Am I out of touch? Am I too angry, too outraged about Manny Ramirez and his dope-induced exile to baseball purgatory?
In the last few days, talking to fans during Dodgers games and perusing my e-mail inbox, it’s been striking how many people feel that angry indignation is uncouth, unrealistic and absurd. Striking how many are willing to treat their favorite player as if he’s just gone off on a nice holiday. All will be forgiven, as long as No. 99 comes back swinging a fat bat.
“Hey, he cheated, everyone has their crutch, it’s not that big a deal,” said Mike Calame, 45, sitting near the left-field foul pole at Dodgers Stadium the other day. He shrugged a shrug I’d end up seeing time and again. “All I know is that he’ll be back, and he’ll be rested. That’ll be great for the Dodgers. . . . I can’t wait.”
It was no different on the Internet.
“When Manny returns it will be just like last season,” read one of many notes castigating me for castigating Ramirez. “His strength, hunger, passion and love for the game will conquer your typing. . . . What matters is what happens on the field.”
“Save the moral panic,” read another. “Most of your readers under the age of 70 have done the same long ago. . . . Is taking steroids cheating? Sure, maybe.”
Sure, maybe? Ho-hum, la-di-da , who cares . . .
So, sitting here in the press box during the Dodgers’ Saturday win against the Giants, the question comes. Am I, along with the other journalists who are breathing fire about this sordid story, simply out of touch with a huge slice of our audience, the who-cares-who-takes-what crowd?
You bet I’m out of touch, and that’s the very reason it’s important everyone in the media keep laying the wood to the rule-breakers and ne’er-do-wells. Someone has to draw the line. Someone has to keep hold of standards. Someone has to give voice to those who know there’s more to life than winning. How you win, how you prepare, the ethics you bring to the ballpark and yes, to life . . . guess what? That matters.
It’s when we lose track of this, when we as a society are willing to cut too much slack, when we in the press stop drawing a hard line, that deep trouble comes. You get the last eight years, probably longer: a fool’s paradise, not just in sports and entertainment, but in politics and the economy.
I know the arguments. Who cares what Ramirez or Barry Bonds or A-Rod put in their bodies? So long as my team is on top, so long as I get to drive around with a “World Champs” bumper sticker, it doesn’t really matter.
Really? My wife teaches third grade at a school a mile from Dodger Stadium. Is this what she should tell her kids, a group that has adored Ramirez since he arrived in town? “Kids, it doesn’t matter if you cheat.”
How’d we arrive here?
I say it’s partly because “performance enhancement” is a sin committed in private. We don’t see needles plunging into forearms, don’t watch our favorite slugger downing Dianabol with the morning orange juice.
We don’t get to witness how this stuff works its magic; helping a guy approaching age 40 wake each and every day during the off-season, spry as a high school senior, primed for two hours of heavy lifting, an hour of sprints, three hours in the batting cage and then more weights.
If cheating were in the open, if it stared us in the face, if a select group operated with different rules right there in front of us, maybe we’d wise up. How would you feel about Tiger Woods if you saw him take a mulligan every time he sprayed a drive? How’d you like it if, when the Cavaliers played the Lakers, they started six players and L.A. started five?
Rules are rules. They exist for a reason. We might not like them. They might make our games less interesting. We might wish they were different, but we either abide by them or we get chaos. We get Bernie Madoff; fake, flimsy loans; economic Armageddon. We get Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod and now, Manny Ramirez.
Look, I’ve already weighed in on how hypocritical we are, a society swimming in pharmaceuticals and face-lifts, targeting athletes without looking at ourselves. I’ve even wondered if maybe, because we don’t seem to be able to catch them, we should allow pros to take steroids, with hard limits and heavy supervision. But that’s not the current reality. The current reality is that any player on the juice is a rule-breaker, a crooked scofflaw getting a leg up on colleagues who rightly won’t go there. Case closed.
Even worse, the cheats are sending the ugliest possible message about living healthily, especially to the kids who deify them.
“I’m afraid people don’t really understand how horrific this stuff is, they don’t know what it does, they don’t know that it can kill you,” said Dr. Anthony Butch, director of the UCLA Olympic Analytic Laboratory.
He equated the amount of steroids most pro athlete abusers take to smoking four packs of cigarettes a day; you don’t die right away, but your chances of making it past age 55 drip away with each puff. Butch ran through the heightened health risks. Out-of-control rage, liver damage, heart damage, lung damage, prostate damage, cancer, diabetes, infertility . . . on and on.
“What kind of message is this sending?” he asked after I’d told him how many people didn’t really care. “You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see the fans stay away. . . . We can’t send the message that cheating is OK.”
Butch and I both know the fans will keep coming. Ramirez will be back mid-summer. It’ll be Pavlovian. First big homer, the past will fade.
Yes, eventually we should forgive him; everyone deserves a second act. But we should also regard Ramirez as tarnished, deeply so, now and for good. He held a special role, profited mightily from it and abused our trust. The fact so many disagree, that the “ho-hum, la-di-da” crowd has so much sway, is a sign of scrambled priorities. A sign we need more who are angry and indignant and offended. Count me in this last group. It’s my job.