With the Manny Ramirez Unjuiced tour rolling through the Big Apple this week, I read a lot of words about how Manny is a bad man who needs to be punished and some smart, funny words about how fans don't care about steroid use anymore. The latter might have convinced me if I, as a fan, didn't care.
But I do care, mostly because I don't like oversimplification and I think there's a lot more to it than most both sides are letting on. And I don't think I'm alone.
I've never been a world-class athlete, so I'm not sure what makes a world-class athlete tick. To me, though, the decision to take steroids seems more pathetic than malicious or deceitful, because I think it might just be what a lot of competitive people are wired to do.
Look at Lenny Dykstra. He's a punchline now, filing for Chapter 11 after all that posturing about his financial wizardry. But the things that endeared Nails to the fans -- that grit and hustle and desire that so many are looking for and that no one ever doubted in Dykstra -- are likely the same qualities that prompted his downfall. Maybe Dykstra couldn't stop competing, so he thrashed and flailed to stay afloat and took out loans all over town.
Is it a coincidence that, according to Moneyball, Billy Beane called Dykstra "perfectly designed, emotionally" for baseball? Probably. Is it a coincidence that Dykstra was named in the Mitchell Report?
Probably not. I don't know the guy, and I'm certainly not here to say all steroid users are just like Dykstra, but no one stumbles backwards into the Major Leagues. It takes a ton of work, and anybody who completes that work has to be seriously driven.
So back when it looked like no one was really going to get in any trouble for it, players had easy access to a drug that supposedly made them hit better and heal faster and maybe get paid more. I like to think I would never opt for anything that might mess with my liver or shorten my life or shrink my testicles, but I'll never be faced with that decision because I am not a Major League Baseball player.
I can't know what it's like for a player to make that choice but I imagine he is never thinking, "I have no respect for this game, so I will turn to the Dark Side."
I'd guess he is more likely thinking: "This might make me better at baseball."
That's not to exonerate the users, of course. They had to know they risked legal trouble, health concerns and public shame with that decision, and so the decision was likely a poor one. But competitors should not be charged with upholding the integrity of the game. Their job is to do whatever they can get away with to try to win, and it is the league's duty to maintain a level playing field.
Major League Baseball might have needed the power surge of the late 90s to rescue it from its strike-inspired slump, as some say, but it likely also needed the subsequent steroids scourge to bring about the rule changes that have since -- we hope -- made the game fairer and protected its players from themselves.
That's why Manny's case is a bit different. Manny took the risk once the risk was greater, because he had to know he could miss games and lose money. So it was, depending on how you look at it, a decision either more selfish or less sane than those of most of his juiced-up predecessors.
Now Manny served his time and has returned to being an awesome hitter, and if fans want to boo him -- as some did at Citi -- that's their prerogative. But journalists arguing that he needs to somehow be punished further are about as silly as any investigative reporters trying to expose past steroid users so they can saddle more players with the scarlet "P.E.D." and rile up more fans while ignoring the possibility that players are hatching new and still-undetectable ways to gain an unfair advantage.
Then, others write good columns about how no one cares anymore, and so some fans jump in and vehemently agree that they are apathetic and that journalists should just shut up.
That passion -- and the fact that people are still writing about it -- means they probably do care, though; they just don't care for the same reasons as the sanctimonious types they're railing against. I'd guess they recognize how messy it all seems and how it's not just a black-and-white, good-and-evil thing and so they sweep it under the rug and hope that it goes away. And maybe it will.
But if one side goes silent and the other keeps railing, which voice will last? I don't know and I probably shouldn't care, because I'll always have my own opinions. I guess I'd just prefer it if people don't someday look back at the era in which I fell head-over-heels in love with baseball as nothing but a bunch of savage cheaters crapping on the game's integrity.
And a big reason I care is that there's talk that four of the very best players of this or any era -- Manny, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds -- should be excluded from the Hall of Fame. I like the Hall of Fame, and I fear if those men don't make it in, the honor will someday seem like the Gold Glove Award or something, like some sort of pageant that bears little correlation to actual accomplishments within the game.
I know there are guys we think should or shouldn't be in, but the Hall of Fame does a pretty good job of recognizing the achievements of the best players to ever play. We can get caught up in thinking it's a pristine place, but its membership includes guys who doctored the ball and guys who popped pills, not to mention abject racists and legions of players who benefited from playing in a segregated game. The common thread is not integrity, but that each man enshrined was among the greatest players of his generation.
Yes, the pre-Manny steroid users did something wrong, but baseball did not adequately prevent them from doing it and so they got away with it. Yeah, that kind of sucks, but some of them managed to dominate a bunch of other guys who were doing exactly the same wrong thing, and unless those successes are somehow stricken from the record, the deserving should be honored for them. Bonds' home runs all still count, right?
To me, the so-called sanctity of the Hall of Fame would be jeopardized not by including those guys, but by leaving them out. And for Manny, the case seems even clearer: He was caught and was subjected to the punishment Major League Baseball deemed fit for his crime. If he didn't learn his lesson, he'll get suspended again for even longer. That's why these rules are in place.
I do wish the whole thing would go away so everyone can focus only on what's on the field, and I recognize that spending so many words here doing just the opposite helps nothing. Plus, part of me wonders if 50 years from now, baseball fans won't just look at the whole mess as a sidebar to the story that will emerge as ultimately more impactful: The increased globalization of the game that happened in the exact same era.
I just don't know, and I guess that's really all I can offer. I wanted to get something written about steroids for posterity, I think, because I've never addressed them in any way here before and because I recognize that this big mess is significant. We're not yet done figuring out how significant, though, so I think it's myopic to dismiss performance-enhancing drug use as something that's simple and rotten or something that people just don't care about anymore.