Regarding Manny Ramírez

As everyone knows by now, even those who do not follow baseball regularly, slugger and former Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramírez suddenly retired on Friday, April 8, 2011, rather than face a possible 100 game suspension for use of a banned substance after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug (PED) during 2011 spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays. Most baseball watchers seem to have reacted with a mixture of disgust and surprise; the surprise coming mostly from the fact that, having been tested positive for PEDs and sanctioned a couple of years ago, he would go ahead and take them again, risking not only his career, but his chances of reaching the Hall of Fame. Naturally, this has launched a storm of comment and criticism regarding Manny, PED (including especially steroid) use, and whether those tested positive should be banned from the Hall a priori. Some have also asked about the extent to which PEDs might have played a role in Manny’s performance in the Red Sox’ 2004 and 2007 World Series championships (ignoring the extent to which PEDs played a role in most World Series championships from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s). For what it’s worth, here’s the view of one admittedly biased observer.

Background

First, let’s look at the facts (culled from The Encyclopedia of World Biography, Wikipedia, and Baseball-Reference.com): Manny was born Manuel Aristides (Onelcida) Ramírez in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic on May 30, 1972. He moved to New York City as a child and grew up in the Washington Heights section, where he attended George Washington High School. He played baseball there, and was named New York City Public Schools High School Player of the Year in 1991. He participated in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, and was chosen by the Cleveland Indians. He worked his way up through the Indians’ minor league organization and made his first appearance with the big club in the fall of 1993. He played eight seasons with the Indians, batting .313, with 236 home runs and 804 RBI. In December of 2000, he signed an 8 year deal with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent. He appeared in 8 seasons with the Red Sox (from 2001 to mid 2008), where he hit .312, with 274 home runs, and 868 RBI. He helped his club win two World Series championships (2004 and 2007) and was named World Series Most Valuable Player in 2004.

As contract negotiations with the Red Sox were breaking down, Manny’s performance appeared to be suffering, and many observers were convinced that he was either unmotivated or intentionally sandbagging to pressure the club into a contract renewal on his terms. The baseball world was somewhat stunned when Manny was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 as part of a complicated three club agreement between the Red Sox, the Dodgers, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Dodgers signed him to a two year deal in 2009. Manny spent a fair amount of time on the disabled list and in minor league rehab while with the Dodgers, but did appear in parts of three seasons, hitting .322 with 44 home runs and 156 RBI. LA put him on waivers in 2010. He was selected off waivers by the Chicago White Sox in August of 2010, and appeared in 24 games for Chicago, hitting .261with 1 home run and 2 RBI. He became a free agent once more that fall, and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. He played 5 games for the Rays, going 1 for 17 with 1 hit, 1 RBI and no home runs.

The 2003 Tests

In 2003, Manny, along with a large number of other players, submitted voluntarily to a drug testing study, the purpose of which was to help Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) come to an agreement regarding banned substances and testing. All these players agreed to the testing with the understanding that the results would be kept anonymous, even though most of the substances tested were not banned at the time.  These substances were in three categories: a) stimulants such as amphetamines (giving players extra energy and stamina), b) hormone treatments including human growth hormone (HGH) and others (used to enable athletes to recover more quickly from injury, but also used to accelerate the muscle building effects of exercise), and c) anabolic steroids (used to increase muscle mass beyond the extent to which it would normally develop). These were eventually banned under a protocol agreed by MLB and the MBLPA, and administered by the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. After word got out that 104 athletes tested positive for at least one of the substances, some federal investigators seized the list of positive results, on the theory that if steroids were involved, there should be prosecutions because steroids could not be legally administered to humans (they had been developed for cattle to increase their meat yield in relation to feed). In 2009, by some process that no one seems able to explain, some of the 104 names were leaked, including Manny’s. It is still not known for what substance he tested positive, and there is no evidence that whatever he was taking gave him a substantial competitive advantage, especially given the wide range of substances involved in the testing. It is also useful to note that 103 other players also tested positive, a fact which many seem to dismiss.

Positive PED Tests

Manny was suspended for 50 games in 2009 because he had been found to have used a hormone stimulant normally used by women to increase their fertility but also used by steroid users to correct their internal hormone balance. For this reason, the drug, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), is on the Major League Baseball (MLB) list of banned substances. Oddly, although this experience should have served as a warning to Manny, he was found again to be in violation of MLB’s banned substance policy, and threatened with a 100 game suspension do to an issue found under the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment program (the specifics are not public as of this writing). Manny responded to the notification by abruptly announcing his retirement.

What It Means

First, let’s consider the extent to which these incidents might compromise Manny’s record as a baseball player. If one looks at pictures of Manny taken over the years, it is clear that he has a stocky build that enables considerable natural upper body strength. It is doubtful that he was taking PEDs since childhood, so it’s safe to assume that he was a great and gifted hitter due to ability and hard work for most of his career. Many people think of Manny as a “hitter savant” who could just launch dingers with a gift that came effortlessly. Those who have followed Manny closely know this is not the case. Manny worked hard at his craft. He is well known for taking copious extra batting practice, and for staying up late into the night studying video of opposing pitchers that he was to face, as well as video of his own recent at-bats, hoping to correct or adjust his mechanics as necessary. He admires the great hitters of the game, especially Ted Williams, whom he got to meet once at the 1999 All Star Game. Some players took PEDs to improve their performance to the point where they would become stars. It is unlikely that Manny did that; his natural ability was more than enough.

PEDs can help a hitter hit the ball a little harder, but has no effect on the fundamentals of stance, swing, and eye-hand coordination. PEDs can turn some long flies into home runs, and so could influence a slugging percentage, but not enough to affect a batting average. Manny didn’t need help in either department. It is more likely that Manny turned to PEDs in his last few years, when he felt himself losing bat speed, and worried that he might be losing his pop. He had become accustomed to his star status, and didn’t want to lose it.

Manny’s Record and the Hall of Fame

There are those who argue that any player ever found to have used a banned substance should have their records expunged, or at least marked with an asterisk (*), and that they should be permanently excluded from the Hall of Fame. The idea that we should exclude or footnote records because of PEDs is wrong for two reasons:. The first is that we don’t about all the players who used and didn’t get caught, so the action would produce gross inaccuracy in recording. The second reason is that there have been a number of times in baseball history when common practices were subsequently banned. Do we exclude or mark all records associated with the era when spitballs were legal? If we are concerned with “fair comparisons”, maybe we should do the same for all pitching and batting records during the “dead ball era”, or for all pitching records in the American League since the adoption of the designated hitter rule, since AL pitchers no longer can assume that the 9 spot in an opposing lineup is either a pitcher or pinch hitter. No, the records should stand as they are; all of them.

As for the Hall of Fame, there are a couple of things to consider. If we ban players for use of PEDs because they “cheated” and therefore are not morally qualified to appear in that vaunted Hall, then we risk a charge of hypocrisy. Moral rectitude has never been a qualification for Hall induction; otherwise the Hall would be a lot emptier (most player despised Ty Cobb for his attitude and tactics, though he was perhaps the greatest situational hitter and base runner of all time). If we ban them because they had an unfair advantage, we need to consider: for how long, and how much? We ban PEDs not simply because they give users an unfair advantage, but because they cause serious eventual damage to the body, and if they were legal, all players would feel compelled to use them, and compromise their future health, in order to compete. We have clearly turned a corner on PED use; it is now the rare exception rather than the much more common practice that it was just 5 years ago.

Players should be inducted for the contributions they made to the game, and not rigidly excluded for their shortcomings. PEDs are one area to consider; gambling is another. The real question is: should future baseball fans who visit Cooperstown be denied a collection of the very best to step on the field, simply because some of them made bad choices at certain points in their careers? This question applies not only to Manny, but to others, such as “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and Pete Rose. The best policy is to take each player one at a time, and ask for each, did this bad behavior affect all his career, or just a little bit? Did it compromise baseball in the long run? Let’s allow some time to pass before we make our judgment.

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