Fans judge cheats when it suits them

Baseball fans like to pretend that they're outraged by steroid use and other performance enhancing drugs.

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Baseball fans like to pretend that they're outraged by steroid use and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). They decry the fact that baseball cannot test for human growth hormones. They bemoan the fact that the game's records are being rendered meaningless by players who cheat. Until, that is, one of the perpetrators plays for their team. Then, it is all up in the air.

Case in point: Manny Ramirez and fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Barry Bonds came to Dodger Stadium earlier this decade, he was treated as a pariah. Dodger fans held signs which called Bonds every name in the book. Some fans brought giant syringes to illustrate their anger. Bonds played for the San Francisco Giants, of course, and Dodger fans could not bear that their rival's best player was suspected of using PEDs. It didn't matter that Bonds never failed a steroid test during his career - Dodger fans were convinced.

But earlier this year, when Manny Ramirez flunked a test and was subsequently suspended for 50 games, Dodger fans somehow contained their fury. This was different - Manny was one of theirs. When Ramirez returned to the line-up Friday in San Diego, thousands of Dodger fans made their way south to welcome Ramirez back. The same Dodger fans who habitually get to Dodger Stadium in the second inning, only to leave in the seventh to beat the traffic, now felt compelled to drive the 100 or so miles to San Diego in order to cheer him.

Presumably, when Ramirez and the Dodgers return home, after the All-Star break, the welcome will be even more spectacular. This hypocrisy is troubling on a number of levels. Now that Major League Baseball has instituted a demanding testing program with significant punishment - 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third - for players who use banned substances, fans are selective in their criticism.

Should somebody on the opposing team get caught with an illegal substance, fans well up plenty of indignation; if it happens to someone on their team, however, all is quickly forgiven. Incredibly, Ramirez was among the top vote-getters in fan balloting for the All-Star team for several weeks before he eventually dropped down the list. And the fact that Ramirez is being treated as some sort of hero, or at very least victim, is truly disturbing.

For his part, Ramirez steadfastly refuses to admit to steroid use. Technically, he tested positive for a substance which steroid-users often use at the end of a doping cycle, and Ramirez seems intent on hiding behind this codicil. Leading up to his return he often apologised - without specifying what it was for which he was apologising. Meanwhile, reports continued to surface that Ramirez was considering legal action against the doctor in south Florida who prescribed the drug.

This is consistent with Ramirez's career. The slugger seldom takes responsibility for his actions, and worse, a forgiving fan base readily grants him absolution for his sins. It was bad enough that Ramirez exploited a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement which allowed him to begin a rehabilitation programme in the minor leagues prior to the conclusion of his 50-game suspension. But when Ramirez gets treated as some sort of hero by Dodger fans all too eager to excuse his transgressions if it means a few more homers and a few more victories, the sport's best efforts to police itself as mocked.

Outrage toward cheating can't be selective; it must be consistent or baseball risks having its own cleanup attempts trivialised.