Shortly before 10 o'clock last Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, with Los Angeles leading the Washington Nationals 10--3 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Manny Ramirez—who had hit a two-run double the previous inning to break open the game—asked out of the lineup without explanation, changed clothes and bolted the clubhouse. Manager Joe Torre, general manager Ned Colletti and Ramirez's teammates thought nothing of it. It was just an early exit from a blowout by a guy hitting .348. Two hours later, however, team owner Frank McCourt was notified by Major League Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred that Ramirez had violated the joint drug agreement between MLB and the players' association. For three weeks, in fact, Ramirez had been playing under the threat of suspension. A little past midnight McCourt broke the news to Torre and Colletti on a conference call: their leftfielder would be suspended for 50 games for using a banned performance-enhancing drug. The news went public less than 12 hours later with a stupefying, sad sameness to it: yet another baseball great revealed as too good to be true. Apparently Mannywood was as much a myth as its namesake film industry.
Ramirez's downfall began with a urine sample he provided shortly after reporting to spring training in late March, a little more than a month after Alex Rodriguez had admitted to being a drug cheat in the wake of a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED report that the Yankees' third baseman had tested positive for two anabolic steroids in 2003. For Ramirez the drug-policy violation was caused not by a steroid or an illegal supplement (the performance enhancers more commonly at the root of ballplayers' positive tests), but by a female fertility drug that boosts the natural production of testosterone. Coincidentally, Ramirez was suspended the day before Rodriguez, returning from hip surgery, played the first game of the rest of his career as a tainted superstar.
One by one, syringe by syringe, the greatest players of an entire generation have crashed like fine china on a hard floor. Of the 15 players who hit the most home runs from 1993 through 2004, Ramirez is the 10th to be connected to performance-enhancing drugs by positive tests, the Mitchell Report or news reports, joining Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Juan Gonzalez and Mo Vaughn in the rogues' gallery. (The five not associated as such are Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado.)
Players such as Ramirez—the first star to be banned since the release of the Mitchell Report in December 2007 and the subsequent tightening of MLB's drug policy—have made certain that baseball, more than any other sport with the possible exceptions of cycling and track and field, is regarded popularly as a profession of drug cheats. Yet the very people whose collective reputation continues to be besmirched reacted with more apathy than outrage at what Ramirez had wrought. Active players, sticking to their well-practiced passivity, chose not to use the occasion to speak out against drugs in baseball.
Even Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt, who in February had said that all of Rodriguez's records should be stricken from the record book, declined comment this time. As if wearied by a climate that does not change, Oswalt told reporters, "No matter what I say, it's not going to make a difference."
Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who during the off-season had suggested mandatory one-year suspensions for drug-policy violations, was more sympathetic in the wake of the revelations about his friend and former teammate, saying, "It's a little confusing from what I've seen because there are guys out there taking things you can buy over the counter. Sometimes it's banned, sometimes it's not. I don't know."
Ramirez's own reaction revealed a familiar evasiveness: Denial, at least in the form of a planned appeal, followed by a statement designed to shift blame (in this case to an anonymous South Florida doctor) and disassociation from the dreaded s word. It was a strategy cribbed from the playbook of Rodriguez, whose agent, Scott Boras, represents Ramirez as well, plus at least eight other players tied to performance-enhancing drugs.
By hitting .396 in 53 games last season after forcing a July 31 trade out of Boston, Ramirez had already won the hearts of Dodgers fans with the insouciance of a child playing a pickup game. For the full season Ramirez slugged .601, an astounding achievement at age 36; only five other men that old had ever had a higher percentage: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and Bonds. The stricter testing regimen in baseball had seemed to be running guys out of the game or into lesser roles in their mid-30s, but Ramirez, as good as he ever was, defied the trend.
In mid-April, however, three weeks after Ramirez's sample was taken, MLB and the players' union were informed that tests showed an elevated level of testosterone in his system; the union, in turn, informed the player. The Dodgers, meanwhile, knew nothing of the test, blithely enjoying the sublime hitting of Ramirez—he was slugging .641 this year—and the marketing boost he had given them. The organization branded a section of the leftfield seats at Dodger Stadium as Mannywood, where fans wore do-rags and faux dreadlocks (available at stadium concession stands, of course) in homage to the Los Angeles slugger.
Unless there was an acceptable explanation for the high testosterone levels, the commissioner's office was prepared to suspend Ramirez under Section 8.B.1 of the joint drug agreement, in which a first positive test for any banned substance results in a 50-game suspension. Boras, Ramirez and the union questioned whether there was enough evidence to consider the test positive. Ramirez, they argued, was under a doctor's care for a "personal health issue." MLB officials asked for and received Ramirez's medical files. Last Wednesday, Manfred flew from New York City to Los Angeles for a hearing on the appeal.