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May 10, 2009
On the Beat
It seemed that the Steroids Era had finally come to an end, but those pesky performance-enhancing drugs and the superstars who use them just won't go away. It happened again on Thursday, when Major League Baseball suspended Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez for 50 games for using HCG, a women's fertility drug used to restore the production of testosterone after the end of a cycle of steroid use. Ramirez's suspension came three months after Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez admitted to using steroids earlier in his career in light of the disclosure he had tested positive during MLB's survey testing in 2003.
It now seems nearly every prolific slugger of the past two decades has either been found to have used steroids or been implicated in using them, including Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro. Nor have pitchers been immune, as Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte have been embroiled in PED controversies, among others.
That Ramirez got caught was enough to make Astros first baseman Lance Berkman roll his eyes and wonder what's coming next. "I wasn't surprised," said Berkman. "I think anybody that makes the game look clownish is under suspicion, because it's just not that easy. It's unfortunate that here we go again, with another round of steroid questions."
The questions never seem to stop, but that doesn't bother Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. He understands today's 24-hour news cycle, and he's always willing to give honest and thoughtful answers. When asked how much Ramirez's suspension would hurt the perception of the game, Jones gave a heartfelt response. "I'm like everybody else, I'd like to know that my heroes did it the right way," Jones said. "Guys like Manny and A-Rod, Barry, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire have so many fans across America that live and die with every at-bat or every pitch. And now they think differently."
Jones also realizes that every time another player is suspended, rightly or wrongly, it causes many fans to call into the question the integrity of every major league player. "You can't have arguably the greatest pitcher of our era, arguably the two greatest players of our era, and now another very, very good player be under this cloud of suspicion and not feel like it's ruined it for everybody," Jones said. "But what are you going to do? You can't be born in another era. It is what it is. It is the steroid era. We're all going to have to answer steroid questions, most likely for the rest of our careers. We're all going to have to be judged accordingly. I just hate to see people look down their nose at our game when there are a very small percentage of players who are cheating. It just so happens that it's magnified because it has been the best players in our game that have been caught doing it."
Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue, though, believes it is good for the game that one of its biggest names has been suspended, because he feels that it puts the drug-testing system that was agreed to by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association-with the helpful nudge of some grandstanding members of Congress-beyond reproach. "It goes to show that the system works," La Rue said. "If you're doing it, you're going to get caught."
Whether they are numbed by the never-ending stream of steroids news or are just proponents of freedom of choice, some players aren't all that concerned about the issue. Count Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche among that camp. "It's part of the game," he said. "Guys make decisions. We are grown men. You're going to do what you want to do. Some guys make good [decisions]. Some guys make bad ones. I'm not one to judge on what anybody does. It's their career, their teams, their future. I don't hold it against any of them that did it. I don't see it like they are taking food off my plate, or taking money away that I should be making because they choose to do it. Some of my friends are the ones that were caught doing it. I don't look at them any different, and I never will. It bothers some guys. It doesn't bother me."
It came as no surprise that the Diamondbacks fired classy manager Bob Melvin on Thursday night. Since he had won the National League Manager of the Year award in 2007 after the Diamondbacks won the NL West, things have gone downhill. The D'backs got off to a 19-7 start last season and a 6½-game lead in the NL West, but they went 63-73 the rest of the way to finish 82-80 and two games behind the Dodgers in the division race. They had a 12-17 record this season when Melvin was fired.
However, the big surprise came when the Diamondbacks promoted A.J. Hinch, their 34-year-old player development director, to be their new manager. While Hinch has been considered a lock to eventually become a general manager, he had never managed at any level until Friday. "He brings unique leadership and perspective to the job," Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes said. "We're not here to reinvent the wheel, but to change to the nature of the job a little bit? OK, we'll do that. A.J.'s a leader. He connects with people. He gets things done."
Hinch is the youngest manager in the major leagues since the Indians' Eric Wedge made his debut at the age of 35 on Opening Day in 2003. Wedge, however, had been managing the Indians' Triple-A team when he was tabbed for the job. "I'm very comfortable with pressure, with expectations, with high standards, with accountability," Hinch told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. "It's how I've always lived my life. It's the only way I know."
The Diamondbacks have built their team around a core of home-grown players, and Hinch believes that will work to his advantage while he does his on-the-job training. "I feel a part of each and every one of them," Hinch said. "I've been involved in different aspects of their careers so far, and I think that's to their advantage, and I think that's to my advantage."
The theory that the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was beginning to lose some of its intensity because of the incessant media and fan hype surrounding each game was certainly debunked this past Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox were not pleased that the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain hit left fielder Jason Bay in the numbers in the fifth inning after he had homered earlier in the game. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, though he would not admit it publicly, was incensed, because he believed that Red Sox first-base coach Tim Bogar was tipping pitch locations to the hitters.
The teams next meet on June 9 at Fenway Park, and during an interview with WEEI-AM in Boston, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell sounded like a man who sensed that there was more animosity coming. "Those things aren't forgotten," Farrell said. "Typically, we let the game play out itself, because I think our guys have each other's backs and they're certainly going to be supportive if a situation like that were to arise. [Chamberlain] strikes out 12 guys, doesn't seem to have too many command issues, and if there was a purpose or intent to throw up and in, or if the intent was even further than that, to send a clear-cut message, you can disguise it a little bit more than with a first-pitch pitch in the middle of the back to Jason Bay."
Bay wouldn't outright accuse Chamberlain of throwing at him, but he was suspicious. "There are a few factors you look at," said Bay. "That kind of stuff happens. Given that point of the game, especially with the way he was throwing the ball, you would figure that he would have just gone ahead and kept throwing the ball like he was doing. No one ever really knows. It's not the first time I've been hit, and it won't be the last."
Meanwhile, an inning earlier, Girardi had moved to the far end of the home dugout and began screaming at Bogar from the top step. While neither man would specifically address the situation after the game, according to those near the argument Girardi had implied that the Yankees would reciprocate by saying, "you're going to get somebody hurt." Girardi felt that Bogar was moving around in the coaching box a little too much, a tactic that can be used to tip pitch location.
Rays left fielder Carl Crawford stole a base in nine straight games before being shut down on the basepaths by the Yankees on Thursday. He was the first player to have a streak that long since Corey Patterson did it with the 2006 Orioles. Included in that streak was a six-steal game last Sunday against the Red Sox that tied the modern major league record. Crawford has also been successful on 22 consecutive steal attempts dating to last season.
Crawford changed his off-season training routine after been bothered with sore hamstrings throughout much of last season, working out on grass with a new trainer in his hometown of Houston, rather than on turf at the Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona. He also has began taking larger leads this season, and has something to play for as the Rays hold a $10 million club option for 2010.
Crawford's fast start has cause some to wonder if he could become the major league's first 100-steal man since Vince Coleman with the 1987 Cardinals. Crawford says no way. "That's a big round number," said Crawford. "I don't think I'd be able to walk at the end of the year."
Rays manager Joe Maddon agrees. "There's a lot of pounding in 100 steals," he said. "That's a lot of getting on base, that's a lot of running. He plays on turf. So that's kind of a lot to ask. I would just prefer he could just approach the year picking up significant steals."
Major League Rumors and Rumblings: The White Sox have interest in free agent Pedro Martinez now that Jose Contreras has been bounced from the starting rotation. ... The Indians are canvassing each of the other 29 major league clubs, looking for relief pitching, and they're closing in on signing right-hander Luis Vizcaino, recently released by the Cubs. ... While the Orioles have three pitchers who have had 30-save seasons in their careers in George Sherrill, Chris Ray, and Danys Baez, set-up man Jim Johnson is likely to wind up in the closer's role at some point this season. ... Scouts who have watched Athletics first baseman Jason Giambi say that he has lost considerable bat speed, and those who have watched Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis' last two minor league starts on his rehab assignment are convinced that he is over his control problems and ready to succeed in the major leagues again.
Three series to watch in the early part of the week, with probable pitching matchups: