Commentary

Different messages from Hamilton, Ortiz

While Rangers slugger offers a human response, Big Papi toes the MLB line on steroids

Updated: August 9, 2009, 2:07 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Josh Hamilton, the troubled and talented 28-year-old center fielder for the Texas Rangers, became a truly extraordinary figure in the world of baseball Saturday, and his team hadn't yet begun its key game against the Los Angeles Angels. Hamilton did the unthinkable: He admitted he was that most common of creatures, a human being.

Hamilton is a recovering addict, both of alcohol and a host of drugs, crack cocaine among them. Before the spiral, he was the first pick overall in the 1999 draft, but addictions derailed him from the game for more than three years until 2007, when he finally found his way to the big leagues.

He said he had been clean since 2005. He said he was now a man of God. His wife, children, organization and support group sustained him. He had become an inspiration for recovering addicts about what was possible even when things appeared to be their worst.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonJosh Hamilton has missed 46 games this season with injuries and is hitting only .239.
But in January, at least for one night, Hamilton veered off to the raunchy side of the tracks. At a bar in Arizona, he got drunk. His wife not around that night, Hamilton had the kind of "Girls Gone Wild" moment available to ballplayers on a nightly basis if they're so inclined. He was photographed several times, but in one of the photos, he's shirtless and heavily tattooed, his baseball cap backward, smiling with three young women, two posing as if to lick his left biceps, the third with her hand over the fly of his pants, her tongue out, too.

Deadspin.com published the photos Saturday. Hamilton held a news conference the same day, and acknowledged his binge as well as the incriminating, provocative photos.

"I'm embarrassed about it. For the Rangers, I'm embarrassed about it, for my wife, my kids," Hamilton said before Saturday's Rangers-Angels game. "It's one of those things that just reinforces about alcohol."

Three thousand miles to the east, at Yankee Stadium, David Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox slugger and anti-performance-enhancing-drug crusader, spoke at length for the first time since vowing to find out more information about how he could have tested positive during the league's 2003 nonpunitive drug testing survey.

I did not attend the Ortiz news conference in New York on Saturday. We'd already been through all of that -- too many times to count. I wanted to step back, watch it with different eyes, to hear what he had to say.

"I definitely was a little bit careless back in those days when I was buying supplements and vitamins over the counter -- legal supplements, legal vitamins over the counter -- but I never buy steroids or use steroids," Ortiz said during the news conference, which began about 3½ hours before the Red Sox lost a third straight game to the New York Yankees, 5-0.

"I never thought that buying supplements and vitamins, it was going to hurt anybody's feelings."

There are few people, if any, that fans want to see succeed more than David Ortiz. He is a good man. He has been what the public says it wants from its superstars. He is the lovable, flamboyant Big Papi, yet is committed to the game, a loyal teammate. He is outspoken yet aware of his good fortune, and the luxuries it provides. He is not disdainful of the environment -- baseball fans willing to spend their disposable income watching him, the public yearning to soak up his talent, which in turn necessitates overabundant press coverage.

This is the mixture that creates his fame, and instead of acting as though he is busting rocks on a chain gang -- like Josh Beckett -- Ortiz loves it. Like Johnny Damon, he epitomizes what the player-public relationship should be.

Maybe Ortiz and Hamilton each endured their conscience-clearing moment Saturday. Ortiz may have told the truth throughout his entire press conference. But because his explanations were identical to so many of the empty explanations that have defined a dishonest decade, it was Hamilton who sounded human, like a person who messed up -- as we all do -- while Ortiz sounded like the rank and file of the steroid era, like a cop maintaining the code of the blue wall.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Bill KostrounDavid Ortiz found out on July 30 that his name was on the 2003 list of players who tested positive for banned substances.
"Honestly, I hate that this happened," Hamilton said. "But it is what it is. You deal with it. I realized that, obviously, I'm not perfect, in this ongoing struggle, battle, that is very real. A lot of people don't understand how real it is.

"I don't feel like I'm a hypocrite. I feel like I'm human. I got away from the one thing that keeps me straightened out and going in the right direction."

No one wants to sound shrill, unable to navigate the complicated realities by clinging to simple moralities, or even worse, the hollow talking points that restrict discussion.

There has never been real and honest conversation about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, so in a way, Hamilton had the easier task. Alcohol -- like the sexual opportunities it can lead to -- is a dangerous, often lethal vice that is generally acceptable in society. Hamilton made a mistake -- and we've all been there doing something we shouldn't have done -- faced it humbly and with less shading, and on Saturday appeared the more sympathetic for it.

Performance-enhancing substances, meanwhile, are quite different. It is much easier to consternate about the sanctity of the record books than to examine the often irresistible factors that lead players to use PEDs. Miguel Tejada, he of the sixth-grade education and no prospects in the Dominican Republic beyond debilitating farm or factory work, made a choice to augment his talent, a choice in many ways no different than any other choices people make to escape poverty.

The same is true for most players who used whatever substances they believed would help them do their jobs, indeed to even have their jobs. In terms of discussion, the ethical issues of PED use have always trumped the practical ones, largely because of the refusal on the part of the baseball industry to peel away its considerable layers of denial.

To date, only two active players -- Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez -- have admitted they used the real stuff, the good, hard-core stuff, the kind of drugs that build muscle and help you hit home runs. No misunderstandings, no tainted supplements, no question marks. The rest of the baseball world, even though it is clear the culture of PED use was/is rampant, still hides behind the wall.

Next to Ortiz was Michael Weiner, Donald Fehr's successor. Weiner did his job well and professionally. He rightly emphasized that the entire legal system is being compromised by leaks -- who could ever trust secret grand jury testimony or the consequences of a government subpoena again? -- but continued the union's tradition of refusing to admit the depths of player use. Management -- which refused to acknowledge the depth of front-office knowledge -- has behaved no better.

He also played the bad cop for Ortiz, stating that the nine days it took Ortiz to speak publicly were at the behest of the union. "If David had his way," Weiner said, "he would have come forward publicly much sooner."

But Weiner also signaled, quite expectedly, that on the issue of performance enhancers, nothing has changed. Ortiz said he never used steroids, and the public has the right to believe him or not, but then he said he did not know what substances he took, and offered no insight on what may have triggered a positive test.

The reason for the charade, naturally, is both the level of the public breach when it comes to steroids and, for the elite player, the ultimate consequence of likely being barred from the Hall of Fame. But, it is a charade. If you took Weiner at his word, the entire steroids era has merely been a misunderstanding, naive but well-meaning guys mixing the wrong powders in their protein shakes.

The common talk is for everyone to "move on," but truth and reconciliation cannot occur when the particulars -- management and players -- don't want to admit the truth.

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.

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