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Little Reason to Believe

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Another neat redemption narrative has been ruined by chemical analysis: Manny Ramírez tested positive for a banned substance. Cue the expression of surprise, his protestation that it was an innocent mistake, his play for sympathy, and his bid to regain his reputation. And anyone who believes him, and Alex Rodriguez too, sees the face of Jesus in a potato chip.

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At this point, responsibility dictates the following statement: It's possible that Ramírez is an unwitting victim of circumstance and is not lying when he says he saw a physician for a "personal health issue" and received a prescription for a substance he didn't realize was banned. And as much of my heart is in that statement as Ramírez's is in his.

Just last month, Jose Canseco voiced the suspicion that Ramírez would turn out to be one of the names on Major League Baseball's ever-lengthening list of steroid users. Just this week, Selena Roberts, in a new book, "A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez," offered the accusation that Rodriguez used performance enhancers for far longer than two-year period he admits to. No one much cared to listen to either of them. It was more fun to watch Ramírez's hair fly around the bases and marvel at the 36-year-old's performance with the Dodgers, hitting .348 with six homers and 20 RBI.

Canseco offered no hard evidence, but he has yet to be wrong about such things -- every single name he's offered up in public has come up trumps. Roberts's previous accusations against Rodriguez have also proved true; it was her story in Sports Illustrated that forced A-Rod's admission that he used steroids from 2001 to '03 after his indignant denials.

Time and again, ballplayers have falsely protested their innocence, until they've got no credibility left. So before I offer my unqualified support to Ramírez, I'll wait to hear the name of the doctor, and view the scrip. I'd like to know what was prescribed and why. Initial reports are that he took women's fertility drug HCG -- human chorionic gonadotropin -- typically used by steroid users to restart their body's testosterone production after they come off a steroid cycle.

That a female fertility drug should turn up in all this mess is a hilarious irony, because ever since Roberts's book came out on Monday she's been savaged by jawbones on talk radio and some of her colleagues in the sports press as lacking credibility because she's a woman. She's been portrayed as a muckraking man-hater out to de-pants an icon. Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star suggested in an interview with Dan Patrick that Roberts wrote an unflattering book about Rodriguez because she's a "hard-core feminist" who just doesn't like guys. "I don't think she understands athletics that well," Whitlock said. "I don't think she understands men that well."

Roberts is immune to the chesty charms of A-Rod, all right. She spent months investigating him because, as HarperCollins executive editor David Hirshey puts it, "She believes he's the hood ornament of the steroids era." Roberts doesn't buy the lionizing of ballplayers wide-eyed. She rolls her eyes.

"I think when people look at the full arc of the book they'll see it's an explanation of the guy, not an excoriation," Roberts says. "I didn't dumpster-dive in his life."

Among the complaints against the book, which I haven't yet read but fully intend to, is that it delves into Rodriguez's childhood and personal life -- for shame, using a biography to do that -- and quotes nameless sources suggesting he may have used as early as high school. A high school athlete and aspiring major leaguer using steroids? Not possible. As for anonymous sources, now there's a journalistic felony, using them to investigate steroid usage. Better snatch the George Polk Award back from Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada for "Game of Shadows," in which they used sources to accuse Barry Bonds of juicing.

Roberts points out that if you actually read the book you'll discover that 60 of her sources spoke on the record. Only 19 of them were anonymous. According to Hirshey: "Her sourcing was rigorously examined by our lawyers. The lawyers were not going to allow her to quote sources who weren't going to stand up in court and testify if anyone took legal action."

Roberts has logged 23 years as a journalist with the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and I don't question her credibility or reporting, even when I disagree with her judgments, which is often. I especially disagree with the criminalizing of athletes who use steroids; it's my view we need to find a way to talk to ballplayers more honestly about the problem so as to find better solutions, not vilify them and drive them into more lies. Still, I'll make a bet that Roberts's book contains more useful realism about how and why ballplayers use than most of what's written. It's bound to be more useful than the excuse-making being spun out by agent Scott Boras, or the trashing from critics who haven't done any reporting of their own.

"If you have found something out counter to what I have, print it," she says. "Do the work."

Then again, her editor at Sports Illustrated, Terry McDonnell, thinks that realism is exactly what people don't want from ballplayers.

"There have been people lying about a lot of things for a long time and all I ever want to ask, when they attack Selena or us, which they did when we broke the story, is, I just want to ask them, 'Do you want to know the truth or not?' " he says.

Some people would rather not. They'd rather not think about what Ramírez was doing with a fertility drug in his system. Here's a soothing explanation:

Maybe he just doesn't understand men that well.




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