Just when it appeared there could be no more surprises in baseball's drug-fueled con game of three-card monte, the joker just hit the table.
And what can they all say now that Manny Ramirez -- engine of the Dodgers' resurgence, arguably the best right-handed batter since Rogers Hornsby, owner of 533 career home runs, MVP of the Boston Red Sox's first World Series win in 86 years -- has been banned for 50 games for his use of a substance -- the female fertility drug hCG -- that men inject when cycling off steroids?
This is a media story. Why won't the media leave this alone?
This one was a favorite old chestnut of players and fans too blind or too apathetic to confront the truth that their gilded, fallen heroes have been engaged in a deep deception for many years (roping their admirers in along with them). What has occurred has been nothing more than a naked money grab at the cost of something far more precious than cash. The blame-the-messenger approach won't work today. It can't. This time, it wasn't Selena Roberts or BALCO crusaders Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams or the New York Daily News or the ESPN bulldogs chasing down another misunderstood ballplayer. For once, it wasn't even the federal government that stepped in, extinguishing those doesn't the government have more important things to do than hunt down ballplayers? dismissals.
This time, it was baseball's own trap -- its much-maligned substance abuse policy -- that snared Ramirez when its testing program revealed that Ramirez arrived at spring training this year with elevated levels of testosterone. That red flag set off an investigation that ultimately led to his suspension for using human chorionic gonadotropin. People keep talking about performance enhancers because the players keep using them.
All this took place in the past, when there were no rules. Why is everyone digging into the past? We need to move forward.
In December, one year after the release of the Mitchell report, major league baseball was triumphant: No big-name big leaguer had violated the league policy. In January, journeyman Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero was suspended, under somewhat murky circumstances, for the first 50 games of this season. A strengthened testing policy suggested by George Mitchell -- and agreed to by MLB and the MLB Players Association -- was in place, and MLB had created a no-nonsense in-house investigations unit unafraid to look into the dark corners of the game that the combination of fear, politics and denial had led the game's leadership to ignore. The Phillies won the World Series, and, for the first time in a long time, a calendar year hadn't ended on a scandalous note. Life was good. The steroids era had finally been put to rest, comfortably in the rearview mirror.
Now, in the first four-plus months of 2009, two of the game's biggest stars -- Alex Rodriguez and Ramirez -- have fallen harder than Enron, and baseball is finding out the hard way what the Olympics have long known: There is no end to the steroids era, only the beginning of a new, permanent age in which sophisticated drugs and high technology are part of the game's ethical discussions.
With Rodriguez, the old argument could have applied. His name had been leaked from the anonymous survey testing link back in 2003, supposedly the Stone Age of steroids awareness.
But Ramirez represents an entirely different entity. He clearly had been using banned substances as late as this year, suggesting the colossal arrogance (if not stupidity) that players -- even at the level of Ramirez -- still believe they can beat the system. Ramirez has proved that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not a "yesterday" issue but a "today" one.
And Bud Selig wins the Pyrrhic battle of the day. He has the satisfaction of knowing that his drug-testing program is not just a showpiece and that he has put his money where his mouth is. He promised no player would be spared under his tough new guidelines, and he proved he was willing to take down one of his biggest stars.
But that victory must go with the salty disappointment of knowing that his players were using and are still using because no one wants to be the only guy on the field who isn't getting extra help. Baseball labor chief Rob Manfred once told me, "The goal isn't to catch players. The goal is to get them to stop using."
By that standard, baseball has just been exposed once more.
That means the players are back in business -- if they ever closed up shop -- and someone will always be next.
Jose Canseco is a loser who just needs the attention.
Since January 2005, Canseco has specifically fingered Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez and Ramirez. At the time, all laughed him off; he was the outsider, the wacko, the crazy. Those players were beloved and could use their celebrity, their standing and the fact that they were still in the game against his accusations.
McGwire has been disgraced. Palmeiro was caught by MLB. Tejada was busted for lying to the federal government, essentially caught in the crossfire of the Mitchell report. Neither Pudge Rodriguez nor Gonzalez challenged Canseco, either in word or deed. Cornered, Alex Rodriguez confessed to steroid use.
And now Ramirez has been caught in the dragnet.
And then there is Scott Boras, the agent who, when the Ramirez news first broke, tried to fool the public with a sophomoric attempt to explain away the Ramirez suspension with the nonsense that he was taking prescribed medication, not a steroid, for an undisclosed condition. Boras and other agents have much to answer for in this circular cycle: Steroids increased revenue; increased revenue increased salaries; bigger salaries meant bigger agent commissions; and all of it easily led to a tacit acceptance of the steroid culture.
No issue has ever tested the resiliency of the sport as performance-enhancing drugs have. In his statement, Ramirez said he had passed "about 15 drug tests," but there is a big difference between beating a drug test and not using drugs at all. Thursday's news calls into question the accomplishments of the great Red Sox machine of the new millennium -- titles in 2004 and 2007 and a million memories -- as clearly as the earlier revelations cast shadows over the Oakland A's, the 2002 champion Angels, MVP winners Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Tejada and Ken Caminiti along with Cy Young Award winners Roger Clemens and Eric Gagne.
And on it goes.
Nobody can gloat -- not the Yankees, not the Red Sox, not the players (even though they all got to keep their money) and not management (which was able to make its money and tout its vigilance while the names who drive the product cheated). And not the fans, who like to believe they root for the only clean team in the game.
"With steroids," the late, great former Pittsburgh Steeler and anti-steroid crusader Steve Courson used to say, "it's always the other guy, always the other team."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.