Much of the cheating in baseball’s age of steroids scandal has been emotional cheating. Sammy Sosa sought to be loved, and the juice made him loved. Rafael Palmeiro was looking for respect. Mark McGwire was out for awe. Barry Bonds wanted to put Sosa and McGwire in their place—below him in the record book. The drugs gave fans the stories they wanted to hear, and the revelations about the drugs ruined those stories.
Manny Ramirez, who
rather than serve a 100-game suspension for his second officially failed drug test, was by all appearances interested in nothing but hitting baseballs. The drugs helped him hit baseballs. So he took drugs.
He was as slapdash about his cheating as he was about any other part of the game that didn’t involve swinging a bat. Playing defense, showing up on time, running hard, cycling off the drugs so as to make clean urine for spring training—these were not the details Ramirez was interested in. Manny was Manny. It doesn’t feel upsetting.
Moralizing is a reflex now.
offered a commentary under the headline “Ramirez was a supreme talent, colossal waste,” in which writer Jeff Passan declared that Ramirez had tainted “what should’ve been a marvelous career.”
What did Ramirez waste? He was a superb hitter for a long, long time. He retires with
runs. He led the Cleveland Indians to two pennants and the Boston Red Sox to two world championships. He played till he was 38 years old.
Yes, all those numbers are tainted by drugs. Of course they are: he came up to the majors in 1993, and he lasted till 2011. Baseball was—and still is, as Ramirez helpfully demonstrated—tainted by drugs. That historic 2004 Red Sox championship? Tainted by drugs. That’s part of what Major League Baseball smells like.
Ramirez was a baseball star of the steroid era, a great hitter on great teams. But nothing he did really demanded the suspension of disbelief. He didn’t shatter a holy
like McGwire, or bounce back from being washed up like
, or rip open the fabric of space-time like Bonds (a .
? What does that even mean?).
If Ramirez had played in the innocent days of old, when everyone was simply cranked up on amphetamines, maybe he would have put up seasons of 28 or 35 home runs, rather than 38 or 45. And people would have felt the same way about those results.
But he played in our times. And he was one of the ten best players I ever saw. So he flunked one drug test—a test that was
—in 2003, and another one in 2009, and a final one this year. Shame was alien to him, or he to it. He apologized to his Dodgers teammates for his 2009 drug suspension in a private meeting, not with a lip-biting Alex Rodriguez-style press conference or a heart-to-heart sitdown with Bob Costas. There wasn’t really anything for him to explain. He was a ballplayer.