Pawn in Their Game

Pawn in Their Game

Major League Baseball continues to think that embarrassing individual players like Manny Ramirez is the best path to cleaning up the sport.


Reuters Photos
Los Angeles Dodgers Manny Ramirez speaks during news conference at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.

You would think that Manny Ramirez was caught fighting pit bulls alongside Martha Stewart.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons says that he is “confronting my worst nightmare.” Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports believes that it is time to talk about “lifetime bans.” Boston Globe writer Tony Massarotti says, “everyone is guilty until proven innocent.”

The sports radio and comment boards have been cesspools of racism. It’s always easy to hate, especially someone who plays a game for a living and makes millions of dollars.

All I know is this: thanks to Major League Baseball’s hypocritical, idiotic and altogether morally bankrupt steroid policy, the sport will be without one of its premier attractions for fifty games, someone I would pay to watch at batting practice. Yes, Manny Ramirez, the finest right-handed hitter of his generation, has been sent to the showers and forced to surrender $7.7 million in salary after testing positive for what was initially called a “performance-enhancing substance.”

The decision ends a stretch where the former World Series MVP was reviving baseball in Los Angeles, leading the Dodgers to a 21-8 start and a record thirteen straight wins at home to open the season. Los Angeles, a town built on artifice and home to hordes of performance-enhanced entertainers, not to mention led by a performance-enhanced governor, now demands purity of its athletes. This is a column that aims not to “defend” Manny Ramirez but to condemn Major League Baseball’s steroid idiocy. Besides, the quizzically quirky Ramirez is not, at this point, defending himself. Ramirez will not appeal the suspension, and he apologized, issuing a brief statement that read in part: “I saw a physician for a personal health issue. He gave me a medication, not a steroid, which he thought was okay to give me.” But MLB, in a typically classy move, has leaked to the press that Ramirez tested positive for the female fertility drug HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin. Steroid specialists have fanned out across the airwaves explaining that HCG is used to increase testosterone levels, usually after a heavy steroid cycle.

Former AL MVP, author of Juiced, and admitted steroid user Jose Canseco, who pleaded guilty last November to a misdemeanor of trying to bring HCG across the Mexican border illegally, also weighed in: “It could be that a player used it because he used steroids and went cold-turkey and needed HCG to get his [testoterone] levels back to normal.”

The use of a “female fertility drug” also has sports radio hosts in a pubescent tizzy asking if “Manny is a mommy” and ESPN’s Jayson Stark making an “octo-mom” joke.

From the juvenile to the pious: President Obama’s press flack Robert Gibbs took time out from explaining why torturers are above the law to tell us, “It’s a tragedy, it’s a shame.” There is a tragedy and a shame afoot, but it is not rooted in the choices of one player. It’s in a baseball culture that continues to think that embarrassing individual players and feeding on the resentment of fans is the best path to cleaning up the sport. Manny has now joined Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and many others as permanently stained with a scarlet S. No Hall of Fame, no old timers’ games and a life as a cautionary tale.

Meanwhile, we all get taken to the cleaners. We have billionaire owners making scapegoats of millionaire players to soothe our anxieties about the game and our lives. Meanwhile these same owners sit like pashas in a baseball palace that could be called the House That Steroids Built.

The man who wrote Juiced knows when a cycle has run its course. Canseco said that he believes the coverage on steroids in baseball has become “overkill” and the spotlight should now be on MLB and the players association. He called it “a complete conspiracy.” He’s absolutely correct. Baseball owners love conspiracies. For more than twenty years they have conspired to attain public funds for ballparks. In 2008, they collectively conspired not to sign the best hitter in the game, Barry Bonds. Now they are committed to the project of keeping the focus on the players, and off of themselves. We shouldn’t let them. If Manny Ramirez is guilty of anything, it’s being caught in between baseball’s clubhouse culture and public sanctimony.

During the baseball’s Summer of Love in 1998, when Mark McGwire hit seventy home runs and Sammy Sosa smacked sixty-six, the money came pouring in. No one cared that McGwire and Sosa looked like a pair of defensive tackles. Soon publicly funded stadiums were included in budgets for Washington (DC), New York City and Minnesota. The home run became the most marketable baseball item since peanuts and crackerjacks and no one wanted to look behind the curtain. It was sports. It was entertainment. It was an escape. Then came 2001, when Barry Bonds hit seventy-three, and all of a sudden we were supposed to be collectively sick at the thought of a home run. As baseball writer Adrian Burgos (Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line) said, “What continues to fascinate me is how MLB leadership is willing to allow individual players to take the full brunt of the collective failure of leadership. Today, pundits have ranted in at times rabid tones about the players who make millions for their role while those who make the hundred of millions (and even have billion-dollar stadiums constructed for them on the public dole) continue to profit. How many stadiums have been built since then and at what cost? All the wealth that has been accumulated at that level is in my mind just as, if not more, offensive, since the owners act as if they were not enablers and co-dependents as their players shot up, ingested and otherwise partook in performance-enhancing drugs.”

We should always remember that former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush made steroid persecution a recurring theme of his time in office, as long as owners were spared the spotlight. The hypocrisy should shame owners toward contrition–but they will happily crack some golden eggs, as long as it means that the goose that laid them lives. Even though come contract time, it’s all about the numbers on your stat page, and not the number of clean tests. As baseball fan and poet Martin Espada told me, “Baseball is the Main Street of sports. (Think Cooperstown.) It’s full of history and nostalgia, and paved with the bricks of hypocrisy. Now it’s the rhetoric of the ‘drug war,’ handed down from the Nixon White House forty years ago to MLB and ESPN today.”

He is absolutely correct. We are supposed to tsk-tsk at players who are supposed to “just say no” to their addictions to fitness and monster stats, when their success at the park is our addiction as well. We also have yet to truly take owners to task for their addictions to public money and send them to detox.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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