Today is a scandalous day in Los Angeles, but not a surprising one. Fan-favorite Manny Ramirez, the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the resident “star” of the team, has been suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance.
The profound lack of surprise in this matter has little to do with the Dodgers or with Ramirez. Really, it has everything to do with the reality of baseball. You can only be truly surprised at today’s news if you continue to hold on to some fantasy image of the sport as being untainted from drugs and money and “business.” At the risk of sounding too pessimistic, let me paraphrase a Jim Rome analysis: just assume EVERYONE did it and then be surprised when you learn one of them did not.
This isn’t an apology for Ramirez. Not at all. As a fan, as a Latino, and as somebody with a small obsession for popular culture, I got as excited as anybody last year when he arrived. I was both pleased and moved by his ability to turn to the Spanish-language press and become a bona fide “Latino Dodger,” like one we haven’t seen since the days of Fernando. L.A. loves cultural movements and fads, especially when it is tied to wining, and Manny didn’t let us down. Now, we have to share in the burden of his failure because we, as fans, don’t get to see him play for fifty days.
Still, my disappointment is tempered by the way I see the sport now versus the way I see it as a fan, as a historian, or “as it was.” I don’t pretend to think the game of baseball was “pure” or more “wholesome” in an era long since passed. There were addictions, immoralities, and just plain bad shit that followed the game. You see, baseball—like any enterprise involving people—is human. Ty Cobb was an asshole. Mickey Mantle an alcoholic. Babe Ruth was an asshole and an alcoholic. I’m sure it wasn’t just fans who threatened to kill or hurt Jackie Robinson. And these are just the easy ones!
Baseball was and probably always has been all-too human. The Ramirez controversy, perhaps, is a reflection of that. But I think it is something more, too.
Steven Rubio, a friend of mine who maintains one of the most interesting and diverse blogs out there, wrote an interesting piece yesterday. As an avid fan of the SF Giants (the Dooku to my Yoda) he wondered whether or not professional players are more fans of their team or of the game they play. You can read my comment to his piece, where I probably gave in to the romance and sentimentality of the sport more than anything else. Because, my dear friends, I fear most professional players today are fans of themselves before their team or the game itself.
Again, I don’t mean to sound overly pessimistic, but this is the “business” of baseball. High contracts are but infinitesimal slices of the big pie of money that comes with modern-day baseball. The business side of the sport has been fucking up the human side of it for a long time now. You can see the small instances of it just in my lifetime, from the players’ union fights of the 1970s up to the drug scandals of today.
For the Dodgers, that change came quickly but much later than it did for almost everybody else. When the O’Malley family finally reliquished control and sold the team in 1998, the era of the family-owned team came to an end. For goodness sakes, from 1954 to 1996 we had only two managers! How many popes were there in that period? Dodger stadium–with it signature colors and blank spaces free from advertising–changed. The team culture changed. The ways decisions about who stayed and who went also changed. The Dodgers went corporate.
The business of it all nurtures players’ self-conceptions as products which need to increase their market values. Drug use is but one part of that. Organized baseball’s avoidance to dealing with the drugs is another. Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and the whole lot of them are worse for it. So are we. In some ways, so is the game.
I remember Don Drysdale very fondly. One of the finest pitchers in Dodger and baseball history, I knew him best as one of the regular Dodgers’ broadcast commentators until his unexpected death in July 1993. One of the truly wonderful things about the man was that he was a Dodger fan, through and through. Every once in awhile, when a player got hit by a pitch, Drysdale would explain the way it worked in his time. If one of yours got hit, one of theirs—on the very first pitch the next inning—got hit harder. If they got his mid section, you got the head. If your player had to leave the game, well, you get the picture. (By the way, Drysdale ended up #15 on the pitchers all-time list of most “Hit By Pitches” with 154 in only 13 seasons and a bit over 3400 innings pitched.)
There’s nothing “pure” or “wholesome” about Drysdale’s baseball strategy. Frankly, there’s nothing even tactically smart about it from the perspective of the game. But, if you think about it, in doing what he did, Don Drysdale was being a loyal fan. He was protecting his team and taking the emotional and even childish aspect of play to its natural adult extreme. This wasn’t “business.” This was business.
And that’s what I’m left with today. Not surprise, not sorrow, not even loss. Just the same. Wishing the game of baseball I get to share with my two kids was a little more human and a lot less of everything else.