Wednesday May 13th, 2009

Things seemed to be going so well. Alex Rodriguez was in virtual seclusion in Colorado, then Florida. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were neither seen nor heard, and Zack Greinke and Ryan Zimmerman were reminding everyone that baseball still held the power to surprise and amaze for all the right reasons. And then came news that Manny Ramirez had failed a drug test, instantly calling into question the legitimacy of his statistics and of the Dodgers' red-hot start that had been fueled by a player who was fueled, at least in part, by a female fertility drug. Perhaps worst of all, it turned the focus of this week's mailbag back to the dreaded topic of performance-enhancing drugs.

In light of Manny Ramirez using performance enhancing drugs, it makes me think, Are any superstars clean? I will lose my mind if Albert Pujols shows up on a list somewhere. -- Eric Greene, New York, NY

It's fine to hope that superstars are clean, but the hard lesson from the revelations of Rodriguez and Ramirez is that it's probably best not to get those hopes too high. Now that two of the game's biggest names have been brought down, only months apart, baseball is short of two more players who are shining examples that players could still reach great heights through hard work and natural ability.

In some ways, Pujols might be the last great defender of the game. His numbers make him a lock for the Hall of Fame and his character and cleanliness have never been legitimately called into question. He's already stated publicly and for the record that he has never used performance-enhancing drugs. Because of his status as the game's premier slugger, the spotlight will always shine even brighter on him. For all the value of singles and doubles hitters, it is the great sluggers who will continue to generate the most excitement, and thus have the most potential to disappoint when their gargantuan blasts are found to have been chemically enhanced.

Why is everybody so surprised when one of these big-name players gets busted for steroids or PEDs? Why? These guys are not like the old days when they played on talent alone. They are now about one thing: money. Tell me I'm wrong. -- Jon, Detroit

OK, Jon: you're wrong. Players have always been as interested, if not more so, in playing for money as they have been for any other reason since Harry Wright started paying the Red Stockings in 1869. Furthermore, there is no more reason to believe that every player in this day and age is dirty as there is to believe that every player in previous generations was clean. Players have always looked for ways to boost their performance, some legal, some not. The reality is that as long as people care about baseball, they will care about the stars of the game giving performances that are authentic and believable. And that means that they are bound to be shocked and hurt when the best of those players is revealed to be less than what they seem.

Makes you look in wonderment and awe at what James Howard Thome has done without the benefit of drugs. -- Rick Snyder, Colton, Calif.

As's Tom Verducci points out in this week's issue of SI, only five of the top 15 home run hitters from 1993 through 2004 have not been "connected to performance-enhancing drugs by positive tests, the Mitchell Report or news reports": Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado. From what we know now, each of those players is to be commended for succeeding the right way when it was all too tempting to try and do things the wrong way. But the real shame is that we're probably all better off not being too amazed by what those guys have done as a means of insulating ourselves if it turns out they weren't worthy of that awe.

Why on Earth would Manny Ramirez take a PED now? The guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. What sense does it make to knowingly take a PED which you're being tested for and which you know, if caught, would tarnish your reputation and possibly block your enshrinement into Cooperstown. No one is asking this because the simple answer is: It doesn't make sense. Maybe, gasp, he is telling the truth. -- Jonathan Phillips, Athens, Ga.

Verducci's story this week details what happened to Manny after he tested positive, but here's the short answer. Ramirez did take a banned substance and Major League Baseball examined his medical files to see if that could explain why he was taking such a substance. If Ramirez was taking a banned substance for a legitimate medical issue, he could have gotten a therapeutic use exemption, but he never applied for one. If he actually felt the ban was wrong and that all he would be facing if he appealed was the embarrassing, but potentially legitimate, revelation of why he was taking a female fertility drug, then he should have tried do everything he could to clear his name. The fact that he didn't bother suggests, on some level, that he could not clear his name because he was as guilty as MLB suspected he was when he failed the drug test in the first place.

The way to stop steroids/performance-enhancing drugs in baseball: make teams forfeit games when the player is caught. For example, the Red Sox must forfeit any games Manny played in. That would mean The Curse is still on. What do you think? -- Ed Litwin, Atlanta

I don't think that has any chance of happening. The players who were clean don't deserve to have their accomplishments wiped away just because a teammate of theirs, likely unbeknownst to them, was cheating. Furthermore, I don't think it's much of a disincentive. The NCAA routinely strips teams of its records and accomplishments when players on those teams are found to have used an ineligible player, for example, but that hasn't stopped players, coaches, agents, etc. from doing shady things. No one can or will ever take away the Red Sox's 2004 and 2007 world championships, and even if those banners were forced to come down, the memories and the record books would never be erased.

I actually have a response to your response to Ford from Toronto in the May 6 mailbag. I agree with all of your points and with the number of teams making the MLB postseason, but how can you say the most deserving teams make it? There is usually at least one, if not two teams that don't make the playoffs because of the requirement that all three division winners get in. I would like to see them take the best four teams from each league into the playoffs and forget about division winners. -- Rob Coughlin, Townsend, Mass.

That would require going back to a balanced schedule, which doesn't seem very likely. The unbalanced schedule -- which pits division foes against each other almost 20 times a year -- was put in place before the 2002 season and the result has been interesting. For the first seven years of the wild-card era, no teams finishing outside the top 10 in winning percentage in a given season made the playoffs (the Astros, who won the NL Central with 84 wins in 1997, had the 10th-best winning percentage that season). In the seven seasons since the advent of the unbalanced schedule, the top eight teams have made it twice, and four times the playoffs have included a team outside the top 10. (The '05 Padres finished 14th, the '06 Cardinals were 13th -- and went on to win the World Series -- the '07 Cubs finished 12th and the '08 Dodgers finished 15th).

Playoff teams ranked by winning percentage, 1995-2008:

1995: 1-7, 9 1996: 1-8 1997: 1-6, 9-10 1998: 1-7, 9 1999: 1-6, 8,9 2000: 1-7, 9 2001: 1-7, 9 2002: 1-8 2003: 1-5, 7-9 2004: 1-8 2005: 1-5, 7, 8, 14 2006: 1-5, 8, 9, 13 2007: 1-7, 12 2008: 1-6, 9, 15

Before the start of this season many writers were predicting three AL East teams to win 90 games. How do those predictions look now? -- Mike Sullivan, Everett, Wash.

It could still happen, but if form holds, it would be the Blue Jays and not the Rays who would join the Red Sox and Yankees in the 90-win column. Given the dire state of Toronto's pitching staff when the year began, coupled with the Rays' emergence last season, that would be an enormous surprise.

Japan has won both WBC titles with consistent, timely hitting, without relying on the long ball. It is the same style that Ichiro has used throughout his MLB career. He has been criticized and labeled overrated by some. With this second WBC title (and the major role he played in both), do you think Ichiro will get the accolades he deserves as one of the best players in baseball (especially from the American media)? -- Todd Purvis, Thomasburg, Ontario

Ichiro has been celebrated as one of the best players in the game since making his American debut in 2001, when he joined Fred Lynn as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. He is a future Hall of Famer, and is certainly not hurting from a lack of respect, either from the fans or the media, and certainly not from opposing players and managers.

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