Used to be, baseball fans rooted for players. Then came free agency, and they rooted for jerseys. That wasn't as personal, or nearly as enjoyable, but the game was the game. Yesterday's arch villain was today's bedroom poster, and you lived with that.
So Melky Cabrera showed up in a cream-colored uniform, having served the previous three seasons in New York, Atlanta and Kansas City. He was 27, just into his prime, and maybe a reasonable solution for the San Francisco Giants in left field.
He could be the new Cody Ross. Better than Pat Burrell, wiser than Brandon Belt, the 18th man to start in left for the Giants since Barry Bonds went away after the 2007 season.
Turned out that Cabrera was the best out there since Bonds. The people of San Francisco rightfully swooned, lauded the speed and power, and marveled as Cabrera drove his batting average from .255 in 2010 to .305 a year ago to .346 for them. In that time he'd put about 250 points on his OPS, an All-Star Game MVP trophy on his mantel, a new Camaro in his driveway and, maybe, a batting title on his free-agent résumè.
You learn to love a guy. You wear a milkman's outfit to a ballgame. You buy in, even for a season, because he honors the jersey.
And then the damnedest thing happens.
"I accept my suspension …" Cabrera said in a statement Wednesday, with still six weeks left in the regular season and the Giants tied for first with the Los Angeles Dodgers, "and I will try to move on with my life."
Ain't that something?
Cabrera tested positive for synthetic testosterone, got banged for 50 games, and became the most chilling in-season drug cheat since Manny Ramirez three-plus years ago. Cabrera will sit out the rest of the regular season and either the first five games of the Giants' postseason or the first five games of 2013. The Giants started Gregor Blanco in left field Wednesday afternoon, but Blanco won't bat in Cabrera's three hole. He hit seventh.
After a decade of testing, of humiliating apologies, Congressional hearings and lost Hall of Fame votes, ballplayers continue to cheat. Big leaguers Guillermo Mota, Marlon Byrd, Freddy Galvis and now Cabrera were caught this season alone. Dozens of minor leaguers have been suspended. Cabrera, I'm told, didn't even bother with the appeal process.
He'll just move on with his life, capable of carrying the Giants only so far before the man with the plastic cup arrived. Now the NL West race changes. You know what Cabrera batted against the Dodgers this season? Three-fourteen. Against the Arizona Diamondbacks? Four-sixty-two.
Sure, the Giants traded for Hunter Pence. But this wasn't an offense dripping with bats even when Cabrera was around. It had found itself in August, through 14 games leading the National League in runs. Cabrera has left the middle of the order to Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Pence, and maybe that'll be enough. If it isn't, then the Giants will remember waking up on the morning of Aug. 15 to the news the Milkman wasn't coming.
"My positive test was the result of my use of a substance I should not have used," Cabrera's statement read. It concluded, "I am deeply sorry for my mistake and I apologize to my teammates, to the San Francisco Giants organization and to the fans for letting them down."
He's cost himself his reputation, along with tens of millions of dollars in free agency. He may have cost himself a batting title, though he could still win it. He'd certainly have been in the MVP discourse. That is gone, too. Granted, maybe none of that happens without whatever it was he put in his body, for however long he did.
What survives is the last thing anybody considers, and that is the possibility the man you root for today could be gone tomorrow. And for the most selfish and cowardly of reasons.
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