The Show That Never Ends

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: July 1, 2009

SAN BERNADINO, Ca. — This is a perfect spot to come in search of the true state of America’s abiding fascination with baseball in the so-called declining days of the Steroid Era.

We are in one of the most depressed cities in America, with a 12 percent unemployment rate, the highest foreclosure rate in the country, and with enough boarded-up homes and closed businesses to make Detroit look like a vigorous center of commerce.

And they have shown up 6,800 strong on a perfect summer night to a charming minor-league ballpark in the shadows of the San Bernadino Mountains to celebrate the arrival of a baseball star serving the final few days of a 50-day suspension for a banned substance.

Arrowhead Credit Union Park is sold out.

Fans are crammed into every corner of the ballpark of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Class A affiliate, the Inland Empire 66ers. This is as strong a statement as you need to understand that Dodgers fans plainly don’t care that Manny Ramirez was busted for drugs.

“I just want to see him hit a 500-foot home run off some 19-year-old,” said 27-year-old Ian Foreman, who let out a big laugh.

We have traveled barely 50 miles east of Hollywood to find the one place that has, for the moment, detached itself from the rest of Southern California’s twisted 24-hour Michael Jackson obsession to participate in another wildly extravagant freak show of equally disturbing proportions.

Welcome to the Mannyworld Traveling Circus and Rehab Tour.

Mannyworld is not so much a place as a movable, crazy, mixed-up alternate state of mind that follows Ramirez wherever he goes. There is a grown man with a droopy mustache, wafting the distinctive scent of stale beer, standing outside the right-field gates of the ballpark on Monday night.

He is part of a mob of fans awaiting Manny’s departure back to LA after his final minor-league appearance with the 66ers.

The man has dragged his kids with him, and they do not seem nearly as excited about being here as he is. Our intoxicated fanatic is now muttering some incoherent gibberish while lifting up his blue Manny T-shirt to reveal a Dodger tattoo that spreads across his extremely flabby belly.

We are not sure why he chose that precise moment to show us his fresh ink, but we are eternally grateful nonetheless.

A few feet away is a large man in a Manny wig, an extremely snug Dodgers jersey, cutoff jeans and blue and white Dodger corduroy bedroom slippers, and he is cursing at his son as Ramirez and his cordon of security guards approach.

“Roll the damned camera, Ronnie! ROLL THE DAMNED CAMERA … NOWWWWW!”

The sideshow has been going on like this for days, weird and all-consuming. Ramirez is the rock star in this curious sideshow.

Some people will look at this hysteria and offer it as the final depressing evidence that baseball fans no longer (or never did) care about how steroids have infiltrated their game.

But Foreman and his good friend John Hill aren’t so sure of that. “We’re fans. This is what fans do,” Hill said, laughing. “I hated Barry Bonds. I booed him all the time, too. And here I am cheering for Manny. Crazy, huh?”

“I know we’re hypocrites,” Foreman said. “But we know what we’re doing. I love the Dodgers and that means Manny’s cool. Manny’s my guy and I know he cheated, and I know me loving Manny and hating on Barry makes no sense because they both did the same thing. But I guess I can justify it by saying it’s all about your personality. Barry was easy to hate. Manny has this likable personality. Come on, everybody loves Manny.”

So when Manny popped out of the dugout to take batting practice Monday afternoon, several hundred fans started shrieking like lovesick schoolgirls. The front row behind the 66ers’ dugout was lined with people holding up cell phone cameras.

As Ramirez walked into the batting cage, either by wild coincidence or deliciously perfect timing, the music blaring on the ballpark public address system was a sample of a ’70s disco hit “I’m Coming Out!” followed by rappers Mase and P-Diddy flowing to “Mo Money, Mo Problems.”

Draw your own conclusions.

Like everything else in this steroid era in sports, everything about this suspension is a bit nebulous. Manny still hasn’t admitted that he did anything illegal, only admitting that a doctor gave him something illegal. Meanwhile both the fans and the institution of Major League Baseball have behaved as if Manny’s been out for the last 50 games because he twisted his knee.

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti made the hourlong drive from Los Angeles to San Bernadino to witness Manny’s last dry run before Friday’s return to the major-league lineup, and he couldn’t have been happier that the nearly two-month affair was about to come to an end.

Did it feel like a long time that he was out, someone asked Colletti? His head rolled back as if someone asked him if jabbing a needle in his eye would hurt. “Ohhhhhhhhhhh,” he said.

When I asked Colletti if he at least understood why a lot of us think Ramirez shouldn’t have been allowed to play in the minors while he was suspended in the majors, he shrugged his shoulders. “This game ain’t that easy to play that you can just go away for almost 60 days, take BP and ground balls on a vacant field and step right back in and be major league-ready,” he said.

“It was collectively bargained, so that’s the rule and you go with it. There was a penalty in place and he served the penalty. Besides, if they didn’t let him play these games, it wouldn’t be a 50-game suspension. It would be even longer.”

I told Colletti that I was perfectly cool with that. He did cheat the game and if part of the residual effect of the penalty is that he’s out of shape when he returns from his suspension … oh, well.

I came here in search of answers, and I think I found them. Fans’ selective indifference is a minor inconvenience to the Steroid Era. The far more everlasting statement about what performance enhancing drugs have done can be summed up with the big, indelible question mark that lingers over everything like a dark cloud.

“I’ve been in baseball for 30 years,” Colletti said. “When I first got in it, we were able to evaluate talent exactly for what it was. But in the three decades since I got in the game, the evaluation process has changed. The dynamic is radically different because there are times when you don’t really know if what you’re looking at is real or not.”

“But I am at the point now where from my standpoint, you have to believe that the testing is working and people are clean. But always in your head, you do think, ‘Do you really know?’ And the answer is, you never really do.”

Colletti paused for a moment because he was searching for just the right word to describe how he feels about the game he loves. “I think the word is wary,” he said.

“You’re wary because when you see a performance drop dramatically, you are wary. And when you see a performance become dramatically better, you’re wary, too. It’s a wary time and I keep waiting for the wary times to be replaced. But I don’t see that day when it will become simple again.”