Clouds over baseball

Through the long off-season of turbulent machinations the issue simmered, rearing here and there but never quite bursting forth in the banner headlines that have so blighted recent baseball summers. It had even been suggested that the public had tired of the infernal matter and had accepted however wearily the unpleasant realities, and was now anxious to move on.

Sorry, mates but it won’t be that easy. Nothing has been simple or even entirely rational about the drug debate that has consumed major league baseball since the turn of the millennium and that is not about to change now. As policy, wishful thinking has absolutely no wings.

As if the endless hassles over the “performance enhancements” were not problem enough, now along comes Ron Washington, erstwhile manager of the Texas Rangers and confessed drug offender, to muddle the issue even further.

Face it. In most other games a stray chap with no history of mischief getting nailed for having sniffed cocaine wouldn’t stir more than a ripple of attention or oblige more than two or three lines of agate type buried in the newspaper briefs. In other games, a mere drug bust has become an element of the initiation rite. But Baseball, for better or worse, gets held to a higher standard. What better proof that it remains, “the National Pastime”?

This in no way minimizes the seriousness of the Washington case. It is deservingly nettlesome. His blunder is epic and the handling of it so far has been unwise. It is one thing for a wayward and rawboned bush leaguer hardly out of his teens to get caught doing dope. It is quite another for an esteemed and 57 year old baseball lifer to fall from grace with such a thud. Ron Washington has always been a good baseball soldier; a notably gracious and generous fellow who was much liked and respected. His fall hurts and it resounds.

Washington’s transgression, of course, occurred last July when he admits to having done some cocaine during a night on the town. He was promptly snared when he tested positively in an unexpected MLB drug test. They hardly administer such tests every week, even to players, while managers get tested even less often. Indeed, few seem aware that managers, coaches, or other support personnel -- uniformed or otherwise -- ever get tested. It’s amazing how little, really, is known of a process that has become so vital.

But this much is clear; Washington getting snared was a bit off the wall and as much a matter of bad-luck as bad judgment. Once nailed, however, he seems to have faced the music like a man; actually turning himself in to management and terming his behavior ‘‘shameful’’ while declining to offer excuses. In the end, he even confessed his sins to his players, flinging himself on their mercy -- which takes a fair amount of guts -- and he offered to resign. How all this remained a secret -- most of it for eight months -- is yet another wonder.

No doubt all of that factored in the reasoning of the Rangers’ ownership led by the team’s president, the estimable Nolan Ryan, in opting to go easy on him. Or maybe they weren’t thinking at all, although the possibility that they were simply trying to pull a fast one can’t be dismissed. Keep in mind that had it been a player who’d been caught his suspension for a minimum of 50 games (presuming no “priors”) would have been announced the very next day as was notably the case with Manny Ramirez. How could it be reasoned that what’s good for a player is not for a manager? Or who would argue a manager doing something so dumb was not as reprehensible.

It should again be stressed that Ron Washington is one of the game’s best-liked chaps. He’s courtly and mild-mannered, helpful and unfailingly polite. His rise from the ranks of bit-player to manager was patient and painstaking, beating long odds, and he’s done an admirable job with the Rangers, one of the game’s tougher posts. Doubtless, such widely held considerations restrained the early reaction to Washington’s folly, which so far (at least as of the writing) has been decidedly charitable.

The hunch here is that the disposition to forgive and forget will not last. You sense the tide slowly turning. Given a couple of days to think about it the more influential columnists have begun second-guessing the Rangers’ motives and questioning the implicit double standard. The revelation that a blackmailer is responsible for outing Washington further widens the scandal. The precedent, clearly, is odious.

Most damaging is the growing doubt about Washington’s earnest pledge that he has transgressed on drugs only once in his life. Bill Madden, the highly influential columnist of the New York Daily News who is about to enter the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, tartly expressed the suspicions of many heavyweight scribes when he wrote four days after the story broke: “Are we really supposed to believe that this was a one-time deal by a 57 year-old man?” It’s the times we live in that have made such cynicism obligatory no matter how well respected the unhappy fellow in the docket may be?

The Ron Washington fiasco is just another drop in the relentless drip, drip, drip of baseball’s performance enhancing drug nightmare. Be advised that it will end no time soon.

Over the off-season we had the recurring debate about the Hall of Fame worthiness of players even remotely tainted with faint and unverified suspicions of PED associations. And we have had the clumsy effort of Mark McGwire to extricate himself from the worst implications of his notorious connections with the issue leading only to his further embarrassment. And we have had the ongoing and hapless efforts of Roger Clemens to plough his way through the court system in a hopeless yearning for redemption.

Yet to come and eagerly awaited since last July is the explanation promised by the estimable David Ortiz about whatever it was that he took that made him test positively -- erroneously, he claims -- in 2003. You’ll recall Big Papi promised to get back to us on that. We’re still waiting. And not forgetting.

Also still pending is the date that Alex Rodriguez must keep with the FBI to discuss the services of a controversial Canadian physician, Dr. Anthony Galea. That last item looks fairly harmless but A-Rod being A-Rod, who knows.

The main point being, on and on it goes.

Small wonder that baseball people hold their breath as another season approaches. Many are still convinced the release of the rest of those names on that 2003 test list -- the one that was supposed to be private, secret and destroyed -- remains only a matter of time. The A-Rod biographer from Sports Illustrated has claimed to have seen the entire list. She could hardly be alone.

Can you even begin to imagine what the effect of the release of that entire list would be on the game?

As the Ron Washington follies again demonstrate, there are no secrets. Or at least none that can be kept.