Friday, July 31, 2009

Who Do You Trust?

I was going to break my blog-silence in a more official and positive fashion, but I wasn't quite done with that piece (which should run tomorrow) when the latest 2003 steroid test leaks came out (courtesy of the New York Times), and I had to say something.

You see, I've been waiting for this story a long time. Remember when the BALCO grand jury testimony leaked, and folks lined up to beat Jason Giambi like a piƱata? Remember the folks who swung the sticks with just a little extra gusto, because he was a Yankee? Remember when the Mitchell Report came out, implicating Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte? To most baseball fans, it was a dark moment in the game's history; to a lucky few, it was a day of jubilee. A National holiday, if you would.

We're not even going to talk about the Alex Rodriguez revelations earlier this year. Each time the gloating started, each time people geared up to cheer "STEROIDS" when the Yanks came to Beantown, my reaction was the same. Wait. Just you wait.

Because you had to figure this day was coming. Those Red Sox fans who chose to act superior on this issue were throwing their stones while sitting in a glass ballpark. Did they think the Red Sox were the one team in baseball to "just say no" to performance enhancement? Didn't they ever look at the middle of their own lineup? I grew up in Washington Heights, so I can attest that Manny Ramirez was always a big guy. But he wasn't as big as he got when he arrived in Boston. Meanwhile, it was always surprising that the same people who self-righteously obsessed over Roger Clemens's hat size never seemed to have looked at David Ortiz's noggin, ever.

When Manny Ramirez caught a PED suspension earlier this year, it was a blow for the more sanctimonious members of the RSN, but they'd also dodged a bullet. Ramirez had already been repudiated by the Sox and most of their fans when he was suspended. The Red Sox wound up looking good for jettisoning Manny, headcase and now cheater, before he was caught.

What some people missed in Manny's suspension was that he pretty much admitted that he was one of the 104 players who'd flunked MLB's 2003 survey testing. At the time, the Players Association released a statement on Manny's behalf which included the following: "I do want to say one other thing; I've taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons." That might sound like a strident declaration of innocence--but only if you didn't know that there were drug tests prior to the past five seasons. When you remembered that, it sounded more like a confession by omission.

Now, even if you accepted that Manny was a juicer, and that he likely was during his Sox tenure, it wasn't that big a black eye on the franchise, because you could just add it to the list of eccentricities known as "Manny being Manny." Heck, for most of his time in Boston, Ramirez was treated as if he was a child or mentally disabled--someone you couldn't hold responsible for his own actions. It's a different matter with David Ortiz, who's never been infantilized by baseball fans the way Manny or (to a lesser extent) Sammy Sosa were. Even Ortiz's nickname gives the impression of responsibility and adulthood; he's been one of the most respected players in the game. That's why this is big news.

Look, the point here isn't that I'm happy about this. I'm not. Even though he plays for the Red Sox, I've always admired Ortiz. As a Dominican-American, I'm not happy to see more Dominicans ensnared in this PED mess. Also, it's not like Ortiz and Ramirez's failings expiate Clemens, Pettitte, Giambi or A-Rod.

Furthermore, I can understand the pressure on Ortiz to get on the juice. You have to remember that at the time of the survey testing, Ortiz had washed out of the major leagues with the Twins. He had been non-tendered, and he was facing a battle for playing time with a number of other 1B/DH types with the Sox, including BALCO juicer Jeremy Giambi. At the same time the CBA basically created a "first positive test is free" environment that year. The disincentives against steroid use were as low as they would ever be (unless you predicted that law enforcement would intervene in the destruction of the survey tests and unscrupulous lawyers would leak names to the media).

The point isn't that Ortiz is a bad person, it's that it's pretty hard to know with certainty who the "good people" are in the Steroid Era. After Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's record, everyone looked to Alex Rodriguez; he would be the guy who erased Bonds from the record book, giving baseball a "clean" career home run leader. That lasted less than two years, until Selena Roberts got a few guys to spill the beans, under veil of anonymity, of course.

Even after A-Rod, everybody has someone they point to, claiming that this is the guy who did things "the right way" while everyone else was giving in to temptation. Until Thursday morning, some folks pointed to David Ortiz in that way. Others stake their reputations on Albert Pujols being clean, or on Junior Griffey or Ryan Howard or Jim Thome or Chipper Jones. But with due respect to all of those guys--none of whom has been implicated of anything, as far as I know--the simple fact is, you can't know that they're clean. You might think or believe they are. You can ask them, and you can take their word for it, and you can note that so-and-so's a straight shooter and what's-his-name's a good guy. You could still be wrong.

David Ortiz is, by all accounts, a good guy. So was Mark McGwire. So, I would think, are many of the 97 remaining players on the 2003 survey testing list whose identities have not, as yet, been revealed. Should the rest of those names come to light--and that seems inevitable, either in one lump sum by court order, or by dribs and drabs every March, July, and October, as pointed out by Brother Joe--we'll have more villains to point at and jeer and feel superior to, but will those not named be exonerated? Will we suddenly have confidence in the MLB testing program's efficacy, and declare the game clean?

Yesterday the Red Sox joined a group that includes, but is not limited to, the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers on the list of clubs who've really lived under the shadow of PED--with a valued star who's still on the roster and whose exploits fans will still cheer marked as tainted. Now Red Sox fans get to discover things some of the fans of those teams have already gone through: the "maybe it was just that one time," the "maybe the test results were wrong," the "that reporter is an unethical scumbag," the potluck of rationalization, denial, recrimination, and acceptance. The loss of trust. Welcome to the club.