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Ramirez signing represents last bastion of Steroid Era

February 21, 2012

“It was a hard time. It was something I would love to erase from my memory. To snap my fingers and let it go away. Even if it takes the 3,000th hit with it, just let it all go away.” -Rafael Palmeiro, speaking about his time testifying to Congress about his alleged steroid use.

As a juxtaposition to the purity of the game, the memory of baseball’s Steroid Era hasn’t gone anywhere .  With every Hall of Fame ballot,  the wound of one of the blackest marks on the game’s illustrious history is scrubbed open again.  Time after time, players associated with performance enhancing drugs have failed to achieve Cooperstown immortality, despite otherworldly career numbers otherwise. Mark McGwire, who has since revived his reputation as the Cardinals’ hitting coach, has met with skepticism from the BBWAA regarding his place in the Hall of Fame, because of a very public steroids admission. Though McGwire compiled 583 home runs and put together a career .982 OPS over the course of 16 seasons, his well-known participation in a time of great shame to baseball continues to hold him back.

Though remnants of the Steroid Era continue to drift around the game as baseball learns just how extensive the problem was, adjustments have been made to move on. As home run numbers dwindle, the focus on small ball has increased. Teams value run production over slugging percentage and, as a result, valuable role players have gained prominence on contenders. Despite the power outage, attendance across the league has increased every year for the past five, and baseball’s media reach crosses platforms. Stringent testing programs beginning at the minor league level are weeding out PED users early, and both fans and front offices are beginning to feel confident in the purity of the game again.  Though the memory of steroids persists, the here-and-now realities are looking squeaky clean.

Which makes Oakland’s signing of disgraced OF Manny Ramirez on Monday all the more disappointing, if not at all surprising.

In Ramirez, the A’s get Major League Baseball’s final, stubborn piece of a generation  that should by now be a sad historical lesson.  But Manny has never been one to play by the rules.

For a career marked by baffling behavior, alienation of teammates and coaches, criminal activity, and not one, but three failed drug tests, Ramirez’s string of second chances has new life–however warranted. If he makes the major league club out of camp, Ramirez will earn $500,000–a far cry from the record-setting contract he signed with the Red Sox in 2000. But his presence in camp, whatever the result, will be a constant reminder of the type of player baseball has attempted to purge in its quest to regain purity.

Though once considered charming, Manny’s odd antics began to border on the obnoxious in 2008, when the then-Red Sox outfielder benched himself after a series of incidents with teammates and staff members, claiming to have a injured knee.  When scans showed no structural damage, Manny proceeded to seemingly give as little effort on the field as possible, according to reports out of Boston. This finally prompted a trade deadline move to the Dodgers, effectively ending Ramirez’s tenure in Boston. But the Manny headache was only changing coasts.

In May of 2009, in the first year of Ramirez’s $45 million contract, the Dodgers were informed that their troubled outfielder had tested positive for a banned substance.  This carried with it a 50-game suspension,  after which  the news broke that Ramirez had also been on the positive list during MLB’s 2003 experimental testing phase.  Gone was the lovable slugger whose fans once wore dreadlock wigs and t-shirts bearing his famous slogan.  “Manny being Manny” had become nothing more than a testament to an attitude no longer welcome between the lines.

Following the piggyback revelations, Manny struggled in his remaining time with the Dodgers. From there, he attempted a failed go with the White Sox before signing with the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2011 season.  Unfortunately for Manny, he would see only 17 at-bats before once again testing positive for a banned substance. With this second official result, Ramirez elected to retire, rather than serve the 100-game suspension associated with an additional failed test.

In many ways, the marriage of the Athletics and Manny Ramirez is of little surprise. Once considered the birthplace of steroids in baseball, Oakland has seen its share of disgraced sluggers pass through the Coliseum on their way to public flogging. Before Moneyball, the A’s claim to fame were one-dimensional power hitters–burly, top-heavy sluggers with mammoth forearms and specially-sized helmets whose sole job was to crush fastballs as far as possible. In the mid-late 90s, not only was the conditioning of hitters into these home run machines encouraged, it was intertwined in Oakland baseball culture.  From McGwire and Jose Canseco’s “Bash Brothers,” to Jason Giambi’s regretful steroid confessions, the Bay area’s more infamous team has been intrinsically linked to performance-enhancing drugs for years. And if Canseco and his constant need for media attention have anything to say about it, they always will be.

So for this, Ramirez’s landing spot with the A’s is nothing new. Despite the more recent emphasis on run production through algorithms, all the moneyball in the world won’t be able to wash the steroid taste out of Oakland if the organization continues to remind baseball of its dirty past.  As for the man who was once Cleveland’s quirky darling and Boston’s goofy son, Ramirez’s failure to admit defeat has become the last gasp of the Steroid Era still gracing diamond grass.

With the lingering reminders– with the Hall of Fame ballots and power drop-offs still a very real part of the present–Ramirez’s signing on Monday represents a step backward. Whether Manny succeeds at his latest effort remains to be seen, but his determination to be bigger than the game persists, unhindered.  In the process, he may end up destroying his career and his reputation for good, but there’s no reason to drag the game down with him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. JJ Finn permalink
    February 21, 2012 10:43 pm

    Your final sentence gets to the heart of the matter: no matter how much baseball has historically embraced–and encouraged–characters, it’s the disrespect for the game, and through that, disrepect for its fans, that deeply discredits players like Manny.

    Beautifully written and thoughtful piece. We may be fascinated about what happens to Manny this season, but we can’t take our eyes away rom car wrecks, either.

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