Once, Manny Ramirez was a hitting god. But he departed the game like other stars of the Steroid Era—as a disgraced symbol of the dark history the game can't escape
This is an article from the April 18, 2011 issue
The next grand syzygy, a moment when the eight planets will be aligned on the same side of the sun, will occur in 2161, or 179 years after the most recent one. What happened in the baseball universe on April 8, 2011, a day of equally freakish rarity, amounted to a steroidal syzygy.
In a span of about five hours Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, the past two holders of the single-season home run record, were in San Francisco—Bonds in a federal building awaiting a verdict on whether he lied about his steroid use, and McGwire, the Cardinals' hitting coach and an admitted steroid user, 2.7 miles away at AT&T Park watching Bonds's former team, the Giants, raise their first world championship flag since moving to the Bay Area; Alex Rodriguez, the heir apparent to Bonds as the steroid-aided home run king, hit the 616th of his career in Boston; Jason Giambi, who testified at Bonds's trial about his own steroid use, hit home run number 416 in Pittsburgh; and Manny Ramirez, upon becoming the first major leaguer to face a 100-game ban for a second drug-related offense, retired from baseball rather than serve the suspension.
The alignment of Bonds, McGwire, Rodriguez, Giambi and Ramirez (all of them All-Stars in 2000) just so happened to take place on the 37th anniversary of the last time the career home run record was broken with authenticity: the 1974 night when Hank Aaron hit home run number 715 to pass Babe Ruth.
As with the last rare alignment of planets, in 1982, the Earth and the sport somehow survived this freaky Friday. Though baseball instituted drug testing with penalties for major leaguers in 2004, this inharmonious convergence was a reminder that the Steroid Era never really ends. It lingers in courtrooms, in record books and, with players such as Ramirez, the first star drummed out of the game for PEDs, in legacies of infamy. As Ted Williams established the standard of how to exit the game gloriously with his last-at-bat home run in 1960, Ramirez, another former Red Sox leftfielder, plumbed a new depth in how to leave it in disgrace. Hub fans bid Manny bon débarras.
Boston manager Terry Francona, who won two World Series with Ramirez in the middle of his lineup, took one day to think about Ramirez's retirement and then practically snarled, "I really don't have a comment. He's not our player."
Ramirez's retirement briefly drew attention away from Bonds, who faced three counts of perjury for lying to a grand jury in 2003 and one count of obstruction of justice. If convicted he could receive up to 21 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, though most legal experts predict he will serve far less, if any, jail time. (A verdict was expected this week, though a sentence isn't likely to be handed down for several months.) Bonds's legal saga may finally be winding down, but there's another diminished star waiting on the steroid docket: Roger Clemens. The trial of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, charged with making false statements to Congress in 2008 when he denied using steroids, is scheduled to begin on July 6 in Washington, D.C.
The day before the baseball world shook, in courtroom 10 on the 19th floor of the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, a lawyer for Bonds named Cris Arguedas gestured toward assistant U.S. attorneys Matthew Parrella and Jeffrey Nedrow and said, "They have the power to end careers and ruin lives."
But players whose greatness was fueled by PEDs were doomed by choices of their own making, according to the most recent inductee into the Hall of Fame—an honor that has remained out of reach for known steroid users. Andre Dawson used the platform of his induction speech last summer to remind us that "individuals have chosen the wrong road, and they're choosing that as their legacy. Those mistakes have hurt the game and taken a toll on all of us. Others still have a chance to choose theirs. Do not be lured to the dark side. It's a stain on the game, a stain gradually being removed."
Parrella, in his closing arguments last Thursday, offered his own coda to the Bonds case. "There's a real irony to this case," he told the courtroom. "These substances that the defendant took to make himself strong—he wasn't strong. He was weak. He was too weak to tell the truth despite all the anabolic steroids."
There was weakness in the way Ramirez, a formerly sublime slugger, left the game. He up and departed without apology, explanation or accountability, not even bothering to tell his employer, the Rays, that he was quitting. Instead he left it to the commissioner's office to inform the club that he was done.
Ramirez tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs three times. In 2003, according to an '09 report in The New York Times, he flunked the so-called survey drug test, in which players faced no penalties. In 2009 Ramirez tested positive for a banned drug, a result that he blamed on a doctor's prescription to treat "a personal health issue." The substance, human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, is known to be favored by steroid users to jump-start natural testosterone production following steroid cycles. Ramirez began an appeal process, but he quickly dropped it and accepted a mandatory 50-game suspension as a first-time offender of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
As a condition of that offense, Ramirez was subject to an additional three drug tests per year on top of the minimum of two per player (one within five days of reporting to spring training and another unannounced). Ramirez tested positive for an undisclosed banned performance-enhancing drug in spring training this year. He was immediately notified of the violation. His first sample, or A sample, was retested and once more showed a positive.
Again, Ramirez gave notice of an appeal, which allows the player to have his own representatives oversee the testing of a second sample. The appeal process also allows Major League Baseball officials to interview the player. When the B sample also came back positive, Ramirez, without subjecting himself to an interview, informed MLB officials he was dropping the appeal and retiring.
Neither Ramirez nor the players' association issued any statement regarding the retirement of one of the game's great hitters. The departure instead was announced in separate one-paragraph releases by Major League Baseball and by the Rays, who issued a statement saying they "were informed today by the Commissioner's Office that Manny Ramirez has decided to retire after being informed of an issue under the Drug Program."
As a second offender Ramirez, 38, faced a 100-game ban and the possibility of a lifetime ban if he violated the program a third time. Once an almost flawless combination of balance and power at the plate, Ramirez was never the same hitter after his 2009 drug bust. Though he wore out his welcome in Boston with his nonchalance, precipitating his '08 midseason trade from the defending world champions to the Dodgers, at the time he could still swing the bat with a beauty that was the envy of his peers. In his 180 games before May 7, 2009, when he was suspended for 50 games, Ramirez batted .334 for the Red Sox and the Dodgers with one home run every 15 at bats. But in 172 games after that drug bust, Ramirez was a .277 hitter with one home run every 25 at bats for the Dodgers, White Sox and Rays, for whom he provided one hit in 17 at bats this year, his bat speed noticeably slower.
Ramirez retired with 555 home runs (14th all time), 1,813 runs batted in (18th), a .996 on-base plus slugging average (ninth) and a .312 batting average (86th). He was a major figure in what will go down as one of the greatest eras of slugging—and the dirtiest—the game has ever known. Consider that until 2001, Ruth was the only player in history to retire with more than 550 home runs and an OPS of .980 or better. But in the 10 years since then it's happened three times—all by players connected to performance-enhancing drugs: McGwire, Bonds and Ramirez.
In the nine seasons before steroid testing with penalties was put in place (1995--2003), Ramirez ranked seventh in home runs. But six of those top seven Steroid Era home run hitters have been connected to performance enhancers (chart). McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro are the only ones in that group who have been eligible for Hall of Fame consideration. McGwire (a best finish of 23.7% support from the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America) and Palmeiro (11.0%) have not come close to the 75% threshold needed for enshrinement.
While Bonds was not on trial for using steroids but rather for allegedly lying to a grand jury about not knowing that the substances he took were steroids, the trial nonetheless pulled back the curtain on an unseemly era. Four major leaguers shuffled into courtroom 10 to testify about getting steroids and instructions on how to use them from Greg Anderson, Bonds's trainer: Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Randy Velarde and Marvin Benard. Suddenly all the dirty little secrets, long cloaked in a tapestry of denial, lies and silence, were entered into public record as fact.
Bonds never did testify in his defense. Each day, dressed in Wall Street suits, he would ride the elevator to the 19th floor of the Burton building. Never the darling of the game, Bonds would sit and listen to dark descriptions of his character, especially from his former mistress, Kimberly Bell, who testified that Bonds threatened to cut her head off and throw her into a ditch, and to cut out her breast implants because he had paid for them.
The prosecution charged that Bonds, as Nedrow put it in his summation, kept "a powerful secret" with his use of the cream and the clear, two then undetectable designer steroids parceled out by BALCO founder Victor Conte (who later pleaded guilty to steroid distribution). In 2003 Bonds told a grand jury in the BALCO case that he believed they were not steroids but flaxseed oil and arthritic balm, all the while transforming himself into a hulking slugger who would hit 268 home runs starting with his age-36 season—33% more than anyone else in baseball history at such an advanced age.
If one tangible piece of evidence in the Bonds trial came to represent the era, it was a black leather shaving kit that prosecutors showed the jury. Federal agents seized the kit during a 2003 raid of Anderson's house. It was, prosecutors said, a PED injector kit, still stuffed with syringes and needles. For many ballplayers such implements became as much the tools of their trade as bats, balls and gloves.
Last Friday, while deliberating, the jurors asked that a portion of a tape be played back for them. What they wanted to hear again was the voice of Anderson, slightly garbled, speaking to Steve Hoskins, Bonds's former friend and business partner, who secretly recorded a conversation with the trainer in March 2003 and was a government witness in the perjury trial: "Everything that I've been doing at this point, it's all undetectable. See, the stuff that I have ... we created it. And you can't, you can't buy it anywhere. You can't get it anywhere else."
Nedrow had reminded the jury the day before of the testimony of Hoskins's sister, Kathy, who served as Bonds's personal shopper. After she saw Anderson give Bonds an injection in 2002, she testified, the slugger said, "Got to have a little somethin', somethin' for when I go on the road. You can't detect it. You can't catch it."
That may have been true then, in baseball's outlaw era. But detection proved to be the end of Ramirez. If Anderson's black leather shaving kit is a symbol of the Steroid Era, perhaps MLB's cold announcement of a slugger's sudden departure ("Manny Ramirez Notifies MLB That He is Retiring") can stand as one for the Testing Era. It was a terse, disgraceful end to what was a prolific and often entertaining career. The hitting genius of Ramirez and his childlike insouciance, which endeared and maddened, were gone just like that, without a goodbye.
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Between 1995 and 2003, the last year before PED testing with penalties, Manny Ramirez ranked seventh in home runs hit. Only one player ahead of him on the list hasn't been linked to steroid use.
Reportedly one of 104 players to test positive for steroids during MLB's preliminary survey testing in 2003
Has denied knowingly using PEDs, but had strong links to BALCO and stood trial for lying about drug use
Suspended for 10 days by MLB in 2005 after testing positive for stanozolol, a powerful anabolic steroid
Not linked to steroid use
After a 2009 SI report that he had tested positive for steroids in '03, admitted to using PEDs between '01 and '03
Admitted in 2010 that he used steroids and HGH throughout his career—including his record-breaking 1998 season
Retired last week rather than face a 100-game ban for violating baseball's PED program for a second time