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Steroids scandal hits home

Ortiz, Ramírez tested positive for performance enhancers in ’03

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By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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David Ortiz, the greatest single-season home run hitter in Red Sox history, yesterday acknowledged testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 as he launched his golden era as one of the game’s premier power hitters.

Manny Ramírez, with whom Ortiz formed a fearsome 1-2 punch that helped catapult the Sox to world championships in 2004 and ’07, also tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in ’03, The New York Times reported.

Ortiz and Ramírez became the first Sox stars identified as purported drug cheats in a decades-long scandal that has sapped the integrity of the national pastime. Ortiz said he was unaware of the positive test until a reporter informed him an hour before yesterday’s game between the Sox and Oakland A’s at Fenway.

“The news blindsided me,’’ Ortiz said in a prepared statement after he hit a three-run home run to propel the Sox to an 8-5 victory.

Ortiz said the Major League Baseball Players Association later confirmed to him that the report of his positive test was accurate.

“Based on the way I have lived my life, I am surprised to learn I tested positive,’’ he said in his statement. “I will find out what I tested positive for. And, based on whatever I learn, I will share this information with my club and the public. You know me - I will not hide and I will not make excuses.’’

Appearing calm, though more reserved than usual, Ortiz declined to elaborate during a brief interview with reporters as the team prepared to depart for an eight-game road trip to Baltimore, Tampa, and New York. He faces no disciplinary action because there were no penalties in place at the time for steroid use in the major leagues.

In St. Louis, Ramírez told reporters that he would not discuss the drug test, according to the Los Angeles Times. “You guys want to talk about the game, what is happening now, we can sit down and talk for two hours,’’ Ramírez said. “If you want more information, call the union.’’

The news about Ortiz rocked the baseball world far more than the revelation about Ramírez, who earlier this month returned from serving a 50-game suspension with the Los Angeles Dodgers for violating baseball’s anti-doping rules this year. Ortiz, 33, one of the most beloved and charismatic stars in Sox history, had previously given every indication his name would never appear among the scores of major leaguers whose success has been tainted by steroid use.

The Times did not specify the drug Ortiz used or when in 2003 the test occurred. The paper attributed the disclosures to lawyers familiar with a list of more than 100 players who tested positive that year for performance-enhancing drugs. The lawyers requested anonymity because the list is sealed by court order.

“It’s going to be a very difficult day to get answers you’re looking for because there aren’t any yet,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters after the game. “There obviously needs to be some pursuit of the truth.’’

Francona and Sox general manager Theo Epstein indicated they were stunned by the report but vowed to stand by Ortiz. They praised his forthright response to the news, though it remains unclear how a player who tested positive was not informed of the results at the time.

“He needs some time to get some answers, then he’s going to stand up and answer every question,’’ Epstein said. “I admire that courage.’’

The Sox inevitably will confront criticism that their two recent world titles are tainted by steroids. But Ortiz’s teammates quickly rallied around him, with some suggesting a small number of players who used steroids are taking the heat for many others who have yet to be identified.

“Unless you give me concrete evidence on everyone, we’re getting into a debate that no one can ever answer, so why debate it?’’ third baseman Mike Lowell said. “I didn’t feel bad about winning the World Series in ’07, and I’m not giving any rings back either, so don’t ask.’’

The closest Ortiz had come to acknowledging any possible involvement with performance-enhancing drugs was a Boston Herald story in 2007. Ortiz, affectionately known to Sox fans as Big Papi, was quoted as saying he stopped buying nutritional products in his native Dominican Republic because of the country’s loose regulatory policies.

“I don’t know if I drank something in my youth, not knowing it,’’ he said.

Ortiz reacted angrily to the story, specifically the headline, which read, “Papi unwitting ’roid user?’’

He told the Globe, “It was very upsetting to me. I’ve worked hard to become a dangerous hitter. To have anyone question that . . . they’ve been testing for steroids since when, 2003, 2004? Well, I’ve been hitting home runs way before that and a lot since, and my body is still the same. I don’t look different.’’

Ortiz made no mention of steroids in his 2007 book, “Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits,’’ co-written with Tony Massarotti, though he has regularly cited the possibility of long-term physical damage to steroid users.

“The people who use that stuff,’’ he told the Globe in 2007, “I know later on it’s going to come back and haunt them.’’

In spring training this year, Ortiz advocated mandatory testing of major leaguers “three or four’’ times a season and called for drastically lengthening suspensions for steroid users from 50 games to a full year.

“This game has been hurt enough already,’’ he told reporters. “I don’t think this game can take anymore.’’

He also said, “If I test positive for using any kind of substance, I know that I’m going to disrespect my family, the game, the fans, and everybody. I don’t want to be facing that situation, so what will I do? I won’t use.’’

Ortiz, who joined the Sox as a free agent before the 2003 season, hit .288 with 31 homers and 101 RBIs that year, and he led the major leagues in RBIs (525) from 2003-06. Ortiz set the Sox single-season record for home runs in 2006 with 54.

Ortiz was invited to Disney World, appeared on the front of a Wheaties box, and was regaled on national television talk shows. He signed a multitude of endorsement deals and recently opened a restaurant, Big Papi’s, in Framingham. He also appears regularly on Sox television broadcasts with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino in public service announcements aimed at inspiring Boston’s youth.

“I stand by David Ortiz,’’ Menino said in a phone interview. “He’s done a lot of great things for the young people of our city and has been a positive role model.’’

The 2003 tests that implicated Ortiz and Ramírez were conducted as part of the first random survey by Major League Baseball to determine the scale of steroid use in the game. Under an agreement with the players’ union, MLB would institute mandatory steroid testing - with penalties for abusers - in 2004 if more than 5 percent of the results were positive, which they were.

The agreement called for the test results to remain confidential. But federal agents in California investigating the manufacturing and distribution of steroids to professional athletes soon seized the list of players who tested positive. Ever since, the players’ union has fought the seizure in the federal courts, arguing the government acted illegally.

The case remains tied up in litigation and appears ultimately bound for the US Supreme Court. But the names of players who allegedly appear on the list have trickled out.

Earlier this year, former league MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa were identified as appearing on the list, although three others - home run king Barry Bonds, David Segui, and Jason Grimsley - have been tied to the positive tests.

Former Sox player Nomar Garciaparra, now with the A’s, expressed anger shared by many major leaguers over the handling of the 2003 testing. He told reporters after yesterday’s game that the process was so flawed that innocent players may be tarnished by “false positives.’’ He also asserted that some players asked to be categorized as testing positive because they wanted to trigger mandatory testing the following year.

He said all players submitted to the tests believing they would only be identified by numbers and their names would never become public.

“I think there is a bigger issue than steroids in baseball when we have a grand jury and stuff like that is being leaked,’’ Garciaparra said. “When something that is supposed to be sealed and confidential isn’t anymore, that hurts in all walks of life.’’

The US House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform has no plans to look into the report about Ortiz and Ramírez, the committee’s chairman, Representative Edolphus Towns of New York, said.

Towns, who became chairman earlier this year, did not lead the committee when it held hearings, most recently last year, on steroid use in Major League Baseball. The panel summoned Mark McGwire, Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Curt Schilling to Capitol Hill in 2005.

Earlier this year, Miguel Tejada of the Houston Astros pleaded guilty to lying to the committee during 2005 testimony. The FBI also is investigating whether Roger Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, lied to the committee last year when he denied using steroids or human growth hormone.

Some fans at Fenway yesterday learned about Ortiz’s positive test during the game. And though many fans have expressed concern about his diminishing production, nearly all of them applauded for him to take a curtain call after the latest in his long history of game-changing home runs for the Sox.

Michael Kranish and Michael Whitmer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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