Baseball: Hall of shame

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As Manny Ramirez becomes the latest superstar slugger to be tainted by the suspicion of using steroids, Rupert Cornwell traces baseball's doping epidemic back to an addiction to home runs

Will baseball's troubles ever end? First Barry Bonds, the all-time career leader in home runs. Then Mark McGwire, the slab-muscled slugger who set the single season record, until Bonds wrested it away in 2001. Then Roger Clemens, not a hitter but probably the finest pitcher of his generation. Then, only three months ago, Alex Rodriguez, already recognised as one of the greatest players in history and the youngest ever to hit 500 homers. All of them now live under a steroid cloud. And now Manuel Aristides Ramirez Onelcida, lately of the Boston Red Sox, currently of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and known throughout the world of baseball simply as "Manny".

Cheating is as old as baseball. Ever since the 19th century, hitters have put cork in their bats, pitchers have doctored the ball and teams have tried to steal their opponent's signs, all in the hope of gaining an extra edge. No scourge however has been as pervasive as steroids. The years between roughly 1990 and 2005 are now known as the "Steroid Era". It was baseball's dirty little not-so-secret, a period of stunning offensive performances delivered by sluggers whose suddenly massive physiques could not simply have been the product of long and virtuous hours in the weights room.

But the sport collectively turned a blind eye. After the ruinous players' strike of 1994, what better to lure the fans back into the stadium than an explosion of home runs? In the 75 years until 1994, players managed just 18 50-homer seasons. In the next 13 years, there were 23, including six of 60-plus homers and two of 70 or more, culminating in Bond's barrage of 73 in 2001, eclipsing McGwire's mark of 70 established in 1998.

But by 2002 the scandal could be ignored no longer. Ken Caminiti, a former National League MVP with the San Diego Padres, became the first star player to admit he had used steroids. "It's no secret what's going on in baseball," he told Sports Illustrated in an interview that changed his sport's history, "At least half the guys are using steroids."

Soon those mighty but synthetically-fuelled reputations crumbled. In 2003 Bonds was ensnared in the Balco scandal, in which dozens of top-flight baseball, football and track names were revealed to have been supplied performance-enhancing substances by Victor Conte's modest little San Francisco bay nutritional supplements operation. Two years later McGwire effectively admitted to a Congressional committee that he too had been on the juice throughout his glory years.

Last February came perhaps the most devastating blow of all, as Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, the hitherto untainted superstar who baseball prayed would one day dethrone Bonds as career home-run leader, admitted that he too had used illegal substances between 2001 and 2003. Until last week at least 125 players had been implicated in the scandal, including six of the top 16 career home-run hitters in history. And now Manny, no 17 on that list, with 533 and counting.

In truth his case is less than clear-cut. Ramirez did not fail a drug test, but was found to have taken a banned substance, the female fertility drug HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin that, the Los Angeles Times suggested this week, was prescribed by his doctor to improve his sexual performance. Be that as it may, HCG is commonly taken by steroid users to deal with the side effects of the drugs, and Ramirez did not appeal against his suspension of 50 days, mandatory for a first offence under baseball's new anti-doping rules. A second offence brings a 100-day ban, and a third suspension for life.

These punishments suggest that baseball is finally getting serious about its drug problem. Coincidence or not, no player managed to hit 50 homers in 2008, the first year of the stricter random testing regime – and whatever else the Ramirez affair shows the sport has not been afraid to go after one of its most charismatic and instantly recognisable stars, a bandanna-wearing slugger who has hit more post-season homers (28) than any player in history.

His petulance and feuding with team-mates may have finally exhausted the patience of Red Sox fans, but not before he helped bring them two World Series, breaking the famous curse that had endured since 1918. And since his mid-season move to LA last year Manny has been a sensation in the post-season carrying the Dodgers to the National League championship series.

On the West Coast, the old Ramirez has returned, freewheeling and full of his "Manny will be Manny" idiosyncracies, yet with a smile for everyone. For a preening, self-absorbed LA that has never demanded moral perfection from its local deities, whether on the screen or in the sports arena, he has been a perfect fit. A section of Dodger Stadium has been renamed "Mannywood"; in the first Ramirez-less games after the suspension was announced, fans waved placards demanding "Free Manny". Even so, his absence will be a massive blow, for both the team and to himself. Ramirez has single-handedly boosted crowds and merchandise sales for the Dodgers, not to mention the team's on-field performance. The player himself, sidelined until early July, will lose not just $7.6m (£5m) in wages, but also a fair chunk of the $45m (£29.5m) two-year contract he signed with the Dodgers in March. He may still be loved in LA, but his baseball legacy will be as tainted as those of Bonds, McGwire, Rodriguez and the rest.

Some sports forgive and forget. Not baseball. Ninety years after the event, the great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson is still barred from the revered Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, because of his alleged role in the fixing of the 1919 World Series, even though many of the sport's historians now believe the Chicago White Sox outfielder was innocent. Last year, the first in which he was eligible, McGwire conspicuously failed to be elected, even though he is eighth on the all-time home run list.

Baseball ought to have paid a price too. Steroids have devalued not only the home run – that thrilling, stupendously difficult feat of hand-eye coordination in which a man armed with a four inch wide club smashes a ball travelling just 60 feet at 90mph into the stands 100 yards or more away. It has also debased the statistics that the sport treats like the tablets from Mount Sinai. Baseball men earnestly debate whether a demeaning asterisk should be attached to every career figure relating to the steroid years. After all, whatever the numbers say, was Barry Bonds really a greater hitter than Babe Ruth, whose only stimulants were booze and cigarettes?

Nonetheless, baseball thrives. Attendances have surged, helped by faster games and handsome new stadiums. Players are more richly rewarded than ever, and the sport is genuinely competitive: from 2000 to 2008, nine World Series were won by eight different teams. But something has changed. In the words of the Atlanta Braves slugger Chipper Jones (42nd on the home run list with 411): "You can't have arguably the greatest pitcher of our era, arguably the two greatest players of our era and now another very, very good player be under this cloud of suspicion and not feel like it has ruined it for everybody."

The great and the bad: The dark side of America's game

Barry Bonds San Francisco Giants

Legendary hitter and MLB homes run record holder with 762. Rumours circulated that he was using anabolic steroids before mandatory drug testing was introduced in MLB in 2004. Nothing was ever confirmed.

Rafael Palmeiro Baltimore Orioles

Made 569 career home runs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days after testing positive in 2005.

Neifi Perez Detroit Tigers

Golden Glove winner in 2000. Has tested positive three times, the last in 2007 resulting in an 80-game ban.

JC Romero Philadelphia Phillies

World Series-winning pitcher was suspended for 50 games earlier this year after a positive test.

Alex Rodriguez Texas Rangers

Current NY Yankee baseman and 10 time silver-slugger winner admitted to past drug abuse in February. 'I was young. I was stupid. I was naive,' said 'A-Rod' of his time with Texas Rangers in 2001.

Roger Clemens New York Yankees

Five time Pitcher of the Year named on a list in the Mitchell Report as one of MLB's players implicated in steroid abuse. Clemens vehemently denied the claims and has never been found guilty of drug abuse.

73

Barry Bonds' record home runs in 2001 from 153 games. In 2000 he scored 49 runs from 143.

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