Ramirez's excuse: We've heard it before

The Los Angeles Dodger says he took a drug he did not know was banned. True or not, the excuse adds to a lengthening line of equivocations from ballplayers suspected of doping.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Today, Manny Ramirez made his historic addition to the lexicon of Major League Baseball: "personal health issue."

The Los Angeles Dodger outfielder, as prodigiously talented as he is peculiar, has tested positive for a banned substance and been suspended for 50 games. But it was not a steroid, he insists. It was medication for a "personal health issue."

Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn't. But in a sport that has given us the simple eloquence of Lou Gehrig, who declared himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," to the endearing absurdities of Yogi Berra, the most memorable quotes of the modern game all have the ring of "the dog ate my homework."

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Pitcher Roger Clemens gave us lidocaine and B12 – a painkiller and a vitamin that he, somewhat curiously, decided to have injected into his buttocks. They were not steroids and human growth hormone, he insists, though his trainer now says they were.

Barry Bonds gave us flaxseed oil and rubbing balm, saying that's what he thought his trainer was giving him for arthritis. It they were steroids, he didn't know it, he told a federal grand jury in 2003. He is now preparing for a perjury trial.

Alex Rodriguez gave the world what appeared to be honesty: Yes, he said, he did use steroids – but only from 2001 to 2003. Tosh, says a soon-to-be-released book by the Sports Illustrated journalist who broke the news of the positive drug test in 2003. The book alleges Rodriguez continued taking them after he was traded to the New York Yankees and perhaps as early as high school.

Various reports suggest that the drug in question with Ramirez is hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). Apparently, the only plausible medical reason that a man would take hCG is to increase his sperm count. Yahoo.com is reporting that a source close to Ramirez says the slugger took the drug for erectile dysfunction.

But drugs like hCG are banned as a performance-enhancing substance because they can be taken by steroid users to help the body to resume some of its normal functions at the end of a steroid cycle. Alternately, it can boost testosterone levels in and of itself.

So once again we have a he-said, she-said between a beaker and an athlete suddenly as doe-eyed as Dorothy in Kansas. But the fact is, no matter what Ramirez's excuse, there is no excuse.

"You have to get everything you take cleared by a trainer," says Ken Rosenthal, a baseball analyst at FOXSPORTS.com in an interview. This is hardly an obscure rule inscribed on a tablet buried in the bowels of Yankee Stadium. It is drummed into athletes' heads again and again, Rosenthal adds in a blog.

Ramirez apparently paid no heed, either wilfully or foolishly, and the price will be doubt about the legitimacy of his substantial achievements and the $7.7 million in salary he forfeits by being banned for 50 games. Is he Bonds redux – his "personal health issue" merely a new epitaph for sportsmanship in America's most genteel team sport? Or is he Andreea Raducan redux – reprising the fortunes of the Romanian gymnast who was stripped of a 2000 Olympic gold medal for testing positive for a stimulant given to her by her trainer in cold-medicine pills?

Baseball's track record suggests that the sports world will never know.

But one thing is certain: Baseball's drug policy is no longer toothless. Rarely could baseball be mistaken for the Olympics, where drug penalties – a two-year ban for the first offense – can sometimes appear to have been devised in a medieval dungeon. But a 50-game suspension has at least the scent of seriousness.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero got the same 50-game ban earlier this year, even though he tested positive for nothing more sinister than a supplement that he bought at a GNC store in North Carolina. But the supplement was on the banned list, so the punishment stood, despite appeals.

The MLB drug policy has had its share of critics, and if Olympians can still game the World Anti-Doping Agency, baseball players can surely game the major leagues.

But Ramirez's ban marks some progress. Ramirez is the first superstar to be caught after the performance-enhancing drug gluttony of the 1990s and early 2000s. This was supposed to be the post-Steroid Era. But if the steroid era taught the world anything, it was that you should always leave space for an asterisk.

Says Rosenthal: "I'm never surprised anymore."

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