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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Ortiz tries to right a wrong

David Ortiz was even unhappier about a Herald headline linking him to unwitting steroid use than he was about being called out on strikes in the eighth last night. David Ortiz was even unhappier about a Herald headline linking him to unwitting steroid use than he was about being called out on strikes in the eighth last night. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

The bat of David Ortiz is much larger and significantly more ominous when he swings it indoors. Before last night's game against the Orioles, Ortiz was taking cuts in the clubhouse, with big, broad, ferocious strokes.

"I'm angry, bro," he declared. "I'm going to be angry for a while."

Another agitated swing. Another uncharacteristic growl from Big Papi.

"I just want to know," he said. "What have I ever done for people to question my integrity? Why do people who have never met me want to [expletive] me up? Why would you want to hurt someone who has tried to do the right thing, be available to the media, to be respectful to the fans?"

The object of Ortiz's ire was a recent story in the Boston Herald, which discussed the biggest elephant in baseball's living room -- steroids. The first story included quotes by Ortiz defending Giants slugger Barry Bonds, whom he said deserves respect.

In the second, smaller story that accompanied it, written by respected reporter Michael Silverman, Ortiz discussed his process of educating himself about steroids.

Ortiz was quoted as saying, "I tell you, I don't know too much about steroids, but I started listening about steroids when they started to bring that [expletive] up, and I started realizing and getting to know a little bit about it. You've got to be careful. I used to buy a protein shake in my country. I don't do that anymore because they don't have the approval for that here, so I know that, so I'm off buying things at the GNC back in the Dominican Republic.

"But it can happen any time, it can happen. I don't know. I don't know if I drank something in my youth, not knowing it."

Those comments, while intriguing, aren't what you'd call breaking news. Yet that's not what set Ortiz off. It was the headline, which asked in bold print: "Papi Unwitting 'Roid User?"

It was an inflammatory rhetorical question that set off a national chain reaction of speculation. One of the first hints was when Red Sox manager Terry Francona said a Toronto reporter entered his office and declared that Ortiz had exposed himself as a steroid user.

Suddenly, the Red Sox' congenial slugger was under the microscope because he mentioned he didn't check the ingredients of a protein shake he drank when he was young. Suddenly, his reputation was being trampled by that 13,000-pound elephant in baseball's crowded parlor. (I am not exaggerating, by the way. According to the TheBigZoo.com, a male African elephant tips the scales at 13,200 pounds).

The headline was a disservice to Ortiz, and to Silverman, who does not write his own headlines. In fact, no writer at a major paper writes his or her headlines.

I tried to explain that to Ortiz. He wasn't interested. The damage, he contends, has been done. His reputation was questioned needlessly, and once such salacious information hits the Internet, it takes on a life of its own. He has a point.

"I'm just really disappointed," he said last night following Boston's 6-3 loss to the Orioles. "People want to see you fail. That's not what I've ever wanted to believe, but that's what I've seen around here. Why do people want to make me look that way when they know I've done nothing but try to lift up this ball club from Day 1? I've tried to put a positive spin on everything, on everybody.

"And this is what I get for that. For now, I'm going to be very limited in my responses. Whenever anyone had a question before, about me, about my teammates, about the game, I tried to help. When they had a question, I always had an answer. Now I won't."

In their outstanding book, "Game of Shadows," reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams exposed the BALCO scandal in painstaking detail. They relied on documents, secret testimony, and multiple sources to amass the most comprehensive journalistic work on steroids to date.

They ripped the lid off baseball's most shameful secret, leaving America's pastime in turmoil. That has led to a climate thick with innuendo, rumor, and hearsay. It has left anyone and everyone who excels in this game under increased scrutiny, whether they deserve it or not.

Make no mistake: There are players, pitchers and hitters alike, who have some explaining to do.

But what connection has ever been made between steroids and David Ortiz? His name has never -- ever -- been linked in any investigation. His name was nowhere near the BALCO scandal. He has not been asked by George Mitchell to come in for a visit. According to his team, he's passed every random drug test he's taken. The only connection between Ortiz and steroids is that he is a very big man and he hits very big home runs.

And that's not fair.

Blame it on baseball, for not wrestling its elephant to the dirt when it was still in its infancy, when it was still a beast that could have been controlled. It chose to turn its back to a growing problem, and now that problem can no longer be contained.

So why did Ortiz tackle the steroid issue in the first place? Because that's what he does. He is one of the most accommodating superstars this team has ever seen. He was asked a question and he answered it. He chose to defend Bonds the way he chose to defend Sammy Sosa before him. To prove his point regarding the uncertainty of steroids, he went so far as to suggest that when he was younger, he drank unregulated protein shakes, and who knows what was in those things?

It's a pretty big leap to go from there to calling Ortiz a 'roid user.

"It is a very delicate situation, this steroid stuff," Ortiz said. "It's serious stuff. It is no joke. You cannot just say someone is a steroid user with no proof. That is dangerous. All I was saying was that Barry Bonds was a great hitter. I'm a hitter. I know how hard it is. I'm not defending him. I'm just saying he's a great hitter.

"If they want to accuse him, that's their business. I'm no judge. But then don't turn around and say because I took a protein shake when I was 15, 16 years old that you have something on me. How can you turn that into maybe I might have done steroids before? Have you been watching me in my career? Have you seen how much I have put into this?

"I have worked really hard to be a role model, not just for myself, but for kids, for this team, for people I don't even know. I see people on the street and I have no idea who they are, but I treat them the way I would want to be treated. I have tried so hard to be positive, and now these people see something like this in the paper and they're going to say, 'What's this about Big Papi? I'm confused.' Well, they shouldn't be confused, because they shouldn't believe that [expletive].

"I did not become good overnight. It took years of hard work for me to become the hitter I am today. I worked every day to be better. And now you are going to say this about me? The minute you put my name with steroids, then I'm a target. That's what we're dealing with in baseball now. Any superstar connected to that word becomes a target. And for what?"

The lesson learned here, by Ortiz and Sox pitcher Curt Schilling this week, is you cannot win discussing steroids. Ortiz learned that by defending Bonds and Schilling learned it by admonishing him. Both ended up with public relations headaches this first-place team can do without.

Last night, Ortiz took his very large bat to the plate, but walked three times before he struck out swinging in the seventh, and again on a check swing in the eighth. It was a quiet night for a big man who loves to hit a baseball.

It is certainly preferable to taking swings at the unwanted elephant in his clubhouse.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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