Wash. Rinse.Repeat. That is our baseball drug story. Never changes. Never varies. Neverbecomes clearer. One day, our phones buzz or our Twitter accounts tingle or ournewspaper sports page is hijacked. Look: Someone new has been named a druguser.
Some people musteroutrage. Cheaters! Frauds! Others talk about being numb. Didn't they all do it?The story passes. We go along with our sports lives again. We watch MarkBuehrle throw a perfect game. We watch Albert Pujols crush a home run. Then ...a new name is released. Outrage again. Numbness again. The story passes again.Nothing new ever seems to happen. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Only this time,maybe, something new did happen. This time anonymous sources—lawyers,apparently—spoke to The New York Times and named Manny Ramirez and David Ortizas two of the players responsible for the 104 positive tests in the infamousand "anonymous" baseball drug survey of 2003.
There was nothingnew or particularly interesting about the MannyBManny revelation. Ramirez hasalready served a 50-game suspension this year for violating baseball's drugpolicy. In the aftermath he has dealt with the harsh judgments of those whobelieve he should wear a scarlet S on his jersey. He has luxuriated in thecheers of those who believe in forgiveness, especially if the forgiven can keephitting .326 with runners in scoring position. Manny was just the latest in along line of remarkable players—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, MarkMcGwire, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, AndyPettitte, Roger Clemens and whoever's got next—who have, in their own ways,added to the clamor surrounding this stifling story.
But ... DavidOrtiz. Now, he's different. His name is not shocking, exactly. Ortiz's careertrack is covered with suspicious footprints. He was released by Minnesota inDecember 2002, when he was 27. The Red Sox picked him up a month later and, atthe end of spring training, argued about whether to keep him. They did, and inthe next four years he hit 31, 41, 47 and 54 home runs, progressively. He drovein 101, 139, 148 and 137 runs. Big numbers don't prove guilt. But guilt doesseem to follow big numbers.
Then this is notabout disbelief. It's bewilderment. We like David Ortiz. We really like him.He's the guy with the charming nickname: Big Papi. He's the guy who spits onhis batting gloves, slaps them together, hits those long game-winning homeruns, lumbers around the bases, then points to his mother in heaven as hestomps on home plate. He's more Babe than Barry, more Schwarzkopf thanSchwarzenegger, more salsa than Sosa. Yes, Big Papi is something new in thisendless rerun of drug charges: He is baseball's first cuddly steroid user.
Or as MichaelSchur—passionate Red Sox fan, cocreator of the NBC show Parks and Recreationand past contributor to SI under the nom de plume Ken Tremendous—tweeted,"I can't believe that I'm surprised about David Ortiz doing steroids. ButI'm surprised that David Ortiz did steroids."
This does seemnew. Yes, all the players who have been named, implicated or linked to steroidshad their passionate fans. But, mostly, they did not generate love. Papidid—really, other than a few bitter Yankees fans, who didn't love David Ortiz?He is round and funny, teammates adore him, fans can't get enough of him, he isinvolved in countless charitable causes here and in his home in the DominicanRepublic.
"You've oftenheard me say that we're in the Golden Era of baseball," baseballcommissioner Bud Selig says in Ortiz's autobiography, Big Papi: My Story of BigDreams and Big Hits. "David Ortiz—Big Papi—symbolizes that GoldenEra."
Selig may havebeen more right than even he knew. Baseball is a game of eras. There was thedead ball era, when the balls were soft and mushy and gamblers hovered at theedges. There was the pre--Jackie Robinson era, when fans and executivesinsisted that the major leagues had the best players in the world even whileblack and dark-skinned Latin played on distant, dusty fields. There was thepitchers' era, when Koufax and Gibson and Marichal—throwing from atop smallmountains—vanquished hitters. Greenies were a feature of several eras, as(players admit) amphetamines were popped like bubble gum and stars playedhopped-up baseball on hard turf fields.
Then there's theSelig era, when the game wildly expanded and new stadiums were built fasterthan suburban Home Depots, and many players took various drugs and worked outlike bodybuilders so they could hit better and pitch faster. Until now, itseems, we mostly blamed the wicked players. But Ortiz—unlike, say, Bonds orClemens or A-Rod—doesn't come to us prepackaged as a villain. He doesn't allowus the easy out: "Well, that guy was an out-of-control jerkanyway."
Ortiz is not ajerk. He led the Boston Red Sox to two world championships with his big dreamsand big hits. We no longer have the innocence of that (perhaps apocryphal) kidwho stood outside the courthouse and pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson:"Say it ain't so, Joe."
We know it'sso.
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This is not about disbelief. It's bewilderment. WE LIKEBIG PAPI. We really like him.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW