Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Uneven Playing Field

An update: Manny has apparently talked to his Dodger teammates.

Watching the Dodgers/Phillies match up on ESPN last night, former Cub and now ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe commented, in a conversation about the Manny Ramirez suspension, on how unfair Manny's behavior is to both the Dodgers and Major League Baseball as a whole. Sutcliffe cited the Diamondbacks firing of manager Bob Melvin. Sutcliffe's rationale is essentially this: Had Manny not fired up the Dodgers, led them to the NLCS and served as the catalyst for the Dodger's now powerful offense, the Diamondbacks would have been higher in the standings of the National League West and in the first month of the 2009 season would not have looked nearly as weak in a division overpowered by the Dodgers. The Dodgers resurgence has buried the Diamondbacks and has, if you agree with Sutcliffe, cost Bob Melvin his job.

The discussion surrounding Major League Baseball's fifty-game suspension of Manny Ramirez for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs has created a shock wave of sorts both inside and outside of the league. Manny's suspension has resonated in ways that the breaking news from Sports Illustrated about A-Rod's 2003 steroid use didn't. A few of us watching the Dodgers/Phillies game last night were able to finally understand why--Manny's story is about fairness and the cost of one player's steroid use for his team, the division and the game itself. The story of Alex Rodriguez is simply one of greed.

To put Manny's suspension into perspective, consider the makeup of the Dodgers. There are a handful of veterans, Manny being one of them, that are being watched very closely by a roster of young, up-and-coming phenoms. Guys like James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, are in the most impressionable stage of their career. The younger players in the Dodgers line-up are pure talent, still learning how to use their athletic talent to win ballgames. They look up to Manny and have appreciated his input as they solidify their work ethic and their love for the game. Sure, Manny's bat helped the Dodgers last fall and already this spring, but it was Manny's presence in the clubhouse that helped the Dodgers most. And now those Dodgers who have grown under the leadership of Manny Ramirez are scratching their heads with news that not only did Manny Ramirez use a drug designed to restart the testosterone cycle of someone coming off of steroids, he didn't appeal because he knew he was in the wrong. Additionally, the sting the Dodgers are currently feeling is only perpetuated by Manny's unwillingness to speak to and apologize to his teammates. In less than a week, Manny has gone from being the guy his younger teammates look to for leadership to being the guy they look to with anger and bitterness. It's a horribly unfortunate situation for Joe Torre's Dodgers.

However, the Manny Ramirez suspension hasn't just impacted the clubhouse. The Manny Ramirez suspension has stopped many MLB players in their tracks. Fellow west coast players Torii Hunter and Bengie Molina have written on their respective blogs about what Manny's suspension means to them and what it means to baseball. Torii Hunter, center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, talks about how Manny's suspension means the league is serious about their steroid policy. He notes that Manny has been a player he's respected in his career because of the hard work Manny puts into the game, but he also mentions that "shadow" that will now follow Manny as it does Alex Rodriguez. Former teammate and friend of Ramirez, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, has gone on the record about the suspension saying he was confused by the news and hopes Manny will start talking to clear up the situation. So far Manny has been completely quiet, something that does not bode well for his innocence. Manny has apparently apologized to Frank McCourt, owner of the Dodgers, but has not addressed his team as a whole. His silence speaks louder than any words he could possibly say before a microphone and an audience of reporters.

Maybe baseball as a business and baseball fans in general were naive to think that a slugger like Manny Ramirez would never consider taking steroids to boost his home run production. Keith Olbermann seems to suggest all of it could be slander. Yet, the rest of us are sitting around wondering when we'll hear from Manny. This isn't something that we all can just tag onto the list of things we've simply categorized as "Manny being Manny."

Like Sutcliffe last night, I've always found fairness to be the really unfortunate story buried in the steroid era. Never has this been more evident for me than last night as I watched Juan Pierre take left field as the temporary replacement of suspended Ramirez. Here's a guy who doesn't have much power, but can get on base and has stolen a ridiculous number of bases throughout his career. The only reason Pierre is getting playing time and is on the starting roster for the Dodgers is because Manny Ramirez got caught with a banned substance in his system. Juan Pierre deserves better than that, yet when Manny returns in July, Pierre will go back to the bench and back to being a player hardly anyone in baseball pays attention to anymore. Another Dodger, Rafael Furcal, is talked about rarely and is certainly overshadowed by the power hitters in the Dodger lineup, but here's a guy who has battled his way back from spinal surgery and is back in his position at shortstop running hard and making great plays. He doesn't hit for power and he doesn't boost the score the way guys like Manny do. The once National League Rookie of the Year is no longer considered an all star and he never gets the post-game attention from reporters that his power hitting teammate does.

I can't help but wonder how much more of this baseball fans can take. What is going to be the last straw? Who will have to be outed as a current or past user of performance enhancing drugs for baseball fans to throw in the towel? While big names like Curt Schilling are calling for the release of the other players who, with A-Rod, tested positive for steroids in a confidential test in 2003, some of us cringe at the thought. As a lifelong baseball fan, I was stunned by the allegations in Jose Canseco's book, at least the allegation that steroid use was so widespread in the majors. The one player in that tell-all that shocked me and left me questioning the game I love so much was Rafael Palmeiro. Once a big name in baseball, after his retirement in 2005, we hear nothing of Raffy. The sting of the Mitchell Report was lessened by the book that came before. The news of A-Rod's 2003 use of performance enhancing drugs was no surprise--his excuse, that he was under a lot of pressure to perform at the highest level for the unheard of salary he was making, was the only part that really riled me up. Yet, when I think of the hundred some players that could be on the list of 2003 users, I'm afraid of what that list might reveal. Sure, it isn't fair for one guy to take the heat because a journalist uncovered his name on that list, but it isn't fair to fans to have to go through the awful reading of each of those names, either.

The suspension of Manny Ramirez is not an isolated event. Realizing this, it remains difficult to imagine what another hundred names would do to morale among fans, players and those on the business end of Major League Baseball. No matter how it comes out, the steroid era and all that it entails, is not fair to anyone. The game deserves better.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

The things that makes the Manny suspension so newsworthy, even over the A-Rod one, is that it was the MLB testing program that caught him, making him the first major superstar to be caught and punished (Palmiero was not nearly the star that Manny is, and was definately on the way out of his career). I disagree with you on the cause, Manny was doing it for greed as well, as last year he was in a contract year and expecting a large contract. The substance he was suspended for, human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, is a femanine fertility drug that commonly is used by body builders to restart testosterone cycles after coming off a steroid cycle, and was the same substance that Jose Canseco was busted with trying to sneak it in from Mexico a few years back. The funny thing is that Manny did not sign his oh so wonderful deal that was on the table for months until after the doctor prescribed him the drug, allowing his body to return to a more natural state before any testing would be done, as I am fairly certain that players under contract can be tested under the agreement. A-Rod was not caught under the current testing, yes he tested positive for the "anonymous" test, but since has not failed a test. As far as the other players on the test, I also have mixed feelings as to wanting to see who failed. I really believe there will be some big names, there are definately some suspicious players out there, those who were good players before the testing that either a) can't stay healthy, b) can't play at near the level they once achieved, or c) are a combination of the two. It does sadden me to see this happening to the game, but it did happen in football (on the same level if not worse) in the 1980's and that did not effect the sport too horribly bad, I think the same will happen with MLB, it will have a black eye for a while but ultimately the integrity will be there and it will come out better than ever.