By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009
The riveting, uplifting story of Manny Ramírez's transformation from cancerous malcontent in Boston to dreadlocked, beloved eccentric in Los Angeles was derailed yesterday by the news that the Dodgers' slugger has been suspended 50 games for violating baseball's policy against performance-enhancing drugs.
The suspension began last night as the first-place Dodgers -- riding a major league record 13-game, season-opening winning streak at home -- prepared to host the Washington Nationals without their starting left fielder, the engine of their offense and the centerpiece of their marketing campaign.
Baseball thus has yet another new face of its never-ending performance-enhancing drug scandal, which already has claimed as victims the legacies of all-time greats such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and, most recently, Alex Rodriguez. None of those players, however, was caught by baseball's anti-drug policy and none has been suspended, as Ramírez has.
While the logistics of Ramírez's absence were perfectly clear -- he will forfeit around $7.65 million from his $25 million salary and will be eligible to return on July 3 -- the lack of specifics revealed in Major League Baseball's announcement of the suspension, and in a statement issued by Ramírez, engendered plenty of questions.
As per MLB's drug policy, the league did not reveal the substance for which Ramírez tested positive -- or, for that matter, whether it was a positive test at all that triggered the suspension. The union released a statement saying Ramírez's case fell under the "just cause" provision in the drug policy, which allows for penalties for the use of banned drugs even in cases where no positive tests have occurred. The union also said Ramírez waived his right to appeal the penalty.
In a statement, Ramírez, who turns 37 later this month, said the substance in question was not a steroid, but a substance given to him by a doctor for a "personal health issue."
"Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy," Ramírez's statement said. "Under [baseball's] policy that mistake is now my responsibility. I have been advised not to say anything more for now.
"I do want to say one other thing; I've taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons. . . . L.A. is a special place to me and I know everybody is disappointed. So am I. I'm sorry about this whole situation."
Multiple media reports said the substance in question was human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a drug most frequently used to treat infertility in women, but in some cases also for men. However, it is also popular among steroid users to restart the body's natural production of testosterone following a "cycle" of steroids. It has been banned by the international bodies of most sports since the 1980s, and was added to baseball's banned list last year.
"When you take steroids, they turn off the body's internal mechanism that makes testosterone," said Gary Wadler, a physician and influential steroids expert. "So the testicles are basically turned off. They shrink in size, and there is a decrease in the production of testosterone. The way to get around that is to take something like [HCG] to wake the testicles up."
As Wadler noted, if Ramírez had a legitimate medical reason to take the drug, he could have applied for a therapeutic use exemption, over 100 of which were handed out in both 2007 and 2008 -- mostly for players seeking to take stimulants such as Ritalin or Adderall for attention deficit disorder. Baseball's drug policy ultimately holds all players accountable for what they put into their bodies, and the union routinely tests nutritional supplements and other substances for players in order to verify they do not contain banned substances.
Both Dodgers Manager Joe Torre and General Manager Ned Colletti praised Ramírez for "taking responsibility" for his actions and "not trying to hide from the truth" -- although Colletti also said he was "sick and saddened" when he learned of Ramírez's suspension late Wednesday.
Torre said he spoke to Ramírez on Thursday, saying, "He was devastated."
"I think our society is all about pointing fingers and blaming people," said Torre, who managed Clemens and Rodriguez in New York. "And everybody has an opinion, and everybody's entitled to their opinion. We're high-profile people. We're held to higher standards, and I'm not saying we shouldn't be. But sometimes we stray, and things happen that everybody finds out about."
At a time when baseball had hoped the worst of its drug scandal was behind it -- following the explosive December 2007 release of the Mitchell report, which sought to bring closure to the issue -- baseball has now seen its two highest-paid active stars nabbed this year in a span of only four months.
In February, Rodriguez, the Yankees' third baseman and the game's highest-paid player, acknowledged previous steroid use after a report on Sports Illustrated's Web site revealed he had failed a test in 2003, when results were anonymous.
However, of all the superstars tarnished in the scandal, only Rafael Palmeiro and Ramírez have been suspended. The alleged drug use by McGwire, Bonds and Clemens, as well as the drug use acknowledged by Rodriguez, occurred before baseball began suspending drug offenders.
"To me, it's sad, because this guy is going to get his name tainted basically now forever, and this guy is one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever to put a uniform on," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said of Ramírez.
Until yesterday, Ramírez's tenure in Los Angeles had been a boon for player and team. Ramírez was able to repair a reputation tarnished by accusations of selfishness and insubordination in Boston, while the Dodgers and their fans quickly embraced Ramírez's quirkiness and MVP-caliber production. He carried the Dodgers to the NL West title after being traded there from the Red Sox last July, then re-signed with a two-year, $45 million contract -- the second year being a player option -- in March.
He was batting .348 with six homers and 20 RBI at the time of his suspension, with the Dodgers -- whose 21-8 record entering last night was the best in baseball -- enjoying a 6 1/2 -game lead in the NL West.
Staff writer Chico Harlan, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.