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The Night The Lights Went Out in Mannywood

May 18, 2009
May 18, 2009

Table of Contents
May 18, 2009

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
BASEBALL
NBA PLAYOFFS
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NHL PLAYOFFS
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The Night The Lights Went Out in Mannywood

Just when Manny Ramirez had L.A. in his pocket, the Dodgers' leading man was exposed as yet another star using a performance-enhancing drug

Shortly before 10o'clock last Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, with Los Angeles leading theWashington Nationals 10--3 in the bottom of the seventh inning, MannyRamirez—who had hit a two-run double the previous inning to break open thegame—asked out of the lineup without explanation, changed clothes and boltedthe clubhouse. Manager Joe Torre, general manager Ned Colletti and Ramirez'steammates thought nothing of it. It was just an early exit from a blowout by aguy hitting .348. Two hours later, however, team owner Frank McCourt wasnotified by Major League Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred thatRamirez had violated the joint drug agreement between MLB and the players'association. For three weeks, in fact, Ramirez had been playing under thethreat of suspension. A little past midnight McCourt broke the news to Torreand Colletti on a conference call: their leftfielder would be suspended for 50games for using a banned performance-enhancing drug. The news went public lessthan 12 hours later with a stupefying, sad sameness to it: yet another baseballgreat revealed as too good to be true. Apparently Mannywood was as much a mythas its namesake film industry.

This is an article from the May 18, 2009 issue

Ramirez'sdownfall began with a urine sample he provided shortly after reporting tospring training in late March, a little more than a month after Alex Rodriguezhad admitted to being a drug cheat in the wake of a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reportthat the Yankees' third baseman had tested positive for two anabolic steroidsin 2003. For Ramirez the drug-policy violation was caused not by a steroid oran illegal supplement (the performance enhancers more commonly at the root ofballplayers' positive tests), but by a female fertility drug that boosts thenatural production of testosterone. Coincidentally, Ramirez was suspended theday before Rodriguez, returning from hip surgery, played the first game of therest of his career as a tainted superstar.

One by one,syringe by syringe, the greatest players of an entire generation have crashedlike fine china on a hard floor. Of the 15 players who hit the most home runsfrom 1993 through 2004, Ramirez is the 10th to be connected toperformance-enhancing drugs by positive tests, the Mitchell Report or newsreports, joining Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Rodriguez, MikePiazza, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Juan Gonzalez and Mo Vaughn in therogues' gallery. (The five not associated as such are Ken Griffey Jr., FrankThomas, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado.)

Players such asRamirez—the first star to be banned since the release of the Mitchell Report inDecember 2007 and the subsequent tightening of MLB's drug policy—have madecertain that baseball, more than any other sport with the possible exceptionsof cycling and track and field, is regarded popularly as a profession of drugcheats. Yet the very people whose collective reputation continues to bebesmirched reacted with more apathy than outrage at what Ramirez had wrought.Active players, sticking to their well-practiced passivity, chose not to usethe occasion to speak out against drugs in baseball.

Even Astrospitcher Roy Oswalt, who in February had said that all of Rodriguez's recordsshould be stricken from the record book, declined comment this time. As ifwearied by a climate that does not change, Oswalt told reporters, "Nomatter what I say, it's not going to make a difference."

Red Soxdesignated hitter David Ortiz, who during the off-season had suggestedmandatory one-year suspensions for drug-policy violations, was more sympatheticin 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 outthere taking things you can buy over the counter. Sometimes it's banned,sometimes it's not. I don't know."

Ramirez's ownreaction revealed a familiar evasiveness: Denial, at least in the form of aplanned appeal, followed by a statement designed to shift blame (in this caseto an anonymous South Florida doctor) and disassociation from the dreaded sword. It was a strategy cribbed from the playbook of Rodriguez, whose agent,Scott Boras, represents Ramirez as well, plus at least eight other players tiedto performance-enhancing drugs.

By hitting .396in 53 games last season after forcing a July 31 trade out of Boston, Ramirezhad already won the hearts of Dodgers fans with the insouciance of a childplaying a pickup game. For the full season Ramirez slugged .601, an astoundingachievement at age 36; only five other men that old had ever had a higherpercentage: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and Bonds. Thestricter testing regimen in baseball had seemed to be running guys out of thegame or into lesser roles in their mid-30s, but Ramirez, as good as he everwas, 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 hissystem; the union, in turn, informed the player. The Dodgers, meanwhile, knewnothing of the test, blithely enjoying the sublime hitting of Ramirez—he wasslugging .641 this year—and the marketing boost he had given them. Theorganization branded a section of the leftfield seats at Dodger Stadium asMannywood, where fans wore do-rags and faux dreadlocks (available at stadiumconcession stands, of course) in homage to the Los Angeles slugger.

Unless there wasan acceptable explanation for the high testosterone levels, the commissioner'soffice was prepared to suspend Ramirez under Section 8.B.1 of the joint drugagreement, in which a first positive test for any banned substance results in a50-game suspension. Boras, Ramirez and the union questioned whether there wasenough evidence to consider the test positive. Ramirez, they argued, was undera doctor's care for a "personal health issue." MLB officials asked forand received Ramirez's medical files. Last Wednesday, Manfred flew from NewYork City to Los Angeles for a hearing on the appeal.

The medicalrecords revealed the evidence: a prescription from a physician for humanchorionic gonadotropin, also known as hCG, a female fertility drug occasionallyprescribed to men with hypogonadism, a reproductive-system defect that resultsin low sperm development. (Produced naturally in women upon conception, hCGtriggers a positive result in home pregnancy strip tests.)

The steroidcommunity is also well acquainted with hCG. Over time, a steroid user's bodymay grow so accustomed to pharmaceutical testosterone that his naturalproduction of the hormone gets "tricked" into slowing or even shuttingdown. 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 testosteroneproduction. Because of this link to steroids, the International OlympicCommittee 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 thebanned substance list had produced agreements only on well-known anabolicsteroids, not the agents that boost drug regimens such as hCG and clomid,another female fertility drug. After the public relations hit from the MitchellReport, however, both sides were pressured into tightening their drug policy,leading to the May 23, 2008 agreement that included the ban of hCG. AssumingRamirez was not using hCG as a follow-up to a steroid cycle, the use of thetestosterone booster could still improve strength and recovery time.

Ramirez wascornered. Even if he chose to challenge the Section 8.B.1 violation, baseballcould charge him with a violation of 8.G.2, also known as a nonanalyticalpositive in which overwhelming evidence other than a positive drug testindicates use of a banned substance—in this case the hCG prescription. IfRamirez appealed that charge, he might have to disclose why he was beingtreated 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 onbaseball's banned list.

In limited casesplayers have applied for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to use a bannedsubstance 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 worsethan the other. He was staring at a 50-game ban anyway—the 8.G.2 violationcarries the same penalty as the 8.B.1 penalty. Last Wednesday, in the middleinnings of the Dodgers-Nationals game, Ramirez, Boras and the union gave up theappeal. Ramirez would accept the 8.G.2 violation.

In the daysfollowing the suspension, Ramirez spoke with Torre, Colletti, McCourt and manyof his teammates and Dodgers support personnel, some of them in person. Severaldescribed Ramirez as "very uncomfortable" and "embarrassed"that such a sensitive personal matter—seeking help for a testosteroneproduction problem—had become public. A little red-faced themselves, theDodgers shut down Mannywood and offered refunds to anybody who had boughttickets in the section. They replaced Ramirez in leftfield with Juan Pierre, asingles hitter who has fewer home runs in his 1,313-game career (13) thanRamirez has in 80 games with the Dodgers (23). They also lost two straightgames at Dodger Stadium after beginning the year with an MLB-record 13--0 startat home.

"My concernon Thursday was the same as my concern was on Wednesday: pitching," saysColletti.

Ramirez stands tolose nearly $8 million in salary during his suspension, which, barring anyschedule changes, would end on July 3 in San Diego. The Dodgers, however, willnot immediately have all of that money to spend. Ramirez's $25 million salarythis year was to be paid over four years: $10 million this year and $5 millionin each of the next three seasons, leaving the Dodgers with a savings of $2.7million for their 2009 payroll.

During hissuspension Ramirez can work out and travel with the team, so long as he is notin uniform when ballpark gates are open. The Dodgers are hoping that Ramirezdoes indeed work out with the club, though they do not expect it will happenfor several weeks. "We're hoping that he'll come around and hang out withus before the next road trip and keep us entertained," outfielder AndreEthier says, "but no one needs to go out of their comfort zone and try toreplace him because he's his own show and you can't duplicate that."

While McCourt wasfurious with his star, his manager was more measured. "This is all aboutgiving the guy the benefit of the doubt," says Torre. "I'm not of amind to abandon the guy. And if I'm going to be naive as far as believing whathe says, so be it. Shouting doesn't solve the problem. There's a human beingthere I'm concerned about." Asked if McCourt's midnight call with the newsof the suspension surprised him, Torre replied, "It's still surprising, andI hope it's always surprising. You do wonder, when are the calls going tostop?"

"I'm not of a mind to abandon the guy," saysTorre (below, with Ramirez and Colletti). "If I'm going to be naive as faras believing what he says, so be it."

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PHOTOPhotograph by LISA BLUMENFIELD/GETTY IMAGESPHOTOKEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGESDEAD 'WOOD Even as fans in his leftfield section cheered, the threat of suspension hung over Ramirez for three weeks.PHOTOMARK J. TERRIL/AP