Commentary

Faith unrewarded

David Ortiz really wanted us to believe he was different from the rest

Updated: August 1, 2009, 7:48 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Think for a moment about faith. Not about baseball or the media, about the union or management, the home and away teams, all the stuff that seems so important but in truth really amounts to nothing. Such surface concerns melt away with the years, like snowdrifts in April.

You have to go deeper than that to understand the meaning of the New York Times report that David Ortiz is one of the players who tested positive in the now-infamous 2003 performance-enhancing drug testing.

You have to distill it further down, way down to the bones, to the basics, to the people you've met in this world and all the individual ingredients that comprise the concrete, the foundation -- the conviction in the eyes, the passion of the words, the firmness of the handshakes, all the devices designed to make you vulnerable, to make you believe.

Dig down there, to where it counts. And when you get there, don't think about batting average or the latest news about who tested positive for what, but about the mentality of the professional athletes who spend so much time and energy constructing an elaborate confidence game.

On May 12, Ortiz called me at my home, wounded that so many fans believed his early season struggles were proof that in an age of tougher drug testing, Ortiz was no longer using performance-enhancing drugs. He called to fight for his reputation and his accomplishments, to preserve the outsized legend of Big Papi. His former companero, Manny Ramirez, had just been hit with a 50-game suspension for testing positive for banned substances, and all of it -- the magical rise of 2003, the Red Sox's championship titles of 2004 and 2007 -- was in jeopardy of losing its power, transformed by the taint afflicting the entire industry.

Ortiz rightly recognized the moment as pivotal to how the public viewed him.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Al Bello/Getty ImagesIn 2003, his first season in Boston, David Ortiz established career highs in home runs (31) and RBIs (101).
"Do you know how many times I've been drug tested since 2004? About 20," Ortiz told me that day. "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."

During that hour and 10 minutes, he was talking to me, certainly -- but he really was talking to you, to the public. He was pleading to be heard, to be believed that he was different from the rest, different from the A-Rods and Clemenses, the Bondses, McGwires and Palmeiros. He was positioning himself as the one you could absolutely trust. He understood the true cost of the steroids era was not the cacophony of the moment, but the stuff that lives in the bones -- trust, honesty, integrity. He wanted you to know that he understood, that his concerns, at the level where it counted the most, were the same as yours.

"I know what it is for my son to have Big Papi as a father," he told me that day. "There are a lot of people who do great things for him because he's my son. His life is going to be easier because he's the son of Big Papi.

"And that is the biggest reason why I have never used steroids. Because then he would have to go to school and have to listen to all the kids say that his dad is dirty, a cheater, and everything for him would be taken away from him, and he would be ruined. I make sure I don't do those things, for him."

This is what it means to be taken, to be lied to for money. It is not the first time. A player testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs is about as routine these days as a ground ball to short.

The surprise isn't in the revelation but in the construction of the mythology. Ortiz made these statements to appeal not to the goodness in me, but to the faith in you, to keep you believing.

Maybe there is an explanation to all this and Ortiz will be miraculously different, as he has tried to make us believe. As of today, he sounds like all the rest, indignant until exposed, annoyed and silent thereafter. He did not speak on the subject before Thursday's afternoon finale of Boston's series against Oakland. After the game, in which he hit a go-ahead, three-run homer in the seventh of an 8-5 win, Ortiz issued a statement.

"Today I was informed by a reporter that I was on the 2003 list of MLB players to test positive for performance-enhancing substances. This happened right before our game, and the news blindsided me.

"I want to talk about this situation and I will as soon as I have more answers. In the meantime I want to let you know how I am approaching this situation. One, I have already contacted the Players Association to confirm if this report is true. I have just been told that the report is true. Based on the way I have lived my life, I am surprised to learn I tested positive.

"Two, I will find out what I tested positive for. And, three, based on whatever I learn, I will share this information with my club and the public. You know me -- I will not hide and I will not make excuses."

Maybe it was all a sneaky lawyer's trick. If you thread and parse Ortiz's statements carefully enough, maybe he had been setting the stage for his plausible deniability all along. He always has made the clear distinction between the Wild West days of prepunitive drug testing and today's attempts at reform. And there was the spring training statement a few years ago when he pre-emptively said he might have ingested something in a protein shake that would trigger a positive test. Even his quote to me in May needs to be read carefully -- "You know how many times I've been tested since 2004?" Maybe in his own way, he had been preparing his legions for this day.

But these are semantic arguments at best. Otherwise, Ortiz would have taken the true crusader's step -- the step no active ballplayer has taken to date -- and long ago admitted use of performance-enhancing substances because they were not banned by baseball. That wasn't what happened. Ortiz instead positioned himself not only as the clean fuel in a polluted world but also as part of the solution, to make baseball green again. Barring a spectacular, unprecedented exoneration, Ortiz will have lost the bank of goodwill and trust he spent years accruing. At least he has plenty of company.

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.