Another steroid bomb fell on baseball last week when the commissioner’s drug police caught Manny Ramirez using the female fertility drug human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. The bomb consisted not in the revelation but in the lingering capacity of baseball fans to be stunned that news of this sort should hit the street.
There’s bad news for baseball lovers who want the steroid story to go away: It’s never going away, and we learn nothing by pretending that it has or ever will.
The steroid story of our time will live for hundreds of years after we’re all dead and gone, so long as the American experience keeps baseball in its fold. We’re stuck with it, now and forever, faced not with options for making it go away but with a responsibility for dealing with it.
That in mind, the Ramirez bust is actually great news. For the first time, the enforcers have caught a big star right in the moment — not through a Justice Department prosecution, not in the work of journalists three years after the fact, not in the course of a special investigation but right now in season.
It’s an indication not so much that baseball is filthy with steroids but that the central office is willing to hold its nose and take the public relations hit, particularly in an important market, to clean up the game and restore public confidence in the long run. A cynic might reply that it could equally be an indication that the central office would rather bust Ramirez than some other players. But we’ll give Major League Baseball the benefit of the doubt, at least for now.
Baseball officials and the players union are doing about everything we could ask them to do, testing players to make as certain as possible that they’re performing as natural human beings and exposing those who aren’t. It’s entirely possible, at this point, that the game is cleaner than it’s ever been. Baseball is even enforcing prohibitions on amphetamine use, which helped players through the 162-game grind for generations.
But some players aren’t going to catch on to the mood, others will think they can beat the system and, indeed, the drug makers and unscrupulous players are bound to stay a step ahead of the enforcers. All we can expect, from this point forward, is that baseball on the whole will make a concerted effort to stay clean so we can enjoy the games with some confidence that they’re fairly played, honestly won and conducted within human proportions.
If you believe that, if you see in the Ramirez bust evidence that MLB and its players really are cleaning up the game, then for the first time in years the game can be viewed without compromising one’s own conscience or credulity.
Other televised sports can pass as guilty pleasure. College and professional football glean their popularity largely as pretexts for wagering. The same might be said about the NBA, which plays an 82-game regular season for little other reason except to eliminate fewer than half of its teams, then opens suspicion, within and outside the league, that its offices want certain match-ups for television appeal. College basketball is a joke that universities play on themselves.
Baseball is held to a higher standard, not because baseball people are nobles — they certainly aren’t — but because the story we tell ourselves about baseball demands it. Baseball is the game that makes poets sing about its permanence through time and its metaphorical description of human life. It’s the green in the middle of town, resisting technology and preserving habits of simple, daily pleasure.
Is all that merely a myth about baseball? To be a little more pungent, is it complete nonsense? It depends on how far we’re willing to go to protect that story and make it true.
Like few other institutions, baseball has an almost foundational psychological commitment to its old fashion. Those stories are true about baseball to the extent that the central office is devoted to realizing them.
Inevitably, the times will take the game along on its sweep. Developments in technology and urbanization once dictated that the game be played on artificial surfaces in symmetrical stadiums designed by the praxis of suburban sprawl. Who else but MLB would pop its head up, say, “It was better the old way,” and then push a transformation to natural grass stadiums relocated to city centers?
Baseball follows its duty to timelessness all the way down to the clothes it wears. Every club that once gave in to loud colors and sansabelts has gone back to traditional uniform styles, because that’s the way baseball sees itself.
Right now, if MLB desired, it could microchip baseballs, then set up radar and sonar detection systems to define a neutral strike zone in three dimensions for every ball park so there would never be any dispute about balls and strikes. But that would remove from the game elements of judgment and human relations that make baseball such a uniquely edifying discourse. The steroid problem in baseball is a similar issue.
Among the arguments for why football players shouldn’t use steroids, we don’t say steroids ruin football. We say steroids make football unnecessarily violent, realizing at the outset that football is based in bone-crushing violence. It’s perfectly fine for football players to snap each other’s knees in two, though it’s not so fine for players to “enhance” themselves to super-human size and speed so they can snap each other’s knees.
But steroids ruin baseball, not just at its core but in its image. Baseball is about ordinary-sized people functioning in life-like environments.
Baseball can’t put up with steroids so long as it wants to tell that story and believe it. Baseball needed much too long to realize that, but the understanding has dawned, and the game is better for it.
A finding against Manny Ramirez is an echo, just like the Alex Rodriguez revelations in March were an echo and just like the next big name to come across will be an echo of baseball’s past ignorance about steroids.
In cases like Ramirez, we’ll laugh at the man’s lack of acuity. In cases like A-Rod, who admitted to performance enhancing drug use some years ago, we’ll say they didn’t call him A-Fraud for nothing. Other cases of players from the present and recent past who are found to have been violators should bring no more than a shrug.
But they can’t bring just a shrug. At some point, we’ll have to value these players against history. The list of greats from recent years with steroid taint — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, A-Rod, Ramirez and others — are Hall of Famers who will at least raise serious questions about their worthiness because of steroids.
The Ramirez bust is a sign that those are becoming questions about the past. When the time comes to answer them, it’ll make them no less difficult to answer — but it will make the game today and the game tomorrow that much easier to watch.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org