Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Summer Lame

What Roy Campanella meant to say was "baseball is a man's game, but you got to have a lot of little boy in you to commentate on it."

Manny Ramirez's 50 game suspension for failing a drug test was bad news for him and the Dodgers. Whether on foolish purpose or by even more foolish inadvertence, Ramirez hurt a great many people who depend on him. Manny is an inherently likeable person, charming in his way. He has coupled that quality with the fact he is one of history's great hitters to get away with murder his entire adult life. Now he's in a spot where charm and his bat can't help. Maybe that'll be good for him.

Ramirez's suspension also cost him $7.6 million and a lot of national ridicule. This strikes me as a reasonable punishment for his transgression. But of course, I'm not a Serious Baseball Person. I'm no Bob Costas, Doris Goodwin, or Ken Burns. To me, baseball is a great game that's given me a lifetime of splendid entertainment, mixed in with the occasional life-scarring fan trauma (1964 Phillies). And at bottom, even the traumas are part of the fun. Who wants to be part of a non-historic collapse?

The key words in the second-to-last sentence of the above paragraph were "game" and "entertainment." They are words you never hear from the SBPs. To them, baseball has some core importance to their own and our country's place in the cosmos which defies rational, indeed, any explanation. And of course, the news that Manny flunked a drug test has caused them to note that baseball has suffered a loss of innocence.

What, again? Between John McGraw, Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Walter O'Malley, free agency, Barry Bonds, and finding out what Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were really like, baseball has lost its innocence more often than Jenna Jameson. You'd think the SBPs would finally realize baseball's never had innocence to lose. It's always been a great sport and ruthless big business in equal measure. Sad but true, people cheat at sports. People REALLY cheat at big business, if they can get away with it. There is a logical historical progression from Cobb's sharpened spikes to Bonds' enormous head.

But for the SBPs, the steroid era is the worst thing that ever happened. The other night on TV, Keith Olbermann, getting to be a more irritating self-righteous scold at warp factor 18, asked Richard Justice of the "Houston Chronicle" if something couldn't be done about ALL the records of baseball since 1990, since tainted players make for tainted results.

Justice, a mere scribe, not a philosopher-king, was somewhat taken aback. He gently explained that erasing 20 years of baseball history might be somewhat difficult. Olbermann's idea was so bat-brained, I just know it will soon become part of the general baseball conversation.

Performance-enhancing drugs are not good for baseball, and I'm not saying that on the bushwa "think of the children" platform. We have the evidence that PEDs are profoundly anti-competitive. The better a player is, the more benefit he gets from taking the drugs. For a sport that's based on extremely narrow margins between failure and success, as is proved by every routine infield groundout, that's just ruinous. It was accepted managerial wisdom in the early 2000s that Bonds was too good to pitch to. Intentional walks are no one's idea of entertainment, let alone competition.

So with its usual painfully creaky response to current events, baseball now has a drug testing program. How well it works is unknown, but it's not a total failure. It just popped Manny. Seems to me the proper reaction to that event would be "Well, that's a shame, and I'm sorry to hear it, but the system is working. That's progess."

As far as can be told, however, reactions generally fall into two camps. The SBPs who get the vapors, and the self-styled wise guys who say Ramirez just proves every player's still doing PEDs. Both miss the point. Problems don't vanish overnight in any endeavor. And the baseline idea of a drug-testing regimen isn't to detect the guilty, it's to afford the non-users the presumption of innocence, so the game can go on more or less normally.

The NFL's drug testing program catches players all the time. It doesn't stir up the same fuss because it's become institutionalized, and fans accept the basic principle that one's man's crime does not indict his neighbors (there are other reasons, of course, most stemming from the fact playing football is very bad for your body).

The baseball wise guys make me tired. The Field of Dreams crowd makes me weary beyond measure. If, dear reader, you should be trapped next to one of either type at the ballpark, and the subject of steroids comes up, there's only one thing to say in self-defense.

"Here's a twenty. Why don't you go get us a couple of dogs and some peanuts."


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