Crime, Punishment, and Manny

Via my boy Alex Belth comes this fantastically irreverent Slate piece by Charles P. Pierce on Manny Ramirez’s return to action:

Then, back in May, the test results came back. A chorus of moaning arose from the Church of the Perpetually Outraged. (This week’s sermon: “What about the children?”) But he slowly but surely made a goof even out of the Most Serious Crisis There Absolutely Ever Has Been. The drug for which he was nailed was only the beginning of it. Pundits were dispatched to the far corners of the minors to seek out the disheartened and disillusioned. Instead, they found fans who were just happy to see Manny Ramirez swinging for the fences of their little stadium. (My favorite was the guy who told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that he and his wife had, like Manny, used a fertility drug. “Manny got suspended,” the man told Plaschke. “We got twins!”) With Manny in town, the game was a happy, not haunted, place. This seemed to come as a surprise to some people.

Ramirez’s weird pilgrimage to the bushes served as a living reminder that the great steroid hunt is almost solely an intramural problem between baseball and its various acolytes. The overwhelming number of baseball fans—who, given the economic problems of the moment, are filling ballparks in reasonably overwhelming numbers—have quite obviously made peace with what happened in the game over the past 20 years. Manny Ramirez was treated as though he’d pulled a hamstring or tweaked a tendon. Now, he’s back. That’s the way things are going to be from now on.

This isn’t the first time the Massachusetts-based Pierce has taken up the poison pen when it comes to Ramirez’s detractors. The day after he was traded to the Dodgers last summer, he marveled at the pitchfork-wielding mob which ushered him out of Beantown:

I was driving home late in the last afternoon of the Manny Ramirez Era in Boston, listening to the local ESPN radio outlet, when, suddenly, it seemed that the two hosts had decided that what the situation called for was the opinion of Margaret Hamilton’s character from The Wizard of Oz.

… disgrace to the game … I get sick of people in Boston adoring a guy who didn’t play hard. … blackmailed the Red Sox … an affront and an embarrassment … What about the integrity of playing the game right? … When it comes to the Hall of Fame, there will be a lot of people who have a lot more questions about Manny Ramirez than they do about Mark McGwire.

And his mangy little dog, too, one supposes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the sources of this particularly violent magma displacement was ESPN’s Peter Gammons. This is like being heckled by one of the heads on Mount Rushmore. It’s also gloriously unmoored from reality. Gammons’ own record on covering the Steroid Era is a decidedly mixed one. Not that I care, because that cause was never my frenzy of choice, either.

There’s no question in Pierce’s mind that Ramirez’s positive test and suspension mark a turning point in baseball’s battle against steroids. Without trying to belittle the need for that fight, I agree with him. Here we have a popular superstar who has been caught by Major League Baseball’s increasingly sophisticated testing program; recall that he didn’t test positive for a steroid but for elevated testosterone, which gave MLB license to examine his medical records, where they discovered a decidedly unkosher prescription for hCG. While certainly granted more coverage than was necessary, there was no innuendo, no violation of guaranteed anonymity, no illegal governmental leak. Just crime and punishment, the violation of baseball’s drug agreement triggering a 50-game suspension served as eager fans awaited his return.

And not just Dodger fans; as Pierce points out, ESPN devoted plenty of space to Ramirez’s day-by-day progress during his suspension and “rehab” assignment. For once, the chattering classes notably failed to agree that history’s greatest monster was walking among us. Plaschke’s curmudgeonly colleague at the LA Times, T.J. Simers, went so far as to call himself a Ramirez apologist because with Ramirez around, “The Dodgers are not only relevant again, but a show worth watching.”

While there have been outbreaks of handwringing here and there since Ramirez returned to the lineup last Friday, a long last, it appears we’re at least incrementally past the simplistic outrage that equates steroid users as Evildoing Cheaters Who Have Destroyed the Game and Should Be Banned For Life, Plus Spanked and Sent to Bed Without Supper. Ramirez broke the rules, the rules were enforced, the penalty was handed down, Ramirez served it unflinchingly, and the sun still rose in the East. That’s healthy, and if somebody wants to Think of the Children, how about reminding them that after serving their punishment, people deserve their second chances.

As I write this, Ramirez has just been ejected in the fifth inning of Tuesday night’s Dodgers-Mets game. Home plate umpire John Hirschbeck wouldn’t stand for him tossing his elbow pad to express his disgruntlement with being called out on strikes via a ball that, conservatively speaking, was closer to Rockaway Beach than home plate. That’s a punishment disproportionate to the crime, but thankfully, at least Manny is back to being Manny.

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