When Major League Baseball officials examined the results of urine tests from Manny Ramirez earlier this season, they became suspicious. Although the tests did not show clear evidence of a performance-enhancing drug, there were traces of banned substances present. It was enough to initiate a process that has left one of the best hitters in baseball history with a 50-game suspension.
Nearly 30 major leaguers have been suspended for using performance-enhancers since players began penalty testing in 2004, and Ramirez is now the biggest of those names. But he might not have been punished at all had baseball officials, in following up on his ambiguous test, not asked for his medical files.
It was in those files, people in baseball with knowledge of the matter told The New York Times and other organizations, that officials discovered that Ramirez had been prescribed human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, a fertility drug for women that men can use to generate production of testosterone after they have stopped using steroids.
As a result, Commissioner Bud Selig suspended Ramirez on Thursday for the documentary evidence tying him to HCG rather than for a positive drug test. But the impact is the same. A player seemingly bound for the Hall of Fame now finds himself permanently tarnished, and baseball is left to cope with another drug revelation about another premier player.
The famously quirky Ramirez, known for his dreadlocks, baggy pants and often oblivious demeanor, had signed a two-year $45 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in March and will now lose about a third of his salary this season. And the Dodgers, who had put together the best record in baseball this season (21-8 entering Thursday), will be without their best hitter until early July.
The suspension is also a significant setback for the Dodgers' efforts to grow their Hispanic fan base by marketing Ramirez as strenuously as possible. After he was traded to Los Angeles from the Boston Red Sox last July, Ramirez became the hottest hitter in baseball and carried the Dodgers to the postseason. The team's attendance and TV ratings rose sharply.
Ramirez now becomes part of an ever-growing group of elite players -- including Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Giambi -- who have been linked in one way or another to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Of those players, only Palmeiro, in 2005, was actually suspended for a positive test.
In a statement Thursday, Ramirez, 36, said a doctor gave him a medication that was not a steroid for a personal health issue and that he thought he could use it without violating the drug-testing program.
"Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy," Ramirez said in the statement, which was released by the players union. "Under the policy, that mistake is now my responsibility. ... I do want to say one other thing: I've taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons."
HCG, which has been banned since 2008, is similar to the drug Clomid, which has a history of being used in conjunction with steroids. According to medical experts, doctors prescribe HCG to men who are having fertility problems or who have low levels of testosterone, both of which can be side effects of steroid use.
Ramirez apologized to his Dodgers teammates, owners and Manager Joe Torre. "L.A. is a special place to me and I know everybody is disappointed," he said. "So am I. I'm sorry about this whole situation."