Ortiz in Cooperstown: Now, about that (ahem) other stuff

David Ortiz

Boston’s 21st Century king of swing wasn’t as tainted as you still might think.

It almost figured that I’d see at least one person only start reminding us of now-Hall of Famer David Ortiz’s “taint” by noticing he’d hit only 20 home runs in his final Minnesota season, 2002, then 37 in his first Boston season, 2003. Heaven forbid such people do their homework. So I did it for him, and for anyone else who cares.

As a Twin in 2002, Ortiz hit fifteen home runs on the road but only five in the Metrodome, which was still the Twins’ home playpen. (Calling the Metrodome a park is like calling Itzhak Perlman a fiddler.) As a Red Sox in 2003, Ortiz hit fourteen homers on the road and seventeen in Fenway Park.

In other words, Ortiz—who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent after the Twins released him—went from a home stadium that was killing him to a home park that was great for him at the plate. He didn’t need actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances for that.

Now, about that 2003 positive for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances? The one that marks Ortiz as a “steroid cheat” for life, in the eyes of only too many? Can we shoot that one down once and for all?

1) Those 2003 tests were supposed to be anonymous, done to determine whether the problem of actual/alleged PEDs was indeed rampant enough to begin mandatory testing. Well, they were anonymous . . . until somebody leaked the results to the New York Times six years later.

2) The 2003 tests turned out to be very problematic and even tainted. (Not to mention seized improperly by the federal government.) Even Rob Manfred himself has said of them, “it was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program.”

Ortiz was never even told the substance in question. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association would tell him what it was. The last I looked, if you were accused of something horrible but never once told just what you were accused of doing, you’d have grounds to dismiss your accusers as bloody fools at minimum—and targets of defamation suits at maximum.

Manfred even said it couldn’t be confirmed for dead last certain that Ortiz actually did test positive for such a substance. That may have been the case with several other players testing positive in that supposed-to-be-anonymous test.

3) Mandatory testing for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances began in MLB in 2004. Ortiz was tested regularly, several times a year, over the final thirteen years of his career . . . and never. once. tested. dirty.

4) By contrast, of course, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were suspect prior to the mandatory testing era and starting around 1999-2000. They’ve fallen off the BBWAA ballot now, after failing to be elected in their tenth and final tries and despite getting their highest vote percentages yet. (Bonds: 66 percent; Clemens: 65.2 percent.) Yes, their records prior to 1999-2000 said Hall of Famers both. Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark says, simply, “They just ran out of minds to change.”

Maybe not quite. Both their cases, the good, bad, and ugly, go to the Era Committees. The Today’s Game Committee could take them both up as soon as next fall. That’ll be small comfort to those excoriating the Baseball Writers Association of America for saying OK to some who’ve been suspected but never proven and no to others suspected and suspected and suspected again.

Saying no to those absolutely affirmed is different. Manny Ramírez tested dirty twice during the mandatory-testing era and put paid to himself. He didn’t help his own cause, either, by having been one of baseball’s biggest pains in the rump roast. What they used to call “Manny Being Manny” was Manny graduating from a fun-loving nutbag to a self-centered jerk who often wounded his teams with his antics.

Aléx Rodríguez, who was a first-timer on this year’s BBWAA ballot as well, got nailed stone cold in the Biogenesis probe, of course. That probe had its own issues, unfortunately, but A-Rod’s self-immolating bid to sue his way out of that jam until he was forced to sit an entire season out under suspension took care of him.

My own ambivalence about the actual/alleged PED question comes down as well to the following: It was and remains genuinely impossible to prove for dead last certain that using them did or didn’t give someone a performance or statistical edge. You can even look at a considerable majority of such suspects and discover their stats actually dipped, not rose, during the periods they were believed to indulge. (Jason Giambi was one such candidate, in fact.)

You can also find considerable research to suggest very plausibly that the substances which inflated arm and shoulder strength weren’t really going to help for one good reason: nearly all power hitters generate their power from the lower body, from the torso and thighs.

There were enough players, too, who dipped into the actual/alleged PED well not because they thought it would give them an edge at the plate or on the mound but because they thought—foolishly enough—that they could recover from injuries quicker and without consequences. If they learned the hard way about the consequences, could you blame them for trying? Really?

Baseball doctors aren’t exactly chock full of Nobel Prize for Medicine candidates. In enough cases they could be tried by jury for malpractise, if not quackery. You can remember how many players with careers compromised or ended for rushing it back, being rushed back, or playing foolishly through injuries?

And don’t get me started on how many injured players were denounced as “quitters” for not wanting to risk the long term and play through injuries that might have become worse. (Were, and still are. Carl Crawford had Hall of Fame talent but was sapped by injuries—including one or two he was foolish enough to try playing through, for fear that his manager might call him a quitter, too.)

As a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, I participate in an annual vote for the Hall of Fame. Symbolic regarding the real Hall of Fame, of course. But we elected Bonds and Clemens a couple of years ago. I’d like to think we, not just me,  knew Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame worthy by their careers before they were suspect.

(We also figured, I’m sure, Clemens having been acquitted of lying to Congress’s Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids [thank you again, Mr. Will] when he denied using actual/alleged PEDs.)

I’d like to think we also knew the tainted 2003 anonymous test shouldn’t taint a David Ortiz who burned to play in the biggest of the big, shone in the biggest of the big, and has three World Series rings to show for it, but never tested dirty in thirteen seasons to follow of playing in the mandatory testing era.

But it’s easier to clean up an oil spill than it is to change minds made up before or despite the real evidence coming before it. That’s something that even ironclad evidence has a tough time overcoming.

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