Friday May 8th, 2009

Just last week, in this very space, I wrote a column explaining why Ken Griffey Jr. is a hero (and, consequently, why Alex Rodriguez is not). One of my arguments was that in this tainted era, Junior is a ballplayer we can actually believe in; one who has always seemed to do things naturally and righteously.

The e-mails poured in, one after the other after the other.

How can you be sure?

How do you know?

How is anyone certain?

Sigh.

The e-mails are right.

Griffey Jr. remains a clean player. But, really, what does that mean anymore? That he never used? Uh, no. That he probably never used? Uh, no. That we (gulp) hope he never used and think it's something of a possibility? Yup.

Thursday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced that Manny Ramirez would begin serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance. Like Griffey, Ramirez was also a presumably clean player -- one whose natural gifts, (relatively) unchanged build and consistently excellent statistics allowed any suspicions to be suppressed in the name of gosh-golly-gee awe.

In the recently released Becoming Manny, authors Jean Rhodes' and Shawn Boburg's biography of the eccentric slugger, the word "steroids" appears a whopping two times -- both passing references. Why? Because the assumption has always been that Ramirez, though crazy as a two-headed fruit fly, was almost too much of a simpleton to cheat; that his Bamm-Bamm Rubble-esque see ball-swing bat-hit home run approach was more than ample to guide him toward the Hall of Fame.

"Manny's like the absent-minded professor," says Rhodes, a professor herself (of clinical psychology, not of the insane arts Manuel Aristides Ramirez) at UMass-Boston, who spent four years reporting the book. "I do clinical psychology, and he's the toughest case I've ever had. He's very contradictory. Humble one minute, then striking a Rocky pose at home plate. Generous, but very guarded about his money. And now this. If it's true, well, it surprises me. Because Manny's been consistent his whole life as a baseball player."

Ah, if only that meant what it used to. Back in the prehistoric, pre-Mitchell Report days of, oh, two years ago, journalists like myself felt comfortable taking educated stabs at who was using and who wasn't. In press boxes around the country, conversations went thusly:

"Eric Gagne?"

No question.

"Barry Bonds?"

Duh.

"Roger Clemens?"

Probably.

"Manny Ramirez?"

Hmm ... I really don't think so.

My personal list of sure-to-be clean players included the likes of Griffey, Sal Fasano, Fred McGriff, Joe Randa, Brian Johnson, Ryan Dempster and Mike Sweeney -- men I still largely believe in. Also on that list was David Bell, the journeyman infielder who had recently wrapped up his 12-year career with the Milwaukee Brewers. Quiet and unassuming, Bell was one of my favorite ballplayer interviews. The grandson of Gus Bell and the son of Buddy Bell, he boasted a wide swath of knowledge, and was willing to share it. He appreciated the history of the game and never had that one what-the-hell-was-he-taking? power season. In my mind, if there was one guy who absolutely, positively never touched a performance-enhancer, it was Bell.

Mitchell Report -- page 244.

Oops.

So now here we are, yet another sure-shot Hall of Famer disgraced, dismissed and branded a cheat. Inevitably, 50 games from now Ramirez will return to Dodger Stadium a "changed" man. Teammates will offer inane-yet-supportive words like, "With or without drugs, he's a great hitter" and "If Manny says he's innocent, he's innocent."

Joe Torre, baseball's unofficial voice of reason, will tell the gathered throng that Ramirez probably needs to prove himself again, but that he has the full support of his team. We reporters will nod and jot inane etchings into our notepads, still afraid to ask the most important of questions: When will baseball players stop making excuses for other baseball players? When will managers finally take a stand for the good of the game? When will the league put its foot down and say, "You test positive one time, you're banned for life?"

Then Manny will hit a home run. The crowd will go wild. The Dodgers Dogs will sell like crazy.

And, without fail, all will be forgiven.

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