Melky Cabrera: Shattering Narratives Like It's 2008

Categories: Media, Sports
Thumbnail image for Melky Cabrera baseball card.jpg
In less than a week, Cabrera's narrative has gone from "redemption" to "made a mistake" to "con man."
The alleged revelation, first reported by the New York Daily News over the weekend, that Melky Cabrera's associates had created a fake website for a fake supplement in an attempt to help him maneuver around a 50-game steroid suspension has jolted San Francisco's sports media into anger.

The Chronicle's Scott Ostler wrote, "After seven seasons in the big leagues, if you've not taken a few basic steps toward maturity and self-determination, that's your fault. You can no longer play the naive bumpkin card." On the Examiner's back page, Paul Gackle called Cabrera "a liar, a fabricator and, potentially, a felon."

Cabrera's sins certainly offer various reasons for frustration: he broke the rules; he tainted whatever the Giants accomplish this season; he deprived fans of seeing the team's best offensive lineup in years march into October; he poisoned scores of joyful memories, from those clutch two-out RBIs to those crashing-into-the-wall grabs in left field; he wasted one of the best-ever nickname gimmicks; he brought a PED scandal back to San Francisco; and, it seems, he tried to cover it all up with a desperate plan.

Perhaps his biggest sin, though, is that he represents what baseball fans have most feared in the post-steroid era: that we still can't trust our narratives.

In 2008, when overwhelming evidence forced the MLB to acknowledge the presence of PEDs in baseball and establish drug-testing protocols, it was supposed to bring a degree of certainty to the game. The regulations weren't airtight, but the sport was clearly changing: Home runs numbers and hat sizes noticeably decreased. The faces of the Steroid Era were branded as frauds.

To many in the baseball media, proven steroid-users do not deserve a place in the Hall of Fame. This sentiment isn't just about cheating -- Gaylord Perry was famous for his spit-ball. Not just about character -- Ty Cobb was a virulent racist. Not just about protecting the sanctity of statistics -- Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in a league where only white people were allowed to play.

It is also about the deceptions that undermined a decade's worth of sports narratives.

In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa "Sportsmen of the Year," the magazine cover featuring the two sluggers who "saved baseball" decked in togas and laurel leaf crowns. Killer workout regimens allowed Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to extend their physical primes through their late 30s. Rafael Palmeiro developed strong wrists as a youth by squeezing tennis balls while watching TV. Alex Rodriguez's historic offensive pace stemmed from his obsession with training, diet, and film study, fueled by his passion for the game. (When A-Rod suffered an uncharacteristic slump in 2006, SI's Tom Verducci wrote in a profile that "If anything, the 31-year-old Rodriguez works too hard.")

Those stories were ruined, but the post-steroid era brought a new chapter to baseball. The rising stars were five-tool players; teams more often found success by building around defense, pitching, and base-running. And the Giants embodied this shift as much as any franchise.

Melky Cabrera fit the team's identity. He was a cast-off who stepped up to make AT&T Park crowds proud, like Cody Ross and Edgar Rentaria and Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Uribe and Aubrey Huff. Except he was even better.

All season, Cabrera presented the always-satisfying sports redemption narrative: the highly touted prospect who underachieved for years and then -- with a fresh start, a renewed dedication to the game, and help from mom's cooking-- turned his career around and became a beloved star in a baseball-crazed city, just in time to bank his first mega-contract.

As the New York Times explained:

Cabrera acknowledged that being dealt from the Yankees, the team that signed him as a 17-year-old, was hard, but also pivotal. When he showed up in Atlanta, he was overweight and clearly out of shape. He missed his close friends, [Alex] Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, and did not connect with Bobby Cox, then the Braves' manager. He batted just .255, and on Oct. 18, 2010, the most sobering day of his career, Atlanta simply released him.
Knowing Cabrera was at a crossroads, his mother, his agent and Rodriguez all urged him to focus on his conditioning and his craft to save his once-promising career from dissipating into obscurity.
Rodriguez was particularly convincing, persuading Cabrera to leave his home in the Dominican Republic and move to Miami to work out with him.

The positive PED test, of course, shattered that narrative. It also shattered the idea that baseball's narratives are safer now than they were in 2002.

San Francisco is a forgiving town, though. Summing up the mindset of many San Franciscans the day after the suspension was announced, Giants beat reporter Henry Schulman wrote, "Cabrera should be available for 10 cents on the dollar for any team that still wants him, and San Francisco might be the best place for him to sign because he built some goodwill among the fans, damaged though that might be now."

But, as the Ross Mirkarimi saga has shown, trying to avoid culpability for a wrong can be less forgivable than the wrong itself. Just as Cabrera got 117 games' worth of ovations for his remarkable season, Cabrera got a few days' worth of golf claps for appearing to own up to his mistake. But after back-to-back narrative reversals -- stories that the sports media must now paint over -- "Now it appears that Melky's manly mea culpa was issued only after Plan A did a belly flop," Ostler concluded. "This isn't stretching the rules to keep up with the Joneses," Gackle wrote. "It's a calculated deception that shows a complete lack of moral integrity."

Another lost sports narrative. So onto the next one.

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