— The Mets’ play-by-play guy couldn’t believe what he wasn’t hearing. Manny Ramirez, fresh off a 50-game drug suspension, was stepping to the plate for the first time this year in front of the toughest fans this side of Philadelphia, and there were more people taking pictures than booing.
“They just don’t care anymore,” SNY’s Gary Cohen said, with a distinct note of disappointment. “Most of them seem to care not much at all about performance-enhancing drugs.”
The camera panned the crowd, catching Dodgers fans wearing novelty caps with Manny dreads attached or waving signs welcoming their hero back from exile. Oh, there was a smattering of boos, but nothing remarkable. They weren’t even as loud as those showered on Mets starter Mike Pelfrey when he let the Dodgers jump out to a 5-0 lead in the fourth.
Cohen kept talking about it, as if the fans’ behavior was incomprehensible. Manny had been caught with a drug in his system that’s used to restore normal testosterone production after using steroids. He was slammed with a 50-game suspension that cost him more than $8 million. Though he has never tested positive for steroids, all the commentators are calling him a cheater who may never get in the Hall of Fame. He’s sullied the game. He’s lower than a snake’s belly in a canyon.
Why aren’t the fans booing?
“Either they put it behind them or they didn’t care to start with,” Cohen finally decided with an almost audible shrug.
We in the opinion business like to talk about how players don’t have a clue about just about everything — money, fame, contracts, respect, the real world. But on this subject, the guys in the electronic pulpits are the ones who are clueless, and have been for a long time.
I’ve been saying this for years: The fans don’t care.
We saw it when Manny first started getting in shape in the minor leagues. Fans packed ballparks and cheered his every scratch and expectoration. When he played his first major league game in San Diego, the fans seemed happy to have him back.
And now in New York, where the fans are supposed to be tough, there’s a smattering of boos and a smattering of cheers and a whole lot of camera flashes. Baseball as usual. The biggest reaction Manny got was when he got thrown out of the game for tossing equipment after getting called out on a ball that was half a foot off the plate.
Cohen took some solace in that, suggesting that home plate umpire John Hirschbeck was stretching the strike zone on Manny as punishment for doing drugs. It’s possible. But even if it’s true, it wouldn’t prove anything other than that Hirschbeck is petty.
The real issue is the fans, who have been packing ballparks at record rates ever since chemically-enhanced players started hitting balls out of the park more than a decade ago. Scandal after scandal was going to destroy the game. Scandal after scandal has produced little more than a collective yawn.
Oh, sure, you won’t have any trouble finding people on message boards and bar stools yawping about how these guys should be hung by their thumbs in Times Square and beaten like piñatas with the Naked Cowboy’s guitar. To them, the guys who cheated with steroids are the only people who ever broke the rules of the game. The guys who stole signs, used corked bats, gobbled down amphetamines like they were M&Ms, threw cut balls, spitballs, scuff balls, emery balls and Vaseline balls weren’t cheating at all. They were just trying to win.
They’re a vocal minority, and their voices are amplified by commentators and columnists who are the baseball equivalent of creationists. The reason that all forms of cheating except using performance-enhancers are OK is because it’s written in some sacred book somewhere. The book says that if a player takes something that helps him hit more home runs, he’s cheating. If he doesn’t hit more home runs, it doesn’t matter what he does.
Most fans don’t make such fine distinctions. They also don’t have their home pages set to baseball-reference.com and don’t give a rat’s patoot about the sacred numbers that give meaning to the lives of true believers everywhere.
I understand where the true believers are coming from, and it’s kind of touching that people can be so obsessive about it all. Baseball, like physics, is numbers. There’s nothing in the game that hasn’t been broken down by the wonks and given mystical meaning.
I have to admit, it’s pretty cool, and I’ve bought Bill James’ books and spent more time wandering around baseball-reference.com than is probably healthy. But what leaps out at me in baseball’s immutable numbers is that they are always changing. You want unfair? How about 1930, when the National League hit better than .300 and the Giants as a team hit .319? You don’t think that skewed the numbers?
The great majority of fans understand that in their guts. They’re sports fans, and baseball is the sport they follow in the summer. They’re used to the collective yawn that greets steroid abusers in the NFL. Their interest in numbers is confined to how their fantasy teams are performing, and if one of their guys hits 89 home runs, they’re not going to complain about it.
They’re at the park not to worship numbers or to watch perfect human beings play a perfect game. They’re there to have a beer and a brat and cheer for the home team and have fun.
In their view, Manny had a slip-up. He got caught. He paid for it. Now he’s back, and ain’t that grand?
They love Manny because he’s a character who does goofy things and has crazy hair and hits the ball like few others ever have. Guys like him are the reason we buy tickets.
The fans got over it a long time ago. It’s getting to be time for those of us in the press box to do the same.