PED users (yes, even you, Jason Grimsley). With each scandal, baseball becomes more and more associated with controversy; fans are becoming more and more cynical, and many believe no one is or ever was clean.

Although I’ve downplayed the effect of steroids, one cannot dismiss the effect on the game’s image and viability. Baseball’s shitstorm-producing prowess is inching closer and closer to that of the Tour de France or the XFL. If the pattern continues, fans may simply stop coming to games, just as they did in the mid 1990s, amid frustration over the 1994 work stoppage.

As for Manny’s legacy, time will tell. It is too early for the Hall of Fame debate. I’ve gone on too long already, and wouldn’t want to extend this piece by another thousand words dedicated to tearing down Cooperstown. Let’s leave that for another day.

All conjecture aside, Manny Ramirez used performance-enhancing drugs, and despite a 50-game suspension, MLB will be hurting a lot harder, and for a lot longer, than the Manny-less Los Angeles Dodgers. The downward spiral continues for a game that, despite the nostalgic writings of men like Buzz Bissinger, was never pure, clean, or fair.

But despite a past filled with racism, gambling, drug abuse, and sexism, among other things, the game has never looked so tarnished or so near death as it does today. At this point, hope is all we’ve got.

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Kevin Morris

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