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Monday, May 11, 2009

The Past, And How To Ignore It

Frank McCourt begins with the same mantra we've come to expect from everyone who's ever had their hands caught in a politically unpalatable cookie jar:
"We can sit and dwell on the past, but I'm not going to do that," said McCourt, who said repeatedly that Ramirez and the Dodgers had to move forward. "We all do things from time to time that disappoint people, don't we? So it's how you deal with that that really matters."
So we know now that Manny's former Red Sox teammate Lou Merloni has related his experiences with a team doctor telling his athletic charges how not to abuse steroids.
Merloni's exact quotes, according to The Boston Globe, were: "I'm in Spring Training, and I got an 8:30-9:00 meeting in the morning. I walk into that office, and this happened while I was with the Boston Red Sox before this last regime, I'm sitting in the meeting. There's a doctor up there and he's talking about steroids, and everyone was like, 'Here we go, we're going to sit here and get the whole thing -- they're bad for you.'

"No. He spins it and says, 'You know what? If you take steroids and sit on the couch all winter long, you can actually get stronger than someone who works out clean. If you're going to take steroids, one cycle won't hurt you; abusing steroids it will.'

"He sat there for one hour and told us how to properly use steroids while I'm with the Boston Red Sox, sitting there with the rest of the organization, and after this I said, 'What the heck was that?' And everybody on the team was like, 'What was that?' And the response we got was, 'Well, we know guys are taking it, so we want to make sure they're taking it the right way.' ... Where did that come from? That didn't come from the Players Association."

The Mitchell Report alleged that one of the reasons the Dodgers decided to trade Paul LoDuca when they did was not because he was a juicer, but because he had given it up. I recall that Frank McCourt was the owner of the Dodgers back then. With some justification, there is reason to believe that McCourt — and baseball ownership more generally — knew or suspected strongly that Manny was taking steroids; why else the reticence about his hiring, with the Dodgers really the only bidders for his services? And neither side able to come out and say publicly what is now so transparent, that the risk is not only that the player might get outed as a steroid user — in which case the damage is to public opinion — but also to the team, a 50-game suspension being no small potatoes.

But the hope is that he might not get caught. The drug warriors must keep the owners up at night, and for once, it makes me feel a bit sympathetic to Frank McCourt, whose team has been caught on the anvil of hypocrisy. After all, it's not like Manny's arms and legs are falling off, like that mendacious PSA.

Update: SOSG has a transcript of Frank McCourt's interview in yesterday's Dodgers game.

Scully: In talking about Monday or Tuesday, did you say, Well okay, I will talk to you in x number of days? How did you leave the very final words of your conversation?

McCourt: He said he would be in touch with me. And we'll talk, and then things will start to roll. He was already talking about needing to get back into working out and being with his teammates and so on and so forth. So he's clearly moving along the process in his own mind. You know, this is going to take some healing. There was damage done, there was disappointment created. We've all made mistakes, and we've all disappointed people and it's a lousy feeling to do that. But once you realize that, the only way to fix it is to address it and then make amends. It's more than words. You have to do some things to fix it, and I think he's in that place right now.

Reading between the lines here, it seems to me that McCourt's PR-centric approach to running the team — for good or ill — may end up being the most humane way to dealing with this knotty situation. Between the lines — and even explicitly ("you wake up and you realize that anger gets you nowhere") — McCourt is acknowledging the situation for what it is, within his limited ability to change things.

Update 2: More on the particulars behind Manny's suspension at ESPN:

Within [Manny's medical records requested by MLB per the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program section of the Collective Bargaining Agreement] was a prescription written for the drug human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) -- No. 55 on the list of banned performance-enhancing substances in the policy. The drug is mainly used for female fertility issues, but it is best known among male steroid users as a substance that can help kick-start the body's production of natural testosterone, which is stymied when using synthetic testosterone (aka steroids).

The synthetic testosterone in Ramirez's body could not have come from the hCG, according to doping experts, and so suddenly Ramirez had two drugs to answer for. Worse still for the ballplayer, MLB now had a document showing he had been prescribed a banned substance. This was iron-clad evidence that could secure a 50-game suspension.

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I'm glad to see this post. It's hard for many purists to hear, but 50 years from now, the steroids era will simply be thought of as primitive. Future players will wonder that these historical figures risked bodily harm for the sake of marginal gains, and be glad of the tailored and effective PEDs they use with minimal side effects.
The change will occur several generations in the future, when drug use for enhancement of all sorts becomes the norm. This revolution is already begun.
The lead article of the 4/27 issue of the New Yorker is "Brain Gain: The underground world of 'neuroenhancing drugs". It elucidates the widespread use of Adderall, Ritalin, and Provigil on university campuses, that students use to improve concentration, alertness, and productivity. One survey found 35% of students used such prescription stimulants non-medically. Usage in highly-competitive schools is estimated to be even higher.
Other researchers estimate that 30% of erectile dysfunction medication is actually used recreationally. And over time, the effectiveness of enhancement drugs will only improve, while the side effects will reduce. Do we really think that future society will demonize PED drugs in athletes, when enhancement drugs are ubiquitous (and legal) amongst the general population? I think not. There will be a time when PEDs are not only allowed within MLB, but encouraged. That time will come when society accepts such future drugs as both useful and safe.
However, today that is not the case, primarily because many PEDs are not safe. As such, they are properly banned. But lets not kid ourselves that the ban it to 'preserve the integrity of the game'. MLB was perfectly happy to enjoy the benefits of enhanced athletes during the steroid era. And they will be again, when society finds the practice acceptable.
Players today should be punished for PED use for one reason, and one reason only: its against the rules. Games must have rules, and all participants must play by the rules. Breaking the rules to improve your performance is cheating. Rules for handling cheaters must be clear, and enforced. This is exactly what has happened since 2003, and the sport is better for it. As long as both the violation and consequence is clear, then that is how 'integrity' is preserved.
When Manny returns, he'll be (mostly) cheered and rooted for, as he should be. The penalty was paid, now everyone moves on.

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