Wasted Talent Becomes Lasting Legacy of Steroid Era

Chris Landers, Sports Editor

This past week was an odd one for baseball, with everything wonderful and everything reprehensible about the sport blending together to create a panorama of images equal parts bizarre and beautiful.

For all of the late-inning drama and on-field storylines, the black pall of steroid use, inescapably interwoven in the fabric of the game at this point, again dominated headlines. First, it was retired slugger Barry Bonds, on trial for perjury after testifying under oath that he had never knowingly taken steroids. Then, in a surreal sequence of events, Tampa Bay Rays great Manny Ramirez abruptly retired without even so much as a personal statement after he reportedly failed a second drug test.

Rounds of steroid admissions and allegations have become as much a rite of spring as Opening Day itself. Every batch of new names seems to give media pundits an excuse to reassess the “steroid era” — its extent, its aftermath and its legacy — inevitably disillusioning fans and trivializing cheating into mere background noise.

I’m speaking as one of the disillusioned. I was outraged at first, a reaction to be expected from a wide-eyed kid, but then I was just tired — tired of the wondering, tired of the disappointment. Eventually it was just easier to view it superficially. I simply wanted to put blinders on and just focus on the game I grew up loving, regardless of what was or wasn’t real.

But for some reason, Ramirez’s retirement struck a chord in me. I felt an odd sense of despair that the steroid issue hadn’t sparked in me in quite some time. The downfall of Manny, statistically speaking a lock for the Hall of Fame, underscored the true tragedy of the steroid era: an obscene amount of wasted talent.

Ultimately, it won’t be the cheating we remember most, although that was undoubtedly a grave and unforgivable offense. There’s something wonderfully simple about baseball, something viscerally satisfying. The game itself has and will transcend the flaws and the selfishness of many a generation of athletes. But try making a list of the players who have been implicated in the steroid controversy. From Bonds to Rafael Palmeiro and now Ramirez, these are some of the brightest pure talents to ever pick up a bat. And as someone who deeply appreciates the game, that’s where the heartbreak is.

Twenty years from now, when the name Manny Ramirez is mentioned, its primary association will be with the drug-riddled debacle of the final two years of his career. That fact, despite all of the cheating and the immaturity and the “Manny being Manny” moments over the years, should sadden every fan, regardless of affiliation.

Because, Lord, could Manny Ramirez hit a baseball. He’s one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time and still to this day had the smoothest swing of any player I was lucky enough to watch. He could make the seemingly otherworldly obliteration of a ball look absolutely effortless, and these are things that the steroids never touched. There’s an old anecdote back from when Ramirez played for the Cleveland Indians in the 1990s. Jim Thome, his teammate at the time, was asked what made Manny so good. He simply smiled and said, “The next time he comes up to the plate, close your eyes and listen. The ball just sounds different when it comes off his bat.”

That’s the thing I’ll remember most about the steroid era. Manny Ramirez was a Hall of Famer from the day he took his first swing in Little League. He was blessed with a natural ease and fluidity that comes along so infrequently and he should be cherished accordingly. Bonds and Rodriguez, with their absurd combination of natural power and speed, are the same way. But steroids took that opportunity away from us. We can’t cherish these prodigious talents because they are now indelibly branded as cheaters, and all of the scandal and controversy hurt so much more because of one simple fact: They didn’t need it.

This is in no way a defense of anyone who has made the mistake of taking steroids. They cheated the game of baseball, and in my opinion there’s no coming back from that. This is simply meant as a remembrance, a solemn acknowledgement of how much talent we didn’t get to enjoy. Because all of the vitriol that is (rightfully) directed towards steroid users has a tendency to hide an equally distressing reality. Those players had talent levels that are so exceedingly rare, and they’ve forced us to live with the fact that their abilities, and all of their potential, has been essentially effaced from the annals of the sport.

Sure, I’ll probably tell my kids about how unbelievably gifted Manny Ramirez was someday. But their image of him will be, unfortunately, the last we saw of him in a uniform — back turned, fading away into the pitch-black night.