Sunday, May 10, 2009

If George Mitchell was a Dodgers board member, none of this ever would have happened

"You got busted last, so that means you've got to drive us to Cooperstown and pay for our visit to the Hall of Fame." Photo from this site.

So I was away for a couple days. Did I miss anything?

Manny Ramirez is busted, and my first thought is he can forget about the Hall of Fame. And that’s too bad, because I don’t care if he was on the stuff by accident or by design or for 15 days or 15 years. The guy was on the very short list of the best of the best during the most offense-friendly era in the history of the sport.

It’s a bit of a tired cliché, but for me, when it comes to judging who is and isn’t a Hall of Famer, I use the same standard Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used for judging pornography: I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it. (Bully for me: That and 50 cents…err, wait a minute, 75 cents…err, wait a minute, 100 cents will get me a newspaper, for now anyway, since I’m not in the BBWAA and don’t have a Hall of Fame vote) But as Terry Francona—no card-carrying member of the Manny Ramirez Fan Club—put it to Sean McAdam last year, nobody ever went for a beer or to the bathroom when Ramirez stepped to the plate.

Ramirez’ flaky behavior already made him far from a sure thing despite his first ballot-worthy numbers. Add into the equation this stain and the reluctance of many writers to vote for confirmed or suspected cheaters (the tally among Fanhouse writers with a Hall of Fame vote is 6-1 against) and we’re almost surely going to be robbed of Manny Being Manny: The Hall of Fame Speech. Which sucks, because whether he spoke for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, it’d be the most entertaining address ever.

My second thought is nobody should ever again write gushing prose about a player’s work ethic or his workout regimen. Because no matter what you thought of Ramirez and his antics, the one thing I think everyone had to acknowledge—even grudgingly—was the dude worked. We all heard and read stories of his early morning workouts and the hours of cage work before a game and his savant-like approach to hitting.

How much of it was true? We just don’t know. And that four-word caveat should apply to everyone, from Albert Pujols to David Eckstein. It’s unfair to those who are clean, and it’s too bad that the willful ignorance of the union and the owners, both of whom were only too happy to get fat off the golden goose following the strike of ’94, has forced us to wonder about every player we see.

But while it’d be nice if everyone was au natural, let’s stop pretending we live in a world that doesn’t exist. Let’s stop demonizing players for having the audacity to try to keep up with the Ramirezes and the Rodriguezes. It would be nice if everyone could be like Chad Mottola, who was drafted one spot ahead of Derek Jeter in the first round of the 1992 draft, got a grand total of 125 big league at-bats during a 16-season professional career and resisted the urge to take steroids the entire time.

I’d like to think I’d mimic Mottola if I was in his shoes, and I’d love it if everyone else followed in his footsteps (that’s probably too many walking analogies for one sentence). But theory and reality are entirely different things. What would you do if a needle could provide the difference between lifelong benefits for you and financial security for your family…or a career in the bushes preceding the hunt for a Real Job in your mid-30s?

As my favorite Bruce Springsteen lyric goes: “Well, you may think the world’s black and white and you’re dirty or you’re clean. You better watch out you don’t slip through them spaces in between.”

Be more upset that these fringe guys are the ones who are most severely punished by the arrogant hypocrites who run Major League Baseball and its teams. (Count me among those who think it's a joke that MLB not only believes we should take seriously its own report on steroids but one overseen by a guy on the board of one of the 30 franchises)

Don’t worry about Manny. He’ll be fine, and if he decides to re-enter free agency after this year—and you can forget that now, but let’s just say he does for the sake of the argument—you can bet someone will throw a crapload of money at him.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Jay Gibbons kicks a garbage can. Hooray for making an example of someone! (Of course Gibbons has also made $27 million as a big leaguer, which makes my point yet also makes it a little tough to feel bad for the guy, all at the same time)

Most of all, I try not to waste any pixels blasting steroid users because it’s been my experience that the vast majority of fans just do not care. Nobody’s going to wring their hands over Ramirez getting busted outside of people who already hate Ramirez. I know a lot of Yankees fans down here who reveled in Ramirez’ demise, chortled about the Red Sox’ two tainted titles and enthusiastically welcomed back Alex Rodriguez, all in the same day and without any sense of irony. That’s fandom though. It’s not supposed to be rational and reasoned.

And hey, maybe this brings together those Yankees fans as well as any Red Sox fans who are mad at Ramirez for his bizarre exit. Manny Ramirez: Bringing peace to the world, if not the Red Sox clubhouse.

After Deion Branch’s messy exit for Seattle, Bob Ryan wrote a really good column in which he compared professional football to a sausage factory: The only way to enjoy it is to not think too much about what goes into it.

Really, though, all professional sports are a sausage factory of some sort. It’s difficult to enjoy sports if you think about what players go through to get on to the field. The beauty and purity of baseball is wonderful, and also not at all consistent with the coldly businesslike approach of most executives and players.

For all the righteous indignation and Helen Lovejoy-like caterwauling the steroids issue has inspired, it took the worst economy in more than 70 years for MLB to see a decrease in attendance. And that football players die at a rate far faster than other athletes in order to entertain us every Sunday hasn’t diminished the popularity of the NFL one bit.

And hell, art is imitating life. Mickey Rourke hasn’t exactly denied he took method acting to a whole ‘nother level while filming The Wrestler. Sylvester Stallone admitted he took testosterone and HGH to bulk up for Rambo IV.

Nobody disqualifies actors from awards consideration and moviegoers still fill multiplexes. Why should we demonize ballplayers and wish for fans to bolt stadiums? Too bad for Manny he’s not an actor. Even so, after last week, he’s still got a better shot at winning an Oscar than making the Hall of Fame.

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