ST. LOUIS – The latest game of steroid dodgeball came from a reclined position, as if Manny Ramirez(notes) wanted to show just how at ease he was. Never mind that hours earlier The New York Times had reported he and running buddy David Ortiz(notes) tested positive for steroids in 2003.
In Mannywood everything is cool, baby, even when it ain't.
He tucked his hands behind his head, his dreadlocks slithering out from under a brown do rag, and welcomed questions in the visitor's clubhouse at Busch Stadium with a smile. And then, just as he did when a drug test revealed an elevated testosterone rate, and when further investigation showed Ramirez received a prescription for a female fertility drug used to offset the ill effects of steroid use, and even when he served his 50-game suspension, the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger continued the most successful misdirection campaign since the word yellowcake entered our consciousness.
The brilliance of it isn't so much in the execution as the strategy. He banked on apathy and won. He figured the public would eschew accountability, and it did. He flouted the one lesson expected of those who make a mistake – learn from it – and ended up evermore popular. And so while Big Papi issued a statement acknowledging his positive test, and all of Boston checked its moral compass to figure out how it felt about those 2004 and 2007 championships, Manny eluded every question with a cha-cha-cha.
All he would offer was the somewhat nebulous assessment of he and Ortiz: "We're like two mountains. We're going to keep doing good no matter what. Only God is going to be able to move those two mountains."
Like mountains because their might erodes over time? Or like mountains because their peaks are often obstructed by something cloudy?
Whatever reason, they're more twin freaks than twin peaks, the numbers accumulated through their careers worth as much as the drivel they spew. If Ramirez has anything going for him, it's that he's merely a cheat, as opposed Ortiz, who's a lying cheat, his earlier ruminations condemning steroids the worst sort of hypocrisy.
Never did Manny deny he took steroids. He didn't acknowledge it, either. Perhaps Manny lives a tortured existence – Dodgers manager Joe Torre said Manny was "uncomfortable, embarrassed" in the aftermath of his suspension – though it's difficult to imagine him sopping up any tears from an existential tug-of-war with hundred-dollar bills.
No, he pretty much doesn't give a crap. Here is a verbatim exchange from his three-minute symposium Thursday.
Q: What do you think people in Boston feel like right now?
A: I'm just getting ready to prepare for a game tonight. That's what I'm trying to do.
Q: Does this at all change what happened in 2004 and 2007?
A: Like I say, I'm getting ready to play a game tonight, and that's what I want to do. You don't want to talk about the game that's happening now, I've got to get ready for the game, sir.
The words escaped Manny's lips with a robot's indifference. He turned automaton for questions that would evoke emotions from even the coldest heart. Boston embraced him in spite of his antics, and even upon his forcing a trade to the Dodgers last year, Manny acknowledged: "I love Red Sox fans."
And it is them, and those who didn't use steroids, and the public writ large, who deserve a deeper explanation – an apology not for missing 50 games but for an act that brings more shame to a game that gave him everything and to teams that in Boston meant everything.
"I don't think fans need to get chapter and verse on each individual and why and how much and when," Torre said. "We need to get their trust. I don't think they need that information. I think they just need to know we're doing everything we can to get this game back to where we want to have it."
Are they? It's not Major League Baseball's fault that some rogue lawyer breaks the law by leaking names. Its drug policy is stronger, though the idea of near eradication espoused by commissioner Bud Selig is downright laughable, human growth hormone and any number of undetectable steroids available for the right price. Anyway, this is a sin of the past, right?
So were the risks taken on Wall Street. Just because something happened six years ago doesn't lessen its resonance in the present. More and more, the supposed-to-be-anonymous tests help us better understand this era. Of the 104 players who tested positive, seven names have surfaced. Four – Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez(notes), Sammy Sosa(notes) and Roger Clemens(notes) – would be Hall of Famers if not for steroids. Another, Ortiz, is considered the greatest clutch hitter of the past decade.
More will come in baseball's version of Chinese water torture.
When they do, perhaps those players will take a cue from Manny's damage control. He trots out his standard lines and then goes into his own world,
numb to reality and insulated by a clubhouse full of enablers that won't disrupt the status quo by calling him out for what he is: a disgrace.
"Of course we want to," one Dodger said. "But he's Manny."
So he walked around the room free of care, headphones in his ears and iPod in hand, and bantered with the security guard before catching a laugh with Orlando Hudson(notes). Eventually it was over to his locker, where Manny signed a dozen balls and a jersey, which eventually made its way across the ballpark and into the opposing clubhouse.
At the beginning of the year, Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan(notes) bought 13 jerseys to get signed by various players. One of them was Ramirez's. He'd heard Manny was a good guy, a solid teammate. He liked Manny's larger-than-life persona.
"I've never taken steroids and never would," Ryan said, "but I don't want to pass judgment publicly."
Ryan represents the conflict in watching steroid users like Ramirez: How can we – or, simply, can we – reconcile their moral and ethical meandering with the brilliance they display? Ramirez already was a precocious talent when drafted out of the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. He got greedy, choosing, in Torre's apt metaphor, to use an aluminum bat while others swung wood.
Torre represented the human side of the Dodgers' equation, struggling with the revelation. He managed a great handful of steroid users in New York, so he didn't want to appear too judgmental. But he saw the damage performance-enhancing drugs inflicted on baseball's reputation, so he didn't want to appear too forgiving. Yet it was obvious that his player, his best hitter, his team's meal ticket, had used steroids in 2003 and presumably in 2009, and who knows how often in between or before, so he couldn't quite figure out what to think.
"If children do something wrong and they learn from it, you don't keep harping on it," Torre said. "You just let it go. That's what you want to have happen."
There's a fine line between idealism and naïveté, and to think the child wearing No. 99 learned anything is wishful. So on Manny goes, in his merry little world, running from reality and thinking he can outlast it. Someday, he's going to slow down. Maybe by then the robot will have finally found its heart.