Saturday April 9th, 2011

BOSTON -- The latest face to be chiseled on the Steroid Era's Mount Rushmore has a wispy beard, is shrouded in dreadlocks and now won't ever be cast in bronze.

That face belongs to Manny Ramirez, whose playful silliness can no longer excuse his recurring infractions, placing him alongside Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as the era's acknowledged headliners.

Ramirez formerly owned baseball's purest, most powerful right-handed swing, but after a second transgression of Major League Baseball's drug program and his subsequent, abrupt retirement from the game, that beautiful all-fields swing seems more and more like a medically concocted mirage.

Ramirez retired from baseball Friday afternoon via a stark Major League Baseball press release, indicating the Rays' new designated hitter had been notified of an issue under the league's drug program -- later reported to be a failed test for a performance-enhancing drug upon his arrival at spring training -- and had elected to retire rather than appeal or face a 100-game suspension for a second violation.

In an act of remarkable cowardice, Ramirez did not even bother to inform his employers of his retirement and that, according to one baseball source, the Rays learned of Ramirez' retirement from the Commissioner's Office and not from either the player or his agent.

Instead, Ramirez, who was off to a pathetic 1-for-17 start this season, decided to slip out the back door of his new office, quitting without leaving notice, failing to offer words of explanation or remorse and leaving his reeling club in a lurch.

"We are obviously surprised and disappointed by this news," the Rays said in a statement. "We will have no further comment on this matter, and our fans and organization will carry on."

Ramirez will never receive a Hall of Fame plaque, not after apparently testing positive on three drug tests. The New York Times reported that Ramirez was on the supposedly anonymous 2003 steroid survey, in addition to his 2008 suspension and this spring's result; so we can all now forget about the most anticipated acceptance speech in the Baseball Hall's history. Ballwriters had long joked about the potential of an eccentric goofball like Ramirez, who alternated childlike affability with media silence and occasional ignorance of the English language, speaking to legions of fans on the lawn of Cooperstown's Clark Sports Center.

The timing was suprising: This was to be the spring of redemption for Ramirez. In the past two years, he had been suspended for 50 games for one drug violation, lost much of his power, was benched by the Dodgers and then failed to contribute after the White Sox obtained him for free.

But after signing with Tampa Bay for a pittance -- $2 million, one-tenth of what he made the previous year with Los Angeles -- Ramirez was a revelation. Scouts raved that his swing looked better than it had in years. The Rays were enthused about his presence in their lineup. His teammates wore t-shirts bearing his spring slogan of "Prove It" and Ramirez even donned a shirt with a dreadlocked stingray and the words "Manny Ray."

His appearance and performance drew admiration. Old teammate and good friend David Ortiz of the Red Sox said Friday that Ramirez looked this spring to be in "one of the best shapes I've ever seen him. When I watched him hit, 'Wow, he's back.' The whole talk in the whole dugout was the way he was hitting."

Ramirez was playful with the media at his introductory press conference in early February and the honeymoon lasted throughout the spring. Roughly two weeks ago in Port Charlotte, Fla., Ramirez told SI.com he had no goals for the season, explaining, "I'm just happy with that place that I'm at, you know?"

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said Ramirez had been very approachable this spring and insisted that he was not worried about his player's behavior.

"I'm not," Maddon said in late March. "Honestly, I'm not. Maybe I'm being totally naïve here, but my concern is to stay ahead of everybody's problems. We have a great staff. I'm not talking about me only."

Of course, it was already too late by then. The testing process is laborious, and it seems the failed test dated to his intake to Rays camp, later turning his stats from the spring -- 14-for-45 with three home runs -- into a total charade rather than a glimpse of a comeback.

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who also had worked out with Ramirez in Arizona this offseason, said the longtime slugger had proven to be a great teammate in the season's early days. To illustrate his point about Ramirez's innocent love of the game, Longoria said he was struck by how much Ramirez loved being on a team and how much he loved putting on his uniform.

"He's in the clubhouse at 9 a.m., and he's already put on his pants and shoes and his belt," Longoria said. "Not a lot of guys do that. Manny just loves baseball and being around baseball."

That unadulterated joy of being a baseball player on a baseball team apparently led him to take another shot at playing, but the reality of a major-league fastball led him to take another shot of cheating.

Did Ramirez, who already had signed a last-chance contract on the cheap, want the chemical aid so that he could have a big year and get another job in baseball next year? Did he have so little respect for the game of baseball and the merits of his career that he cheated knowing all along he'd retire if he were caught? Was he misinformed by a steroids peddler about the effectiveness of a masking agent?

There's a certain absurdity to three failed tests, given how few there have been. Maybe it's a sign that Ramirez wasn't smart enough how to beat the test in a fashion that many of his peers seemed to have done. Maybe he realized he had already been branded with the scarlet S and had nothing left to lose. Maybe he was a dirty cheat his whole career and never much of a ballplayer without the juice. Performance-enhancers don't only generate more strength to hit the ball farther but also quicken the swing to so that a player can hit more pitches. Ramirez, after all, was more than just a great power hitter.

He isn't likely to magically re-appear and explain what happened. That wasn't how Ramirez handled the first suspension, so surely that won't change here. He'll take his 555 home runs and .312 career batting average and disappear out of the public spotlight. The narrative on what for so long had been a legendarily prolific -- and entertaining -- career will now be told through the evidence left behind: numbers and needles.

"I don't really know the details, how everything went down [but] it's sad, man, to see a player with that much talent and who had an unbelievable career, to get out of the game with negativity," Ortiz said.

Talent has always been blinding, which is why so many so desperately wanted to savor Ramirez's spring swings and believe he was making the most of his last chance with another season as an offensive terror.

"That's the Manny Ramirez that everybody knows," Ortiz said of his friend's hitting.

If only it could be that easy. But we've learned that none of it was real and that the Ramirez everybody will remember was a coward and a cheat.

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