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Baseball's Lovable User
August 10, 2009
Here's a first in the Steroid Era: a cuddly star turned culprit
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August 10, 2009

Baseball's Lovable User

Here's a first in the Steroid Era: a cuddly star turned culprit

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Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That is our baseball drug story. Never changes. Never varies. Never becomes clearer. One day, our phones buzz or our Twitter accounts tingle or our newspaper sports page is hijacked. Look: Someone new has been named a drug user.

Some people muster outrage. 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 Mark Buehrle 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 Ortiz as two of the players responsible for the 104 positive tests in the infamous and "anonymous" baseball drug survey of 2003.

There was nothing new or particularly interesting about the MannyBManny revelation. Ramirez has already served a 50-game suspension this year for violating baseball's drug policy. In the aftermath he has dealt with the harsh judgments of those who believe he should wear a scarlet S on his jersey. He has luxuriated in the cheers of those who believe in forgiveness, especially if the forgiven can keep hitting .326 with runners in scoring position. Manny was just the latest in a long line of remarkable players—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and whoever's got next—who have, in their own ways, added to the clamor surrounding this stifling story.

But ... David Ortiz. Now, he's different. His name is not shocking, exactly. Ortiz's career track is covered with suspicious footprints. He was released by Minnesota in December 2002, when he was 27. The Red Sox picked him up a month later and, at the end of spring training, argued about whether to keep him. They did, and in the next four years he hit 31, 41, 47 and 54 home runs, progressively. He drove in 101, 139, 148 and 137 runs. Big numbers don't prove guilt. But guilt does seem to follow big numbers.

Then this is not about 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 on his batting gloves, slaps them together, hits those long game-winning home runs, lumbers around the bases, then points to his mother in heaven as he stomps on home plate. He's more Babe than Barry, more Schwarzkopf than Schwarzenegger, more salsa than Sosa. Yes, Big Papi is something new in this endless rerun of drug charges: He is baseball's first cuddly steroid user.

Or as Michael Schur—passionate Red Sox fan, cocreator of the NBC show Parks and Recreation and 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. But I'm surprised that David Ortiz did steroids."

This does seem new. Yes, all the players who have been named, implicated or linked to steroids had their passionate fans. But, mostly, they did not generate love. Papi did—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 is involved in countless charitable causes here and in his home in the Dominican Republic.

"You've often heard me say that we're in the Golden Era of baseball," baseball commissioner Bud Selig says in Ortiz's autobiography, Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits. "David Ortiz—Big Papi—symbolizes that Golden Era."

Selig may have been more right than even he knew. Baseball is a game of eras. There was the dead ball era, when the balls were soft and mushy and gamblers hovered at the edges. There was the pre--Jackie Robinson era, when fans and executives insisted that the major leagues had the best players in the world even while black and dark-skinned Latin played on distant, dusty fields. There was the pitchers' era, when Koufax and Gibson and Marichal—throwing from atop small mountains—vanquished hitters. Greenies were a feature of several eras, as (players admit) amphetamines were popped like bubble gum and stars played hopped-up baseball on hard turf fields.

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