PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic -- With more than two dozen kids crawling over his lap here Saturday afternoon, it was easy to imagine him as a Dominican Santa, assuming that this close to the equator, the dude loses the red suit and white beard, dons a jaunty white golf cap and bears an uncanny resemblance to another semi-mythical character.
Do you believe in Big Papi? These young heart patients certainly do, after being given new life due to expensive surgery and other life-saving procedures provided by an organization called Heart Care Dominicana and funded in great part by the David Ortiz Children's Fund.
In this setting, with Ortiz surrounded by the kids whose lives he touched and by a raft of ball-playing friends led by Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez and Red Sox teammates, Boston athletic icons Bobby Orr and John Havlicek, and the corporate sponsors who helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at his second annual charity golf event, it was easy to forget that a performance-enhancing drugs scandal last summer had wiped the eternal smile off his face and raised doubts the likes of which he'd never faced before.
"I don't care if people look at me as a good guy,'' he said while holding court under a tent set up at the 13th hole of the oceanside Punta Espada golf course, a cliff-lined setting of breathtaking beauty.
"What is important to me is to make sure that what I got to get done -- doing good things -- is done. People make up their own minds. I don't want people to think that I try to act like a good guy and I'm not.
"Life is a mirror right in front of you. If you get up and look at yourself in front of the mirror and you believe that you are a good guy, and as soon as you move away from the mirror you do bad things, it doesn't matter what you think or people believe. It is what it is.''
For many, the Ortiz reflected by a New York Times article stating that his name had appeared on the list of nearly 100 players who in 2003 had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs was that of a person who had engaged in deception on a massive scale. All those walk-off home runs, which came in a larger-than-life package of skill seasoned with joy, were called into question by the implication that he was a cheater.
It is a revelation, once made, that can never be erased. Ortiz said he never used steroids or bought steroids, but admitted that he may have been a "little bit careless" in his choice of legal supplements and vitamins.
The same person who said he didn't really care if people looked at him as a good guy moments later was saying, "All I worry about is what the fans think of me."
"In situations like that," he said, "I've always been a true guy. I always let people know. When things like that come out, especially today, it hurts you. Not because you did something. It hurts because there's not a truth, but you know there's somebody trying to hurt you.''
It frustrates Ortiz, he said, that whoever decided to leak his name has not surfaced, though he admits that he no longer is pursuing an explanation for additional information on how he ended up on the list. That in itself likely will inspire eye-rolling among those persuaded that Ortiz's explanation is as flimsy as others who have been caught in the steroids web.
"I shut that down right then,'' he said, "because I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to hide. I went out there asking questions about who came out with this and nobody knows. So why should people pay attention to it, you know?
"So anyway, I turned the page and put it behind me. I believe people saw what I had to say and people were comfortable with what I had to say, so try to move on.''
So he is here, continuing work that for him had roots in a hospital visit he made almost five years ago in Santo Domingo to two desperately poor young heart patients. One of them, he said, reminded him of his own son, D'Angelo.
"He was so moved by the children's pain and grief, he said, 'I have to do something,''' said Nelva Pichardo, the executive director of Heart Care Dominicana. "Four years later, I'm happy to say that the Children's Fund has helped over 110 children.''
Children, Pichardo said, who in the past would have had no other option but to be administered pain-alleviating medication while awaiting death now receive the care of a pediatric heart team in Santo Domingo. Ortiz's foundation, which also is partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital, helps to provide similar treatment for New England kids in need.
"David is Dominican pure heart,'' Pichardo says. "He wants to help out, to extend his arms and say, 'You're not alone in this.'''
The 2009 season was already a trying one for Ortiz even before he was linked to the notorious list. He went the first six weeks of the season without hitting a home run. At midseason, he was batting a miserable .222 with a paltry dozen home runs. Even after rebounding in the second half, hitting 16 home runs and driving in 52 runs, general manager Theo Epstein threw down a thinly veiled challenge to Ortiz, who turned 34 last month, that more was expected of him in 2010, and to do the offseason work necessary to be ready.
Ortiz attributed his start in part to vaguely worded "family issues," saying he preferred not to talk in further detail. But it is generally agreed that Ortiz, whose mother died young in a car crash, was alluding to his father, Enrique, and a serious illness he was battling.
Ortiz had been working out regularly at Fenway Park since the end of the season, according to manager Terry Francona, but Ortiz laughed when someone suggested he'd already lost 15 pounds.
"I did?'' he said. "I don't know, I haven't weighed myself in a while, since I've been down in the Dominican. But as I told everyone, it's not just about baseball, it's all about life in general. You want to be healthy. You want to be looking good.''
Ortiz brushes off the question of whether he can become a dominating presence again in the Red Sox lineup.
"Why not?'' he said. "I've done it before.''
If he doesn't, it will raise questions about whether the Red Sox will exercise the contract option they hold for the 2011 season.
"I'll leave that up to them,'' he said. "I'm going to come ready next year. I'm going to do what I normally do.
"Let's put it this way. Last year was the worst year I had with the Red Sox, and everybody would like to have a year like that.''
But not everybody is Big Papi. Or the Dominican Santa.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.