- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- "I told you," David Ortiz says when he sees me for the first time since the lava of his season erupted from ineffectiveness and then again from scandal. "I told you that I was going to figure this [expletive] out. Now what does everyone have to say?"
Ortiz is in the Yankee Stadium visitors' clubhouse before Saturday's 3-0 loss to the Yankees, and he is bathing in vindication. His T-shirt is blue, sleeveless and victorious, sporting both a Reebok logo and one of LL Cool J's famous rap lyrics, "Don't Call it a Comeback." He not only speaks in exhortations but wears them, as well.
The Red Sox were swept three straight here by the Yankees, but in Friday night's opener -- a 9-5 loss -- Ortiz announced to his postseason opponents that he is still a dangerous power hitter, launching a long, two-run home run to the opposite field off Joba Chamberlain. That he did so in Yankee Stadium held a certain significance because he hadn't been here since holding his troubling, uncomfortable joint press conference with incoming union head Michael Weiner addressing his name's appearance on baseball's infamous 2003 anonymous drug-testing list.
On June 5, Ortiz was hitting .188, with one home run and 21 RBIs. Today, he knows the batting average is gone; too much time has passed to save it. But since June 5, he has hit 26 home runs and driven in 74 runs. He's hitting .235, and a prolonged hot streak the final week of the season might push Ortiz near .250, but it is his power numbers that underwrite his revival, announce his return from the abyss.
And his boss is shouting from the gallery, as well. Red Sox owner John Henry wrote a bizarre, fairly irresponsible blog entry, on NESN's Web site, titled "Nothing Will Stop David Ortiz From Leading With His Heart."
" when his name was illegally leaked from a list of players -- many of whom (not all) 'tested positive' for performance-enhancing drugs -- the Boston media (and some members in particular) went after him without hesitation or restraint," Henry wrote. "Even after David offered an articulate defense of his actions, no member of the media said that perhaps there had been a rush to judgment, or that perhaps their remarks should be reexamined, or that perhaps, given their knowledge of David's character, he should be given the benefit of the doubt."
Always gregarious, Ortiz now walks with a lilt in his step, bolstered by his furious charge -- he is on the verge of posting a remarkable 30-homer, 100-RBI season though he could finish with a batting average under .230 -- but he is not without a suspicious eye.
"What people don't realize is all the stuff you have to carry around in your head. They think you're not a person. I always knew that I was going to come out of this," he says. "This season, I learned a lot. I learned about people. I learned about myself. I'm not going to let anybody or anything keep me down."
But even if Ortiz is proud of his offensive reversal, several serious problems exist with Henry's narrative. Henry is engaging, as we all do, in selective justice: He knows Ortiz; Ortiz should be believed because he's a good man and, say, Barry Bonds is not.
This is unacceptable, and Henry knows this, but his purpose is to continue what he has mastered over his tenure: position his franchise, the Red Sox, as baseball's only non-pollutant, the true good guys who win and lose the right way, as opposed to their ozone-killing rivals in the Bronx.
All of this makes for a nice narrative, except that it is patently untrue. To the 28 other teams, the Red Sox and Yankees are equally formidable, and during the steroid era, there are no good guys -- lest it be forgotten that Paxton Crawford, Jeremy Giambi, Jose Canseco, Mo Vaughn, Roger Clemens, Manny Alexander, Brendan Donnelly, Eric Gagne, Manny Ramirez, Ortiz and Paul Byrd have all worn the Red Sox uniform and have been linked to some form of performance-enhancing drug, just like players have on every other team. And that the Mitchell Commission, the official, league-sanctioned investigation on PEDs -- as it was rife with conflicts of interest regarding the Red Sox because George Mitchell, the report's author, sits on the Red Sox board of directors -- documented discussions of steroid use by players between members of the Red Sox scouting staff and general manager Theo Epstein.
Henry is also conveniently forgetting that Ortiz has already been treated far better than his scandal-ridden companions. In the months since the New York Times reported that Ortiz and Ramirez tested positive for performance-enhancing substances during the 2003 survey testing, no information has been provided, by Ortiz, baseball or the players' association, that would vindicate Ortiz or explain Henry's demand for an apology. It is still unclear what Ortiz took that triggered a positive test.
Ortiz still stands by his position that he has never taken steroids, and he told me over the weekend that he is still upset that members of the public and press did not accept his denial because he's "never backed down from anything."
"People are going to say that he's too old or he doesn't have it anymore or he's older than what he says he is, or he's been taking this or taking that," Ortiz says on Saturday. "But I'm going to end up 30 and 100, and I was way off my game for two months. There have been a lot of things going on with me personally, a lot of things that stay on your mind. But I don't talk about everything going on because I'm not going to make excuses for myself."
He is perhaps the most popular player to come through Boston in decades, eclipsing in a debate Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Vaughn, and there are few players -- if any -- that people genuinely want to see succeed more than Ortiz.
Ortiz benefited from the defense of a player union that did not so publicly defend Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, or Ramirez, other players whose names were leaked. From a purely strategic position, the union's actions made sense. Cornered, Rodriguez admitted he used steroids. Sosa is retired, gone from the public eye while at the time his name was leaked Ramirez was already in the process of serving a 50-game suspension.
The most vexing aspect of the ongoing performance-enhancing drug saga in sports is trying to narrow the framework of discussion -- to understand just what it is we're all talking about. Generally, the debate disintegrates along simplistic lines without nuance, when the truth is much more complicated. The government has been both good guy (using its moral authority and muscle to pressure the discussion) and bad (clearly overstepping its boundaries in seizing the confidential samples that turned into The List). PEDs and steroids are not always the same thing. Ortiz and the public may both be right: His name wound up on the list, but he may very well have never used steroids.
Zach Lund, a member of the American bobsled and skeleton team, was disqualified from the 2006 Turin Olympics for testing positive for Propecia, the hair-loss drug, and he's been fighting for his name ever since.
There is the pharmacological debate: sports must exist within the larger cultural framework of drug use in America. Over the past 10 years, more than half of all insured Americans have used at least one prescription drug. One study estimated that 20 percent of insured Americans use four or more prescription drugs.
The popular culture bombards the public with the message -- some subtle, some obvious -- that a pill exists for everything, whether it is for obesity, cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, depression, or numerous levels of vanity. Nestled within that message is that it's not your fault. Athletes are not immune. Indeed, as outgoing union head Donald Fehr often pointed out, the questions of pharmacology, ethics and fairness will only become more complicated, the lines more blurred. "Wait until they perfect gene therapy," Fehr once told me ominously.
The pharmacological debate is an important one, because athletes are a large part of the discussion, but that discussion is a separate one from the scandal that engulfed Ortiz and has swallowed baseball whole for the past decade and change.
The problematic issue here is that the debate has never been nuanced because it has never been honest. Players, management, owners and union have been engaged in a deception -- for money -- for which no one seems to want to take any responsibility. The game has acknowledged a decades-long drug culture -- Mitchell called it an "institutional failure" -- yet few if any players have admitted to even occasional use of performance-enhancing drugs and management couldn't be bothered (read former San Francisco Giants trainer Stan Conte's efforts to alert the Giants about the steroid culture in the Mitchell report).
The commissioner's office paid millions of dollars to George Mitchell -- who produced a report that clearly in numerous areas detailed the condoning and encouragement of drug use in the sport -- and yet commissioner Bud Selig to date has not announced any sanction or punishments to the clubs for engaging in the culture.
That deception defrauded the public and it defrauded sports, for few people accept the feats of professional athletes as they once did.
The discussion often gets cheapened, whittled down into shouts of cheating without taking into consideration important nuances.
But sports also must acknowledge it holds a greater responsibility within the pop culture than other forms of entertainment. Movies are not real. Unless they are at a concert, consumers do not and should not assume they are listening to a live performance.
Sports sells reality, spontaneous and unscripted. It also sells its own moral imperative: being involved in sports, from the little league level to the pros, teaches valuable lessons about teamwork, ethics and values. Sports, we are told, can make us better people.
The sports leagues and their teams use these values as a selling point when asking the public to pay for their private stadiums.
In the meantime, there is Ortiz, who is hitting again. He seems closer to claiming victory after a forgettable year. The Red Sox are on the precipice of another playoff berth. "All I care about now is how I finish," Ortiz says. "It's like we say, the season is only a month long. October is the only month that matters."
He says the months are behind him and he couldn't care less about the summer of 2009, and all of its misery. The issues and debates will remain, however unresolved, with or without his input.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42