Ever see a clubhouse picture of Joe DiMaggio with his shirt off? There are a few that pop up in books about the Yankee Clipper. His biceps have a bit of definition, but otherwise the only thing that really pops out at you is his ribcage — he looks as if he just came off of a hunger strike. Had I been a writer at the time, I would have been tempted to bring him bowls of pasta. Steaks. Freshly killed zebras. Joe DiMaggio was not a bodybuilder. Thank you for that, Joe.
The foregoing is an oblique reaction to Manny Ramirez’s 50-game suspension for failing a test for a so-called performance-enhancing drug. According to one article, that substance was a gonadotropin, a substance used to light a fire in underperforming testicles (I believe that in 10 years of writing this feature that is the first time I have typed the word “testicles”). In other words, these drugs kick off testosterone production. Testosterone helps build muscles. Muscles make you stronger. Stronger makes you… Well, we really don’t know that stronger makes you anything but stronger, but you see the reasoning that is at work here.
As always, what is depressing about this development is not its actual impact but the dishonesty that comes with getting caught. Ramirez’s statement on the matter said, “Recently I saw a physician for a personal health issue. He gave me a medication, not a steroid, which he thought was okay to give me. Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy. Under the policy that mistake is now my responsibility.”
No, Manny, actually it’s your doctor’s responsibility too, and I fully expect that you will be suing him. Thing is, we know Manny won’t be suing, because then this tissue-paper excuse would collapse. For that matter, he would also appeal the suspension, submit medical records as proof of his contention, and make every effort to stay on the field and clear his name. That’s not what he’s doing. Rather, he’s meekly taking the rap.
Ramirez is seemingly oblivious to much besides his personal comfort level, so I don’t expect him to have much feeling for his place in the game or its history, but it sure would be nice if we had a player or two who felt an obligation to the game who had made them famous multimillionaires and exercised due caution, even excess caution, so they did not get into these situations, whether by choosing to do drugs that the public considers to be cheating, or by asking some extra questions of their physician so as to make sure they don’t get poor advice, as Ramirez supposedly did. In the end, it’s really not what the drugs do, but what the public thinks of them. Unfortunately, all the propaganda has been in the service of the Incredible Hulk Theory of PEDs (baseball has chosen to capitulate rather than educate), so rightly or wrongly, when you get caught the public starts thinking of you the way they used to think of Shoeless Joe.
As such, Ramirez now gets a seat at the table that now holds Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Alex Rodriguez. This is a hitter who, whatever controversies have surrounded him, has been an All-Star every year since 1998, who has 533 career home runs and nearly 1,750 RBIs, whose career slugging percentage is .594. Whatever one thinks of Ramirez personally, be you a Yankees fan, Red Sox fan, Dodgers fan, if you’re a fan of baseball it is disgusting and abhorrent to you that a hitter of this stature is now perceived to have fallen.
A note of sympathy for Joe Torre, a guy whom must have been cursed to live in interesting times. His team has the best record in baseball, in part due to Ramirez’s terrific start. He now finds himself suffering a violent drop in production in left field, from Ramirez to Juan Pierre. That is, to quote Tom Petty, freefallin’. The Dodgers do have some Minor League outfielders that can play a bit, including prospect Xavier Paul at Triple-A (.344/.385/.542 and a big grain of salt at Triple-A) and journeyman bat Val Pascucci.
If they choose to be more assertive than just surrendering to the Pierreness (rhymes with “unfairness”) of life they can try to patch a bit. Regardless, Torre has his work cut out for him. Needless to say, this is one of those meadership moments that can make for a good line on one’s Hall of Fame plaque — if the Old Man can pull a rabbit out of his hat.
If not, the Dodgers, one of baseball’s best teams in one of its biggest media markets, a club off to a record-setting 13-0 start at home, becomes another casualty of steroids hysteria combined with a player’s ignorance, stupidity, and selfishness. Good work, congratulations to everyone. And so we ask again, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
Actually, if he were here, we’d probably get on him for his cigarette habit. Alas, no one is perfect.
Jon Heyman of SI.com had an interesting tidbit in a recent posting about the Yankees shopping Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady:
Johnny Damon isn’t in the trade mix, as the Yankees need him to be their leadoff hitter and part of a center field rotation. The other in-house candidates for center field are Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.
That’s interesting, though not in the basic meaning of it — even though Damon is in the last year of his contract and is coming off something like a career season, it seemed unlikely the Yankees would try to move him, given the two roles he plays on the team, leadoff hitter, as Heyman mentions, as well as defensively overqualified left fielder. Many observers tend to focus on Damon’s poor arm, but his speed makes for a corner outfielder who can cover an unusual amount of ground.
Now, if you think about it, the most potent offensive outfield the Yankees could field next year would be Nady in left, Damon in center, and Swisher in right, rather than the presumed alternative, Damon in left, some combination of Gardner and Cabrera in center, and Xavier Nady in right — and Swisher playing the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Hamlet’s Father, or something. The problem with doing that, beyond the misuse of Swisher, is that at Damon’s current stage of the lifecycle, he’s better off not being overtaxed. Further, while his speed still does wonders in left, it’s not quite as spectacular in center — Damon had already slid off his peak the position before the Yankees moved him.
That said, being part of a center field rotation, as per Heyman above, makes all kinds of sense in that it gives the Yankees a great deal more flexibility in being able to waltz other players in and out of the corners. The more positions a star can play without compromising the defense, the better off the team is, because the club begins to close off openings for the replacement-level players that are so damaging to the winning effort. Similarly, Joe Girardi needn’t be married to any one center fielder.
There is yet another hand, which is that the Yankees might want to get married to a center fielder. Damon is in the last year of his contract, and as good as he was at 34 and may be at 35, asking him to keep it up at 36 and 37 will likely be pushing it. Given that the class of free agent center fielders next winter is going to be no fun, the Yankees will be in much better shape going into 2010 if they have the next center fielder lined up now. That could mean getting Gardner established, finding some way to electrify Melky, or even giving Austin Jackson a shot in the second half of the season, should his work at Scranton demand such an audition. Obviously the needs of 2010 have to be balanced against the goal of winning in 2009, with any luck the two goals will be mutually compatible.
One supposes the Yankees will need another leadoff man after 2009 as well. Traditional images would suggest that Gardner is the man, but Gardner may never have enough sock to justify taking up so many plate appearances, regardless of how many bases he steals. The Yankees will need to remember that your leadoff hitter need not match the picture of the singles-hitting speedster. That way lies madness. That way lies Juan Pierre. Remember, Wade Boggs was a great leadoff hitter, and he almost never stole a base. It’s about how often you’re on, not about how fast you can run. In an era of home run hitting, the rest takes care of itself.
SO LET’S TAKE THIS TOPIC ON THE AIR
Later today (6:30 EST) I’ll be appearing from the Bunker on the Yes Network’s Hot Stove show. As usual, I’ll be asked to summarize what we’ve been discussing this week. Let’s try a simple vote, which I’ll relay to the fellers on the air: who should be the starting center fielder in 2009? Damon? Gardner? Cabrera? A rotation split roughly in equal thirds? Or a write-in candidate of your choice? Jim Edmonds is still out there, and he murdered the ball for the Cubs last year. He’d be a heck of a platoon player in center. Argue it out in the comments section below, and I’ll tally up your responses while waiting for smilin’ Bob Lorenz to cast his dancing spell my way.