The funny thing about this whole deal is that before this Ankiel HGH story broke I intended to write a "What's the big deal about Ankiel anyway" post this morning. I started it last night (before getting a little tossed up on fermented beverages), and my first line was "I don't get what the big deal is about Ankiel..." The meat of the post was going to be that the media is overcelebrating the story of a good athlete who lost his mind as a pitcher and then came back as a hitter. They are treating this as if any great young athlete-pitcher--like a Josh Beckett, Dontrelle or Micah Owings (Owings may be better off as a hitter)--who had given up pitching at 24 years-old and just focused on hitting couldn't have made it back to the majors as an outfielder. I disagree. I don't think they all would make it back, but I bet one of them would have. It's a unique story, I'll give you that, but great athletes who became pitchers in the majors were usually the best hitters on their teams for the first 20 years of their lives. So basically I thought too much was being made of Rick Ankiel's story. This morning I wonder if too little will be made of it.
It will be interesting to see what the media makes of the Ankiel story. This guy was a lock for comeback player of the decade and caused fans to choke up a little the first time he came back and hit a rocket out of the park. Rick Ankiel's story moved people to tears. And now he's just another "cheater." That is if the word "cheater" means the same thing it did when we labeled Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Rodney Harrison and Mark McGwire cheaters. So how will people react? One person's reaction I was interested in reading was diehard Cards fan and shameless Rick Ankiel enthusiast, Will Leitch. Leitch, the creator and EIC of Deadspin for those that don't know, put together a great--if not a little depressing--read about the situation that I'd recommend anyone take a look at. His basic take was that while the fan inside him wants so badly to come up with various defenses for Ankiel, he knows that the unbridled joy that was "The Rick Ankiel" story has been deflated entirely. He won't condemn Ankiel for doing it (in fact he sympathizes with the kid for wanting so badly to get back to the bigs that he was willing to risk so much to do it), but he is also confronted with the realization that any of the lame defenses he makes on Ankiel's behalf echo those made on behalf of Bonds for the last 5 or 6 years. It's a troubling position to find oneself in and he deals with it in a refreshingly honest manner (I just realized that this is coming off as a complete ballwash of Leitch. For that I apologize. I just really enjoyed the take, that's all. There are things I don't like about Leitch, like his EMO bangs and the speed at which he speaks...).
But there will be others who find the media's hesitation to condemn Ankiel (and there will be some serious tap dancing about this issue on Ankiel's behalf) grounded in racial bias (Stephen A. is probably licking his chops). There will be those who say that if we aren't putting an asterisk next to Rick Ankiel's numbers, it's because he's white. Now the corollary to Bonds isn't spot on because HGH wasn't technically banned by the MLB while he was taking them in 2004 whereas steroids have been banned from baseball since 1991 and therefore the alleged Bonds usage was during an MLB ban. Regardless of those technicalities, if the reports are true for both of them, they both knew they were taking illegal performance enhancing drugs when they were taking them and they are both equally culpable.
People will make all sorts of excuses for Ankiel. One of the major reasons for the slap-on-the-wrist reaction, I believe, is that Ankiel is just a humble everyman while Bonds is a dickhead. If Bonds were more like David Ortiz, he wouldn't receive nearly the volume of venom. Of course it doesn't help that Bonds has impacted the game's records while Ankiel is just a plucky former headcase who is on pace to break 100 home runs in 2010. Bonds is in the limelight a little more often and therefore receives greater attention by scribes who love taking down larger than life figures. But more than anything, I don't think contrasting reactions has anything to do with race. Rodney Harrison is black. No one is talking about him. No one even really cares. And he straight up ADMITTED to taking HGH! So I really don't look forward to race card side of this story coming to light. I think it's a cop out and serves as the ace-in-the-hole for people who don't have anything interesting to say about the subject.
My take, I guess, is that it's not a big deal because I didn't think Ankiel was a big story. He's an average player who used HGH three years ago. Why do I care? If what HGH does is allow people to start knocking out home runs in the minors 3 years after you take it and then turn into a mediocre major league player after flaming out as a pitcher, then I don't really see the threat to the sport and therefore don't really see the newsworthiness. I'm not saying we should encourage players to take HGH largely because it's likely banned in international play and it would suck to get disqualified from the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic for fielding a team of large-headed average outfielders, but in the sports world I'm always of the mindset that the headline should fit the crime OR the criminal. By that I mean that in order for a story about an athlete to be newsworthy it either needs to be about a newsworthy athlete or the athlete needed to commite a newsworthy crime. Rae Carruth was not a newsworthy athlete, but hiring a hitman to kill his pregnant wife was a particularly newsworthy crime. Alex Rodriguez cheating on his wife isn't even a crime, but he's a big enough athlete that it was newsworthy. Rick Ankiel is neither a big story nor was his year of HGH a big crime. Therefore, who gives a shit?