Better Living Through Chemistry

Much of the baseball world has been obsessed with the revelation that Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez tested positive for the drug human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) which is banned by Major League Baseball.

This followed on the heels of the revelation last February that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2003.

I may be in the minority, but I really couldn’t care less.

Not that I advocate the use of body-altering substances. When it comes to that sort of stuff, I’m a pretty vanilla personality. When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I was one of only two guys on my dorm floor who didn’t smoke pot. I just couldn’t see the point.

Perhaps my apathy stems from my generally cynical view of a certain segment of people who call themselves fans yet are more interested in being entertained than having an emotional dedication to a team or a player.

Los Angeles Times sportswriter Kurt Streeter suggested in a recent column that “All will be forgiven, as long as No. 99 comes back swinging a fat bat.”

I think he’s right.

Not that everyone who follows the Dodgers feels that way, but I think a lot of people do. It’s all about results, it’s all about entertainment, and so long as Manny hits dingers they’ll look the other way.

It was the same in 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73 homers. There were rumors of steroid use, but the mainstream looked the other way as they enjoyed watching Bonds hit monster home runs. The outrage came later, when the novelty had worn off. For some people, there’s nothing they enjoy more than seeing someone more successful than them knocked off a pedestal.

It’ll be the same with Ramirez one day, when he’s no longer productive and therefore no longer entertaining.

Angels fans can smirk at Dodgers fans, but what if it had been Vlad Guerrero who tested positive?

Owner Arte Moreno showed little tolerance for Gary Matthews Jr. in 2007 when Sports Illustrated reported that Matthews had ordered human growth hormone in 2004. But if it were Vladi who tested positive and was suspended for 50 games, would the Angels fan react any differently than the Dodgers fan?

If Guerrero returned and went on a hitting tear that took the Angels to a world championship, I suspect a lot of Angels fans would suddenly come down with short-term memory loss.

Because there’s so much money at stake in professional baseball, and therefore the pressures are so great to entertain by winning, I’m really not surprised that so many ballplayers are resorting to chemicals that protect and enhance their physiques. If an actress gets a facelift or a tummy tuck to look youthful so she can keep playing roles that might go to a younger actress, are theater goers going to complain? I’ve yet to hear one movie patron walk out in disgust and demand a refund because an on-screen performer had his or her body enhanced.

The most extreme example of where sports and entertainment cross is professional wrestling, where athletes subject their bodies to a grueling schedule and nightly physical abuse to tell a story. Wrestlers are just as athletic, if not more so, than the typical ballplayer, but they’re under pressure to entertain too or they’re out of a job. It’s really not a surprise, then, that so many wrestlers have died young from steroids, alcoholism, or painkillers. But most fans still go to wrestling events, just as attendance at baseball games is still strong and enthusiastic despite all the embarrassing headlines about drug use.

I suppose it could be argued that, in wrestling parlance, A-Rod and Manny and their ilk have “turned heel,” i.e. they’re now a bad guy whose job is to get booed by the crowd. “Heel” or “face” (bad guy or good guy), the bottom line is the take at the front door, and isn’t that the same with professional baseball? You can fill Angels Stadium with 40,000 screaming and obnoxious Yankees fans, and Arte will gladly take their money, because it’s a business.

Besides, the notion of athletes altering their bodies with chemicals is nothing new. Troy Percival was infamous for chugging coffee before a relief appearance to get a caffeine high. Ball Four author Jim Bouton told ESPN that “In the 1970s, half of the guys in the big leagues were taking greenies, and if we had steroids, we would have taken those, too. I said in Ball Four, if there was a pill that could guarantee you would win 20 games but would take five years off of your life, players would take it. The only thing I didn’t know at the time was the name.”

There were also athletes whose performance diminished from chemical abuse. Mickey Mantle’s career suffered from his alcoholism. Babe Ruth was frequently out of shape, and his carousing caught up with him during spring training in 1925 when he underwent surgery for what was billed as an intestinal abscess, although it was rumored he was suffering from gonorrhea. What might their career numbers have been if they’d taken care of themselves. Yet no one ever questions that, it’s just considered “colorful” and a part of baseball lore.

With so much at stake, with fans demanding so much, with all that money on the table, I can understand why athletes succumb to temptation. They are mentally geared to compete at everything in life. Part of that is competing against their own bodies. It’s that mindset that wins titles, and if that’s the end then how many people will quibble about the means? Maybe later, but not while they’re winning.

On the rare occasion that I hear about a ballplayer I know testing positive for a banned substance, I feel disappointed but I tend to be forgiving — not because I want to be entertained by them, but because I understand the pressures that led to the decision.

And many times, you’re dealing with someone who isn’t exactly the Stephen Hawking of pro sports. I don’t think you’ll see Manny Ramirez joining Mensa any time soon. Players from impoverished Third World countries long ago forgot about ethics because simply feeding your extended family back home is more important.

I’m glad MLB continues to rigorously pursue drug testing, and more importantly is actually enforcing the rules. But I’m not sanguine about the notion that paying customers will walk away from the game any time soon because of positive drug tests. It’s all about entertainment, and so long as they’re entertained, they’ll be back.

1 Comment

The pot story explains a lot…you’ve always come off so uptight you’d turn a lump of coal into a diamond in roughly a month.

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