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Reaction to Manny Ramirez's Suspension
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
May 8, 2009
As someone whose enjoyment of baseball has always been tied to player comparison, the 2009 bombs about Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez actually come as somewhat of a relief to me for a number of reasons. First, there are fewer and fewer players with each passing year that I have to account for in terms of performance enhancement, or lack there of. I no longer have to wonder whether Barry Bonds, dirty, was better than A-Rod, clean. If everyone is dirty, then everyone is on a level playing field and it is easy to compare them. Second, I took the position a while ago that we can no longer assume that anyone is clean. Every time someone huge gets busted, that position is validated just a little bit more. This is particularly so with these guys – Manny was the last guys I suspected, because it didn’t seem to match his diffident personality, and A-Rod was held out for a couple of years as the guy who would save the homerun record from the taint that Bonds had put on it.
I think that Keith and I – to the extent that we have ever agreed on the steroids topic – have consistently expressed frustration with the failure of baseball fans and media to address the question “did using the banned substance impact the player’s career.” The idea here is that, unless you think the substances the player used actually made him a better player, then his using the substances is really not a big deal.
Whether or not what Manny was using had a positive impact on his performance as a player, I am not sure. You can’t ignore the fact that he hit .400 with a 1200 OPS over 53 games with the Dodgers at the age of 36 last year, or the fact that he is currently posting the best OPS of his career in 2009. You can’t ignore the fact that he has had injury issues recently, playing only 130-ish games two years in a row before playing 153 in 2008.
But you also can’t ignore the fact that Manny has always been a great hitter. This isn’t Jason Giambi or Mark McGwire or even Alex Rodriguez. Manny, Barry Bonds, and Frank Thomas are the elite hitters of the Delgado Era (maybe throw Edgar Martinez in there, too), the average/power/on-base guys who can get base hits like Ichiro, hit homeruns like Giambi, and take walks like McGwire. If Manny has in fact been using performance enhancing drugs, but only late in his career, I tend to view him in a light similar to Barry Bonds – he was already a Hall of Famer before he started using, so I have a hard time getting worked up about it now. He will drop some slots on my all time list, but whatever.
Of course, the reason Bonds got started late in his career is because Bonds was late in his career in 1998. Same with Roger Clemens. The period during which they could be described as “late in their career” happened to be, apparently, the period during which these drugs proliferated. But Manny was 26 years old in 1998, and his first truly magical year came in 1999. If he started using at the same time that Bonds and Clemens started using (which by the way, judging by body-size, is the same time Sammy Sosa started using) then we have a problem, Mr. Ramirez.
Seeing two guys who I really didn’t suspect of being guilty get busted makes it a whole lot easier for me to live with assuming the guys I do suspect are guilty. If Manny and A-Rod are guilty, then I have little doubt that the following are, too, chief amongst them being Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey, Jr., Jim Thome, and Frank Thomas.
Of course, some might seek to crucify me for putting the scarlet letter on guys who have not been accused of anything. Realize, however, that I don’t agree that users of performance enhancing drugs should be castigated from baseball society. I don’t think Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, or Rafael Palmeiro should be kept out of the Hall of Fame. I don’t think the homerun record should be taken away from Bonds. I think suspending Joe Jackson, while apparently necessary, was tragic, and I think keeping Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame because of off the field transgressions is non-sequitorial.
And, brace yourself for this one – I don’t think players should be suspended for 50 games either.
You know what single fact of baseball history kills me more than any other? Ted Williams’ war years. Every time I look at Williams’ career stats, I go off on a journey – sometimes minutes, sometimes hours – pondering the imponderables: would he have hit 800 homeruns? How many more Triple Crowns? How many hits? 2500 RBIs? How many more times does he hit .400? Ted Williams’ war years robbed us of the completion of the career of one of the greatest players of all time.
Williams leads my list, but he isn’t the only one. Satchel Paige is a close second. Seeing what he did in his forties makes me ache to wonder what he could have done in his twenties. Throw in Joe DiMaggio, Cool Papa Bell, Hank Greenberg, and Josh Gibson, and I would say losing statistics of perfectly healthy players is the thing that kills me most about baseball.
I usually take the train into work. The last two days, I happened to have driven, so I have been treated to all the talk radio reactions to the suspension. One the radio this morning, caller after caller called in to say they had tickets to an upcoming Phillies-Dodgers series, and they were miffed at not getting to see Manny Ramirez play. Miffed at the notion that the star player for the opposing team would not be playing. Listening to these fans – and the voices in my head, frankly – I’m not so sure that suspending these players doesn’t punish the fans a lot more than the players. Manny gets a two month vacation, meanwhile the Dodgers go in the tank, grown men who were going to take their kids to see a future Hall of Famer live with disappointment, and stat-geeks like me lose a third of a season of one of the greatest players of all time.
Perhaps making an offending player play for free for a whole season (okay, minimum wage) would be a better penalty. And just to insure that the team doesn’t profit from the player’s misdeeds ($25 million dollars back into the pockets of the front office), the money can be used to buy game tickets for poor kids and text books for inner city schools. At the end of the day, Manny Ramirez plays baseball for himself, but he also plays it for me. Baseball needs to find a way to punish the players and the teams without punishing the fans.
I also think the time of Moral Outrage might be over. When I received the text message that Manny Ramirez had been busted, I did something that I didn’t do when I found out about A-Rod, Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Pettitte, or Giambi – I smiled. And I laughed. And I stood up with a “holy crap, this is amazing” look on my face. I was in shocked disbelief, but not out of disappointment. I reacted the same way I did when Zack Greinke pitched a shutout in his most recent outing – “Oh my God, this is real. And it isn’t going to stop. Maybe ever!”
Bill Simmons wrote a column reacting to the news. The column tells a fictional account of taking his son to his first game at Fenway five years from now, and features his son pointing out the fact that every player on the 2004 World Series Championship team, anecdotally anyway, seemed to be juiced.
Simmons imagines himself sheepishly trying to explain, and justify, it to his son like this:
“You have to understand, EVERYONE cheated back then. You know how I drive 80 on the highway even though all the signs say to go 55? That's how everyone thought back then -- the signs said one thing, but everyone did the other. There were so many people cheating that, competitively, you almost had to cheat to keep up with everyone else.”
I think he’s got it, and I think it is foolish to think otherwise. And I think the sooner you accept it, the sooner you realize that the playing field in this era is pretty even, and the fact that Manny Ramirez was a better hitter than Paul Konerko still probably tells you that Manny was a better hitter than Paul Konerko, not that Manny was dirty and Konerko was clean. It is a level playing field, regardless of the lying, cheating, stealing, and bad example for the young kids (which, given allegations that A-Rod may have juiced in high school, now become laughable). At the end of the day, despite the seediness, the gall and disappointment, and the apparent corruptness, the statistics remain pure.
The one remaining injustice, of course, is that Bonds and McGwire and Sosa and A-Rod and Palmeiro and Manny are all surpassing the career accomplishments of Ruth and Aaron and Gehrig and Mays and Mantle and McCovey, and that it isn’t fair.
Well, anyone who measures the talent of a player by the milestones they’ve eclipsed isn’t paying close enough attention anyway. Hank Aaron didn’t become a better player than Babe Ruth because he hit more homeruns than Ruth, and Barry Bonds isn’t a better player than Aaron for that reason either. Ken Griffey’s 600th homerun didn’t make him a better player than Mickey Mantle, and Rafael Palmeiro’s 600th homerun didn’t make him a better player than Willie McCovey.
We’re smart people. We’re baseball fans. I think we know how to enjoy the performance of today’s players while protecting the legacies of players of yesteryear.
I think we all need to take a deep breath, assume the worst, and then head out to the ballpark. I think we’ll all be surprised to find that, assuming all the players are on performance enhancing drugs, Albert Pujols is still awesome compared to Casey Kotchman, Johan Santana is still awesome compared to Hayden Penn, and Chase Utley is still awesome compared to Asdrubal Cabrera.
Unless of course your enjoyment of baseball is not tied to player comparison. If you are one of these fans whose enjoyment is tied to things like “seeing your home team win,” well, I can’t relate to that, but I would imagine it is still fun to see your team win. You don’t even need an excuse.
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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