- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

In the big leagues, discipline is sometimes a rewarding experience

When it adopted a harsher drug policy a few years ago, Major League Baseball apparently omitted a key detail from the press release.

The league decided to no longer use the word “punishment” for those who play Dr. Frankenstein with their bodies. That was replaced by a more enjoyable, and more lucrative, term: “funishment.”

Maybe someone in the league’s PR office accidentally leaned on the “delete” key. Or maybe (and more likely) baseball can’t seem to figure out how to reprimand a player without simultaneously giving him a pat on the back.

That was never clearer than on Tuesday night, when a record crowd packed the minor league field in Albuquerque, N.M., to see Manny Ramirez in his first rehab start with the Dodgers’ Class AAA affiliate. Fans stood on their tiptoes and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the dreadlocked slugger, granted the honor of batting leadoff for the Isotopes.

Never mind that he was still serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a female fertility drug notoriously used in conjunction with steroids. In the major leagues, players can be rewarded while they’re being reprimanded. First-time offenders caught doping and ordered to sit out 50 games are allowed to play in the minor leagues — during the suspension — to get back into “playing shape.” Hitters are allotted 10 days for such a rehab stint, pitchers 16. The players union won the concession by arguing that if rehab were off-limits during suspensions, then a 50-game ban effectively would be lengthened to 55 or 60, and players would be unduly punished.

Punishment? That was the operative word six weeks ago, when the shock of Ramirez’s suspension was still fresh. But all that is mostly forgotten now, and it’s time to have fun again.

So the turnstiles whirred and the cash registers swelled three nights this week in Albuquerque (Ramirez didn’t even play in Thursday’s game after rain delayed the start). Major League Baseball didn’t mind, of course, that part of the proceeds headed straight to its coffers.

The scene made you wonder who was serving the suspension. Was it Ramirez, who committed an offense serious enough to be kicked out for nearly a third of the season? Or was it the fans, who had to go nearly two months without seeing the eccentric star unleash lasers and long bombs, and occasionally slap a teammate and shove the traveling secretary?

It doesn’t matter. Under the policy of “funishment,” both sides receive a lighter sentence — and that’s just how Major League Baseball wants it.

He Said What?

“We may have to wait a year, or even two, but he is worth the wait. We must be patient.”

— Minnesota Timberwolves president David Kahn, in an open letter to fans, Ricky Rubio after the Spanish guard skipped an introductory news conference

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