Shortly before 10 o'clock last Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, with Los Angeles leading the Washington Nationals 10--3 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Manny Ramirez—who had hit a two-run double the previous inning to break open the game—asked out of the lineup without explanation, changed clothes and bolted the clubhouse. Manager Joe Torre, general manager Ned Colletti and Ramirez's teammates thought nothing of it. It was just an early exit from a blowout by a guy hitting .348. Two hours later, however, team owner Frank McCourt was notified by Major League Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred that Ramirez had violated the joint drug agreement between MLB and the players' association. For three weeks, in fact, Ramirez had been playing under the threat of suspension. A little past midnight McCourt broke the news to Torre and Colletti on a conference call: their leftfielder would be suspended for 50 games for using a banned performance-enhancing drug. The news went public less than 12 hours later with a stupefying, sad sameness to it: yet another baseball great revealed as too good to be true. Apparently Mannywood was as much a myth as its namesake film industry.
Ramirez's downfall began with a urine sample he provided shortly after reporting to spring training in late March, a little more than a month after Alex Rodriguez had admitted to being a drug cheat in the wake of a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED report that the Yankees' third baseman had tested positive for two anabolic steroids in 2003. For Ramirez the drug-policy violation was caused not by a steroid or an illegal supplement (the performance enhancers more commonly at the root of ballplayers' positive tests), but by a female fertility drug that boosts the natural production of testosterone. Coincidentally, Ramirez was suspended the day before Rodriguez, returning from hip surgery, played the first game of the rest of his career as a tainted superstar.
One by one, syringe by syringe, the greatest players of an entire generation have crashed like fine china on a hard floor. Of the 15 players who hit the most home runs from 1993 through 2004, Ramirez is the 10th to be connected to performance-enhancing drugs by positive tests, the Mitchell Report or news reports, joining Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Juan Gonzalez and Mo Vaughn in the rogues' gallery. (The five not associated as such are Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado.)
Players such as Ramirez—the first star to be banned since the release of the Mitchell Report in December 2007 and the subsequent tightening of MLB's drug policy—have made certain that baseball, more than any other sport with the possible exceptions of cycling and track and field, is regarded popularly as a profession of drug cheats. Yet the very people whose collective reputation continues to be besmirched reacted with more apathy than outrage at what Ramirez had wrought. Active players, sticking to their well-practiced passivity, chose not to use the occasion to speak out against drugs in baseball.
May 17, 2009
Even Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt, who in February had said that all of Rodriguez's records should be stricken from the record book, declined comment this time. As if wearied by a climate that does not change, Oswalt told reporters, "No matter what I say, it's not going to make a difference."
Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who during the off-season had suggested mandatory one-year suspensions for drug-policy violations, was more sympathetic in the wake of the revelations about his friend and former teammate, saying, "It's a little confusing from what I've seen because there are guys out there taking things you can buy over the counter. Sometimes it's banned, sometimes it's not. I don't know."
Ramirez's own reaction revealed a familiar evasiveness: Denial, at least in the form of a planned appeal, followed by a statement designed to shift blame (in this case to an anonymous South Florida doctor) and disassociation from the dreaded s word. It was a strategy cribbed from the playbook of Rodriguez, whose agent, Scott Boras, represents Ramirez as well, plus at least eight other players tied to performance-enhancing drugs.
By hitting .396 in 53 games last season after forcing a July 31 trade out of Boston, Ramirez had already won the hearts of Dodgers fans with the insouciance of a child playing a pickup game. For the full season Ramirez slugged .601, an astounding achievement at age 36; only five other men that old had ever had a higher percentage: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and Bonds. The stricter testing regimen in baseball had seemed to be running guys out of the game or into lesser roles in their mid-30s, but Ramirez, as good as he ever was, defied the trend.
In mid-April, however, three weeks after Ramirez's sample was taken, MLB and the players' union were informed that tests showed an elevated level of testosterone in his system; the union, in turn, informed the player. The Dodgers, meanwhile, knew nothing of the test, blithely enjoying the sublime hitting of Ramirez—he was slugging .641 this year—and the marketing boost he had given them. The organization branded a section of the leftfield seats at Dodger Stadium as Mannywood, where fans wore do-rags and faux dreadlocks (available at stadium concession stands, of course) in homage to the Los Angeles slugger.
Unless there was an acceptable explanation for the high testosterone levels, the commissioner's office was prepared to suspend Ramirez under Section 8.B.1 of the joint drug agreement, in which a first positive test for any banned substance results in a 50-game suspension. Boras, Ramirez and the union questioned whether there was enough evidence to consider the test positive. Ramirez, they argued, was under a doctor's care for a "personal health issue." MLB officials asked for and received Ramirez's medical files. Last Wednesday, Manfred flew from New York City to Los Angeles for a hearing on the appeal.
The medical records revealed the evidence: a prescription from a physician for human chorionic gonadotropin, also known as hCG, a female fertility drug occasionally prescribed to men with hypogonadism, a reproductive-system defect that results in low sperm development. (Produced naturally in women upon conception, hCG triggers a positive result in home pregnancy strip tests.)
The steroid community is also well acquainted with hCG. Over time, a steroid user's body may grow so accustomed to pharmaceutical testosterone that his natural production of the hormone gets "tricked" into slowing or even shutting down. To combat such a side effect, the user can take hCG, an injectable drug, three weeks after a steroid cycle to kick-start his natural testosterone production. Because of this link to steroids, the International Olympic Committee has banned hCG since 1987. Baseball did not ban it until last May. Years of negotiations between MLB and the union over what to include on the banned substance list had produced agreements only on well-known anabolic steroids, not the agents that boost drug regimens such as hCG and clomid, another female fertility drug. After the public relations hit from the Mitchell Report, however, both sides were pressured into tightening their drug policy, leading to the May 23, 2008 agreement that included the ban of hCG. Assuming Ramirez was not using hCG as a follow-up to a steroid cycle, the use of the testosterone booster could still improve strength and recovery time.
Ramirez was cornered. Even if he chose to challenge the Section 8.B.1 violation, baseball could charge him with a violation of 8.G.2, also known as a nonanalytical positive in which overwhelming evidence other than a positive drug test indicates use of a banned substance—in this case the hCG prescription. If Ramirez appealed that charge, he might have to disclose why he was being treated for a condition such as hypogonadism in the first place. Even then, there was no getting around the fact that the drug in question was on baseball's banned list.
In limited cases players have applied for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to use a banned substance for an existing medical condition. Ramirez did not apply for a TUE. And so Ramirez was left with no good options, only one that seemed less worse than the other. He was staring at a 50-game ban anyway—the 8.G.2 violation carries the same penalty as the 8.B.1 penalty. Last Wednesday, in the middle innings of the Dodgers-Nationals game, Ramirez, Boras and the union gave up the appeal. Ramirez would accept the 8.G.2 violation.
In the days following the suspension, Ramirez spoke with Torre, Colletti, McCourt and many of his teammates and Dodgers support personnel, some of them in person. Several described Ramirez as "very uncomfortable" and "embarrassed" that such a sensitive personal matter—seeking help for a testosterone production problem—had become public. A little red-faced themselves, the Dodgers shut down Mannywood and offered refunds to anybody who had bought tickets in the section. They replaced Ramirez in leftfield with Juan Pierre, a singles hitter who has fewer home runs in his 1,313-game career (13) than Ramirez has in 80 games with the Dodgers (23). They also lost two straight games at Dodger Stadium after beginning the year with an MLB-record 13--0 start at home.
"My concern on Thursday was the same as my concern was on Wednesday: pitching," says Colletti.
Ramirez stands to lose nearly $8 million in salary during his suspension, which, barring any schedule changes, would end on July 3 in San Diego. The Dodgers, however, will not immediately have all of that money to spend. Ramirez's $25 million salary this year was to be paid over four years: $10 million this year and $5 million in each of the next three seasons, leaving the Dodgers with a savings of $2.7 million for their 2009 payroll.
During his suspension Ramirez can work out and travel with the team, so long as he is not in uniform when ballpark gates are open. The Dodgers are hoping that Ramirez does indeed work out with the club, though they do not expect it will happen for several weeks. "We're hoping that he'll come around and hang out with us before the next road trip and keep us entertained," outfielder Andre Ethier says, "but no one needs to go out of their comfort zone and try to replace him because he's his own show and you can't duplicate that."
While McCourt was furious with his star, his manager was more measured. "This is all about giving the guy the benefit of the doubt," says Torre. "I'm not of a mind to abandon the guy. And if I'm going to be naive as far as believing what he says, so be it. Shouting doesn't solve the problem. There's a human being there I'm concerned about." Asked if McCourt's midnight call with the news of the suspension surprised him, Torre replied, "It's still surprising, and I hope it's always surprising. You do wonder, when are the calls going to stop?"