Big Papi and the steroid conundrum
There is, ultimately, no way out for Major League Baseball. Steroids have done to it what they usually do to the human body: offer a short-term windfall at the price of long-term health and legitimacy. Performance enhancers have proven to be the ultimate Faustian bargain.
Last Wednesday, I went to Fenway Park to interview David Ortiz. The next day, Major League Baseball suspended Manny Ramirez 50 games for violating the terms of its Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
My story already had been written. The question was when it would appear on ESPN.com. The next-day news forced me to make a journalistic choice: include discussion of the Ramirez suspension even though I had not spoken personally to Ortiz about it and would not have a chance to go back to Boston to conduct another interview, or stay with the column that was based on my discussion with him.
I chose not to include the Ramirez suspension for two reasons. The first is that I did not think it would be fair to Ortiz. He and I had spoken for about an hour. Steroids and other performance enhancers were not part of the conversation. We spoke about his struggles, his mechanics, his injuries, the reaction to it all.
In other conversations, Ortiz and I have discussed all the steroids talk before. Like most of his peers, he has vehemently denied using them. He always has credited his meteoric breakthrough in Boston to a Red Sox organization that has confidence in him and plays him. In Minnesota, he told me, there always was a reason for keeping Doug Mientkiewicz's glove in the lineup instead of Ortiz's bat, whether the manager was Tom Kelly or Ron Gardenhire.
"If you look at when I got a chance to play, I produced," he said. "All I did in Boston was make adjustments to how they pitched me in, and carry that over to a full season."
To then include illegal drugs in the story would have been a sneaky, journalistic end around on him -- hardly an ethical thing to do.
The second reason is that I had never publicly accused or suspected him in print of being a steroid user. It would have been disingenuous to suggest that steroids -- or a recent lack thereof -- were a reason for his decline, even in light of the drug suspension of a former teammate, when I had never written that I believed them to be a reason for his ascent.
When the story first appeared on ESPN.com on Monday, I received an overwhelming number of e-mails from the public -- including e-mails from a few former players -- that asked the same question in varying forms: How could performance enhancers not be part of the conversation about Ortiz's struggles?
There was this:
Dear Mr. Bryant,
I am a fan of your work, but was troubled by your latest piece. I find it irresponsible that you wrote such an in-depth piece on David Ortiz and failed to even mention the possibility of PEDs. While everyone is innocent until proven guilty, it is foolish for us to continue to turn a blind eye to how MLB was run over the past 15 years.
And this, from a former player:
Howard, how does Papi feel about Manny's suspension, and are there any whispers out there that his lack of production could be because of a lack of supplementation?
Not one mention of "possible" steroid use??? Geez, are you and George Mitchell the only two baseball savants who continue to believe the Red Sox have no users?
You can't tell me David Ortiz has never been on steroids. He was nothing with the Twins.
Why no probing questions about Ortiz's possible connection? He was a backup first baseman in Minnesota and then overnight became a perennial MVP candidate and played very closely with someone who cheated. Ortiz has clearly shed big-time weight and has not hit a home run since Sept. 22 of last year. Is it the fact that people don't want to believe that it is possible that Big Papi is a 'roid user?
No mention of going from 50+ home runs two years ago to zero in the age of steroids? Coincidence?
Having written "Juicing the Game," I'm surprised that you did not even suggest the possibility that perhaps he is no longer using performance enhancers. The ol' batting average sure does drop a lot when home runs and doubles off the wall become routine fly outs. I never bought his remarks earlier this season about steroid users. It sounded like a smoke screen to me.
And well, you get the point. Many of the hundreds of comments on the conversation page at the bottom of Monday's column reflected the same attitude.
This is the true price of the steroid era in its full dimension. The public now suspects that if you're a great player, it is because you are a steroid creation. When you decline, it is because you have obviously stopped using performance enhancers. During the past 48 hours, I have received 109 personal e-mails from readers, and I have received one e-mail about the issues of his on-the-field performance that didn't accuse him of -- or at least suggest -- the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
This represents a significant departure, and perhaps Ramirez's suspension provided the final tipping point. I have written about many, many baseball players during the steroid era, and the reader response until now had included some form of this boilerplate: You know, Mark McGwire never failed a drug test. Even for players who have been caught virtually red-handed or refused to "talk about the past," the benefit of the doubt had gone to the player.
Even in the case of Barry Bonds, supporters found ways to voice advocacy for him. Some simply were loyal fans of the San Francisco Giants. Some alleged that Bonds was an unfairly targeted victim of character assassination -- racial, personality-based or otherwise. Sometimes, they blamed the press; other times, they pointed out that he had never failed an official, baseball-administered drug test.
Ortiz is one of the first players to be completely disconnected from the most contagious elements of this scandal (the Mitchell report, BALCO, Congressional hearings, Jose Canseco, Kirk Radomski, Brian McNamee or baseball's drug policy) and still have the public assume -- no, be totally convinced and demand conjecture -- that he's dirty because he's stopped hitting.
Ortiz, based merely on the unscientific review of reader responses, has received zero support, even though he wears the colors of the rabid and vocal legion that is Red Sox Nation. The Nation has grown silent, perhaps resigned that all of it -- yes, even the great glories of 2004, the comebacks, the Yankees series, Ramirez as the MVP of the World Series -- might have been a steroids-related sham.
The Red Sox are on the West Coast to play the Angels this week. On Tuesday afternoon, I sent Ortiz a text message. He called me back about an hour later. We spoke for an hour and 10 minutes.
"Do you know how many times I've been drug-tested since 2004? About 20," Ortiz said. "You've got the biggest guys in the game getting caught with this stuff, and that's why they don't think you can have mechanical problems or you cannot have your mind in the wrong place or have injuries. It's all steroids. That's why I don't talk about it. When I get turned around, people are going to say, 'Oh, he's back on it.'
"I said it a long time ago. I said if you want to get this stuff out of the game, don't do random tests -- test every player. Don't come in once and test two or three guys. Test everybody, in season and out of season. And if you still use and you get caught, then you should be suspended for the whole year. I said that a long time ago, and nobody listened.
"I'm going to do my thing. I'm going to keep working out, stay on my program, and if I don't get out of it, I'm done. God will be telling me that I'm done."
What's wrong with Papi?
Baseball Prospectus asks (and answers): what is wrong with David Ortiz, and how worried should Red Sox Nation be? BP Daily
In the past, the public, fatigued of disgrace and ready to get on with the fun and games, has wanted to ignore the heavy steroid talk. Innocent until proven guilty, people would say. The Ortiz case is a reversal: They have demanded drugs be part of the discourse.
If Bud Selig believes that interleague play, the wild card, the World Baseball Classic, the MLB Network and unprecedented financial growth will smother the impact of steroids on the game, the reaction to Ortiz is an indication that he might be sorely mistaken. If the public -- and/or the players' association -- believes that the steroid conversation exists only because journalists don't have anything better to write about, this past week should open their eyes. And if anybody believes that people don't really care about drug use because they keep showing up at the ballpark and seem all too willing to part with their disposable income to do it, he needs a refresher course on how to read the tea leaves.
During the steroid era, players have been able to keep their money while no one of note, until Ramirez, has been punished in a significant way. But the players have lost something far more valuable than money: their names, their professional respect. How many of them would give back a little of that money in exchange for some credibility?
Oh, the fans will still show up to the ballpark. They'll still fork over a chunk of their money and cheer the way Yankees fans in Baltimore did when Alex Rodriguez returned this past weekend. But they'll be watching the games with a cynical eye. They'll watch similar to the way drivers slow down at a car wreck, rubbernecking in morbid fascination, ridiculing the game and its players with every hand clap.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.