By Jason Keidel
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He entered fabulous and exits forlorn, his numbers penned into the books with disappearing ink.
Manny Ramirez, the most fearsome right-handed hitter of my generation, looked and played the part the moment he dug his cleats in the dirt. With his long, thick locks pouring down like vines, he looked like Medusa in a du-rag, his cheek bulging with chaw, staring at the shaken pitcher, his Red Sox helmet marred with pine tar, the barrel of his bat circling slowly, like a cobra’s neck, ready to lash at the fastball.
New York’s eternal tormentor, a kid from the Manhattan-Bronx border who killed the Bronx Bombers, it felt like Ramirez hit .500 against the Yankees for a decade. David Ortiz, Big Papi, got the publicity and adoration for a wide smile, carefree countenance, and titanic stick. But to a man, and to a fan, Manny made that Red Sox lineup. Ramirez, as much as anyone, is the reason the Bambino’s curse was broken.
(Why Manny got mauled for juicing and Papi got a pass is still something of a mystery to me.)
Stratospheric stats get streets bearing your name and statues and newly branded boulevards and banquet tours and bronze plaques from Cooperstown to Anytown, USA. They used to, anyway. Ask the macabre Missourians forced to dismantle the road signs named after McGwire the liar – the face of baseball’s burden to set the record straight after he engaged in that hideous group hug with the Maris family, ignoring the mountain of bones buried in his closet.
Every time we think we’ve swept the PED dirt under the historical rug, we find more revelations than salvations on Page Six and beyond. And we’re learning on the quick curve that the term “baseball hero” has become an oxymoron. It’s a world created by fools who made it big in America without doing it American Way. Hard work used to get the hardware. Then a generation of players bent the rules until they snapped, turning the record book into a tabloid.
Some guys are so good you marvel even when they’re magical at the expense of your team. When Jordan broke Oakley’s ankles on the baseline, spun, jumped and jammed on Ewing, you had to clap. Sometimes the singular talent of a savant breaches the plurality of defenses designed to stop him.
Ramirez was such a man. We thought he was on the journey only our pastime can provide, a minted member of the melting pot, who came from the island of Hispaniola to the island of Manhattan without our native tongue but a ton of talent. Baseball, America’s cultural avatar of advancement for people of all colors, rewards men who look like Manny. Tragically, it has rewarded men who act like Manny.
Now he’s been busted with equine potions that would make Seabiscuit blush. Thrice. The New York Times reported that his name was on the not-so-secret list of players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003. Then came his suspension in 2009. He latched onto the wrong dope dealer who sold him not only steroids, but also a story about masking agents. All they did was remove the mask from a cheater.
A lot has been made of Manny’s exit, ditching his team in Tampa without so much as a handshake, apology, or soliloquy. What exactly did he owe Joe Madden, his skipper for five games? Sure, he showed no sense of etiquette, but that was never his way. His inelegant departure wasn’t the tragedy.
The tragedy lies in what he represents – the endless conga line of liars to retire under the big, blinding marquee of mendacity. We don’t know when it began, and we don’t know if it has ended. We only know it has gotten better, which isn’t good enough. Manny may not be the greatest, but he’s the latest face of baseball’s quandary – where do we place these players who made a mockery of the record books? The Hall of Fame will be an unlikely stop on his itinerary five years from now, and there aren’t enough asterisks in the world cure the disease that plagued our pastime.
Like so many of his bulging brethren, he legacy stirs in baseball purgatory. His homers have no home in our hearts. To use his wheelhouse as a metaphor, one strike we can accept. Two strikes are dangerous. Manny now carries the disgusting distinction as the only man to get busted three times for PEDs. And rather than face the music, he snuck out the backdoor to infamy.
It seems the athletic icon can’t handle his demotion from hero to human. Tiger Woods, guilty of a different form of cheating, caught elbow-deep in the nookie jar, hasn’t sniffed a win since his car wreck and resultant train wreck, going 17 consecutive majors with his name plunged down the leader board. Once the aura, the metaphysical edge that came with the physical edge, is gone, so goes the dominance.
Manny takes his name and the game to a place we thought we passed – the sporting sewer, as we hatch the debate yet again. Are they great hitters because of the juice or were they great before the juice made them transcendent?
Manny, not a scholar, makes the debate academic. Because you can’t get past the monolithic logic of one question: If it doesn’t help, why did you do it?
“Manny being Manny” was once a quaint euphemism for errant throws and odd bathroom breaks inside the Green Monster. We thought he was just a big goofball who played baseball with a skill and a smile we’d remember forever.
And now the sage of the Steroid Era is a big, fat rat whose stats have become facts: Jose Canseco. He may have written the de facto bible on the juicing epoch for the wrong reasons, but his assertions taint twenty seasons.
If his declaration that 80 percent of ballplayers were sipping the juice is right – and every one of his accusations has been accurate – then we had no game, just shame, for two decades. The 500-homer club, once a sacred place, is now infected with men saving face.
And we don’t even know if it’s over.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
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