Well, it seems that Manny Ramirez is back with the Los Angeles Dodgers, having done his time both under suspension and in Albuquerque, N.M., which seems just a touch redundant. (He also briefly played against Lake Elsinore in the famous California Shakespearian League, but he was gone before he could play in a three-game sweep of Dunsinane Creek and, alas, before a critical four-game set with the Birnam Wood Movers.) The latter seems to have energized the various maiden aunts among the baseball punditocracy. How, they asked, could Manny actually have served a 50-game suspension when he was allowed to kick around the bush leagues for a couple of weeks at the end of it? It is a very good question, and I couldn't care less what the answer is.
That said, I thought the hype ladled onto Manny's return was excessive, even by ESPN's elephantine standards for excess. (I mean, honestly, breaking into ESPNews for every minor league at-bat? What if there had been a sudden fantasy-baseball emergency somewhere?) That's Bonds treatment. Or A-Rod. I always thought Manny Ramirez was a notch below them as a subject for hyperpituitary voyeurism. However, it was of a piece with Manny's greatest gift as a professional athlete—his innate ability to make everything about baseball that is self-reverentially loathsome look ridiculous. In the great, hushed temple that baseball is perennially building for itself in its own mind, it's Manny's who provides the dribble glasses, the whoopee cushions, and the exploding cigars. It is his holy mission to take the living piss out of the self-important, the moralistic, and the people who cling to baseball in order to defend their inherent right to be 13 years old for the rest of their lives. So, there he was, an Albuquerque Isotope, selling out the ballpark and, by all accounts, happy as a clam.
Consider: In the two months since he was reported to have tested positive for some second cousin to a performance-enhancing drug, Manny undermined the ludicrous bloviation that lies at the heart of the most singularly overblown "crisis" in the history of sports. In doing so, he injected a welcome and overdue element of burlesque into an increasingly tedious drug frenzy. Hell, he didn't even get busted for a performance-enhancer per se. He got busted for a drug that "some people have been known to take" to come off a cycle on the juice. Moreover, it happened to be a drug usually prescribed for women who want to get pregnant. * This was the funniest drug moment in popular entertainment since the last time Cheech and Chong made a record. Of course, quite a few people who fancy themselves the keepers of our most precious game took themselves to the fainting couch again, but the rest of us just got a damn good laugh out of it.
At his best—not as a hitter but as a public person—Manny Ramirez always has been most valuable in his ability to be a walking (if an occasionally completely unwitting) satire on baseball's pretensions, which sorely need to be mocked on a very regular basis. He worked to fashion himself into one of the most feared hitters in the game. By any reasonable standard, he has "respected his talent" a hell of a lot more than did, say, Mickey Mantle, who left too many of his best days on a barstool in Manhattan. Without ever being completely aware of it, he spoofed the whole notion of baseball "professionalism," which should have been left a bleached pile of bones by the side of the road back in 1970, when Jim Bouton published Ball Four. He was more than a flake. Flakes—like Bill Lee or Moe Drabowsky—generally are aware that they're flakes. They glory in it. Manny is something sui generis—as natural and instinctive an eccentric as he is a hitter.
What finally drove Manny out of Boston is that he abandoned that role. The guy who dipped into the left-field wall to relieve himself—thereby demystifying the superannuated architecture of Fenway for good and all—turned into little more than a run-of-the-mill professional baseball malcontent, slapping around elderly gents in the clubhouse and grumping around the locker room. His teammates—delicate, fragile souls that they were—tired of the act, and he was shipped out to Los Angeles, where he proceeded virtually to carry the Dodgers into last year's playoffs.
Then, back in May, the test results came back. A chorus of moaning arose from the Church of the Perpetually Outraged. (This week's sermon: "What about the children?") But he slowly but surely made a goof even out of the Most Serious Crisis There Absolutely Ever Has Been. The drug for which he was nailed was only the beginning of it. Pundits were dispatched to the far corners of the minors to seek out the disheartened and disillusioned. Instead, they found fans who were just happy to see Manny Ramirez swinging for the fences of their little stadium. (My favorite was the guy who told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that he and his wife had, like Manny, used a fertility drug. "Manny got suspended," the man told Plaschke. "We got twins!") With Manny in town, the game was a happy, not haunted, place. This seemed to come as a surprise to some people.
Ramirez's weird pilgrimage to the bushes served as a living reminder that the great steroid hunt is almost solely an intramural problem between baseball and its various acolytes. The overwhelming number of baseball fans—who, given the economic problems of the moment, are filling ballparks in reasonably overwhelming numbers—have quite obviously made peace with what happened in the game over the past 20 years. Manny Ramirez was treated as though he'd pulled a hamstring or tweaked a tendon. Now, he's back. That's the way things are going to be from now on.
Correction, July 6, 2009: This article incorrectly referred to human chorionic gonadotropin as a drug usually prescribed for pregnant women. It is most often prescribed for women who are undergoing IVF treatment in the hope of getting pregnant. (Return to the corrected sentence.)