Friday, May 8, 2009

See the Ball, Hit the Ball

Before I get into this, I should say that JnM is by no means a reactionary, angry site. We're for baseball, for the people who play it, for the foibles and the eccentricities and the human bits that make it all worth watching. For new visitors, it might be worth checking out our Ethos, and maybe skimming one or two of our other posts to get a sense of what we're about. Note in first link how Ramirez is listed as a player who exemplifies what we love about the sport. We've said from the beginning that steroids aren't as big a deal as they're presented to be by the media at large, and that the numerology in baseball can be as much of a burden as it can an asset. So when a player who embodies so much of the good in baseball gets hoisted out on a skewer by yet another irresponsible columnist holding aloft his personal code of ethics as the Truth, I think we should say something.

Jayson Stark's new article about Manny Ramirez's suspension is up and can be found here. You should probably read it before continuing.

Every single part of that article is horseshit. Complete and utter horseshit. Starting with the first sentence, where Stark decides to start his article burying Manny with a grand statement about being proud to be an American and proud to be amongst such a forgiving populace, continuing to the last, where he says it'll take more than his (Manny's) hair and his bat to earn forgiveness. It's horseshit because it's built on a faulty premise and is thus fallacious; that Manny doesn't deserve to be forgiven because he didn't take on the full brunt of the blame in his apology. The people who have done this and have been forgiven (deservedly) apparently begins and ends with Pettitte. There's not another name listed, though Stark infers there are others. These people who have been forgiven were so absolved because they took their punishment like a man. It's a ridiculous idea that misses the point completely.

I don't want to step on the toes of upcoming posts we'll do about steroids, but I've never felt that juicing is enough to warrant a tarring-and-feathering. It's just not that simple. Even for a player like Rodriguez, whose use was/is more a statement of insecurity than anything else, and whom I don't even care for, the Steroids is an insignificant event; more interesting for the psychological implication it makes about him than the padded stats. So while I may think it's not a big deal regardless of the player, Stark clearly does. On his own terms, then: Manny was caught with a female fertility drug that raised the amount of testosterone in his body. Pettitte used Human Growth Hormone to heal his pitching arm. In simple black and white terms, Pettitte's was the greater baseball sin. It's not even close. Also worth noting is that Manny has passed at least a dozen tests for illegal substances in the last few years, and given the nature of steroids, its benefits and consequences on the body, combined with Manny's strengths as a player, it's pretty reasonable to say that there's no real reason to suspect he's had a history of juicing. Bill Simmons, of course, takes a maudlin approach when he contemplates the cataclysmic repercussions of Manny taking some pills, and though he's more realistic about what steroids mean in a general way, somehow Ramirez's failed test causes him to lose his shit. He's wrong, too, but his is a more personal disappointment and while he misses the point - Manny and Ortiz still were the Ruth and Gehrig of our time - his last sentence sort of gets it right. Everyone's cheating.

Baseball is a game of cheating, though. Stealing signs and steroids, whether to win a game or prolong a career, are all part of it. So when Simmons says "Everyone was cheating back then," he's half wrong. Everyone has always been cheating.

Back to Stark. There's a weird sort of fascist bent to whole article's chiding. Stark darkly intones that Manny's reputation before this suspension is enough cause to throw him overboard; whereas Pettitte's stellar history renders him easier to forgive. This is where I take the most umbrage. You see, whereas Stark seems to think Manny has no fans, that his behavior is sinister and his past unforgivable, I see it the other way. This play, for better or worse, sums up what I love about Manny. He's a ridiculous, child-like person; he leaves the field to pee in the middle of a game, wears sunglasses with earbuds in them during warm ups, he doesn't seem to be taking any of it seriously, ever. There are a thousand other examples of this, and anytime an expression is coined to explain a person (Manny being Manny), you can rest assured there's a pattern of behavior. But Manny's acts aren't childish; they, as I said just now, are child-like. And the joy Manny has for baseball is obvious. Witness his slump busting homerun against the A's a few years ago in the playoffs, where he stood back and admired his hit for far too long, and you won't see a player rubbing his excellence in his opponent's faces. You'll see a player watching the ball go over the wall, finding his swing again.

Manny is one of the top 2 or 3 right handed hitters in the history of baseball. He's a World Series MVP, he's clutch, and a dozen other positive adjectives that I can't list here. Moreso than that, though, he's wholly himself and authentic. He has style and verve and swagger and is one of the handful of players that I would steal money to use to watch him play. That is why he'll be forgiven. Not because we're his parents and we decide punishment, or our ideals of purity and sanctity have been compromised. That's stupid, and where Stark is fundamentally most wrong.

I'll wait for Manny to come back because Manny is a baseball player: One who plays a game. That he does so in accordance with his own head rather than some fictionalized utopia a sportswriter dreams of is all the better. I'd wish to everyone that they find the happiness and excellence in their own jobs or hobbies that Manny Ramirez has in baseball.

So, Jayson Stark, we here at Joy in Mudville posit that you (along with Plaschke and his typically completely ludicrous response, and a number of other ESPN talking heads), are completely and totally wrong about this. And if you think for a moment that baseball is more about Pettitte than it is about Manny - that we're watching the game for Andy's dour expressions or impassive mein - then you can take your ball and go home.

The rest of us will be happy to fill the stands.


Moonlight Ham said...

Well put. Several things that I'd like to draw out in this thread (and perhaps in others to follow):

First, endeavoring to compare transgressions between players, such as the drug use of Andy Pettitte and Manny Ramirez, is a slippery slope. In this case, and in a purely superficial sense, one subject is a pitcher and the other a hitter. Both players undoubtedly reaped tangible, physical benefits--why else would they, or anyone in baseball for that matter, use these products?--but they were different and perhaps incomparable benefits. While the "everyone's cheating" moniker works to some extent, and it is one that I personally put a lot of stock in, it wasn't pitching records that were falling like dominoes around the turn of the century. Hitters gained a certain amount of ground in the struggle during that time, and the varying backlash in public opinion largely reflects that.

There's also good reason to believe that Manny's most egregious foray into doping was not with female fertility drugs, since they are typically used by athletes after completing a steroid cycle to help normalize the body's production of testosterone. The fact that he's never tested positive before for other drugs can be deceiving. He is, in fact, only the first superstar player to be suspended under the enhanced drug control policy. But how many others have slid by in the interim? There was a not-so-distant time where testing practices were incapable of detecting even the most powerful doping agents. There are more skeletons to be unearthed; the question really becomes whether it is fruitful or desirable to do so.

Second, I am impressed that the author made it through an entire steroids post without mentioning the dollars and cents of the matter. I think there is an important perspective that can be gained by doing so, especially from the perspective of an individual's personal motives. But the coinciding phenomenon of salary explosion will be inextricably tied to the steroid era, and the almighty dollar still stands as one of the few common threads in the blanket understanding of the issue. Is this just a more painful instance of Manny being Manny--unaware of the potential consequences of his actions; trusting, childishly, the medical authority he had contracted to help him; ignoring industry guidelines because, gosh darn it, anything that makes you play better baseball player is good for the game--or is it in part, as I suspect, Manny wanting Money? This is not intended to place blame on a unique individual who values cold hard cash. Rather, it is a tie in to the physiological and psychological effects that steroids have had on baseball.

The Backwards K said...

All good points.

I will say, for emphasis, that my comparison of juicing crimes between Pettitte and Ramirez were merely meant to rebut Stark on his own premise; in either case I don't care what the player does.

Therefore, w/r/t the money and motivation for steroids, I'm less interested. Either the player is a hyper-competitive ass who uses it to win at all costs, or wants the individual glory, or wants the payday, or all 3 in some combination. The thrust here is that I'm interested in the player they are, not their diet or regimen or cycle. (Bonds was always Bonds)

Nathan said...

I can sympathize, since that's what this website is all about. However, I think we need be interested in both the player they are and the person they are, which includes their regimen, diet, cycle, etc. In this instance, the motivation is of extreme importance--particularly if you're a Dodgers fan.

The "player that is Manny Ramirez" has changed as a result of this story. A "Player," afterall, being not only his statistics and abilities and the amicable portions of his personality. The darker side of his nature need be explored, and in particular his motivations. If the NL West weren't such crap, and the Dodgers not perfectly capable of treading water for two months, we might be more inclined to take the perspective that this was the most selfish decision a player could have made--one which could have cost his team a playoff birth (not to mention the revenues associated with putting a star player in your lineup day-in-day-out) in the interest of a bigger payday. Maybe giving up $8 million in salary makes things even, but I don't believe that it does.