The good news of the week is that you can buy a discounted Manny Ramirez t-shirt for as little as $10. I haven’t checked out the Barry Bonds memorabilia market lately.
Every time baseball tries to climb out of the slough of despond that is the Steroid Era, there’s Barry and Manny to drag it back in. And many assorted others.
Bonds, of course, was convicted this past week of a single count of obstruction of justice by a San Francisco, Calif. jury for “evasive” testimony about taking those “vitamins.” That’s what Lenny Dykstra called the stuff he was on when he bulked up to lead the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies to glory, along with probably everyone else but John Kruk. Dykstra was arrested this same week too, but that’s another story.
Ramirez retired abruptly — no goodbye to his latest teammates, no farewell to fans, no apology to anyone after testing positive for a female growth hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin. As a second recorded drug violation, that would have triggered a 100-game suspension, gobbling up most of the $2 million paycheck he had deigned to play for this year. Oh, and he was hitting .059. Good reasons to take a permanent vacation. No need to feel too sorry for the guy, though. Manny earned $200 million in baseball, all without benefit of a high school diploma. It sort of skews all those stats about how much better you’ll do in life with a college degree.
Ramirez was also outed on the list of 100 players who tested positive for drug use in 2004, but that didn’t count against baseball policy. So you can say the guy was a user, period. A naturally gifted athlete, he chose to be a fraud, in company with many of his generation. No one but Manny and his pusher will ever know how far back his steroid use went, but none of his 555 career home runs can be assumed to be untainted. Goodbye, Hall of Fame. Manny is a member of the New York City Public School Athletic Hall of Fame, also sans diploma, so he’ll have to rest content with that, and the $200 million, of course.
As for Bonds, I doubt there’ll be jail time, even if the single-count conviction holds up on appeal. Like the rich boys in the Civil War who paid other people to do their military service for them, Bonds had his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, do his time. The taxpayers deserve a break.
I was almost beginning to feel a smidgen of sympathy for Bonds at the end, pursued by the relentless Furies of the Justice Department while the corporate criminals who’ve defrauded the country of trillions and thrown a sixth of the country out of work were getting off scot-free. Bonds actually did give some value as a ballplayer, until he went for his big payday. And no one should have to have his testicles discussed in public.
What makes Barry and Manny so suitable as villains is that they are so unlikable as people. What makes baseball so willing to throw them to the dogs is that they’re an embarrassment in the now-officially post-steroid era proclaimed by Commissioner for Eternity Bud Selig. Buy that, and there’s a bridge I can sell you too. This year alone, four players in the Phillies farm system have tested positive for drug use. The new crop is coming up.
The old gang is still with us too. Alex Rodriguez is under Yankee contract until 2017, and David Ortiz is still dinging them for the Red Sox. Boston fans can thank Ramirez and Ortiz for the memories; the two leading hitters on that 2004 team that broke the city’s 86-year championship drought were both cheaters. And don’t even bring Roger Clemens up. The head of Ted Williams must be spinning in its freezer.
As a longtime baseball fan, I must, sadly, discount much of what I see on ball fields today. Fortunately, my memories go back to fonder days — like Doc Ellis pitching a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while so coked out of his head that he barely realized he was standing on a mound. The days when substance abuse meant amphetamines and cocaine are now a time of innocence. Those drugs kept you awake — or put you in a happy daze — but they didn’t produce 500-foot home runs. There’s a difference. Heck, Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Babe had probably each taken a snort before their big showdown in the 1926 World Series. What was the harm?
Grover Cleveland Alexander won 373 Major League games, probably most of them drunk. Ulysses S. Grant went through the Civil War drunk, and Richard Nixon was the last two years of his presidency. Well, there may have been some harm in the latter case, though we did survive it. But Roger Clemens’ 354 career wins stand in the record books beside Alexander’s 373, and they don’t belong there, because a good hundred of them, to say the least, should be discounted. That is harm. When a 20th century All-Star team was chosen in 1999, Roger Clemens was picked as the starting pitcher — not Christy Mathewson, not Walter Johnson, not Lefty Grove, not Warren Spahn. What kind of joke was that?
Presidencies come and go, and even civil wars. But baseball records are forever, as endlessly the source of contemplation and the fodder of debate as the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. The text should be as pristine as we can make it. But it’s thoroughly corrupted now, and will continue to be. We live in the age of the Great Cheat. We don’t expect baseball to clean up its act any more than we do corporate America. More’s the pity.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at email@example.com