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'Big Papi' revealed as a myth

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 30, 2009 03:36 PM

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"You've often heard me say that we're in the Golden Era of baseball. David Ortiz -- Big Papi -- symbolizes that Golden Era. He's been such a great player on a grand stage, but it's his personality along with his ability that has made him an important part of this sport. I have enormous respect for David Ortiz. He's conducted himself so beautifully off the field as well as on the field. I'm very proud of David Ortiz for a myriad of reasons. It's everything about him. When you say `David Ortiz,' the first thing I think is 'Big Papi,' and that's a great compliment to him. He stands as a great symbol of the success of this sport -- and a symbol for all the right reasons.''
-- A comment made by baseball commissioner Bud Selig during the winter of 2005-06 that appears in David Ortiz's autobiography

And so now we know, with 99.9 percent certainty, what we have long suspected and feared: Big Papi is a myth. The rags-to-riches story is truly a fairy tale. David Ortiz is a symbol of baseball now just as he was then, though this time he is playing the role of yet another damaged superstar who succumbed to the pressures during the most tainted era in baseball history.

So what are we supposed to think now, fellow Sox followers? According to a report today in the New York Times -- it ain't exactly The Star -- Ortiz and Manny Ramirez both were on the list of 104 players who failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs during the survey conducted in 2003. That was the year the Red Sox set a major league record for slugging percentage. That was the year Big Papi was born. That was the year Ortiz came to Boston after being released by the Minnesota Twins as a 27-year-old underachieving slugger with 58 career home runs in 455 career games.

Three years later, in 2006, Ortiz hit 54 home runs in 151 games to set a new Red Sox record. By then, he already had become the Most Valuable Player of the 2004 American League Championship Series and the recipient of a four-year, $52 million contract extension that runs through next season. When the free-agent market exploded the winter after Ortiz signed his deal, Red Sox owners felt so guilty about the contract that they presented Ortiz with a new pickup truck the following spring.

As it turns out, we now have nothing but questions. Maybe Ortiz should give the truck back. Maybe the Red Sox were right to sit him behind fellow user Jeremy Giambi after all. Maybe the Twins released him for very good reasons and maybe the 2004 World Series trophy is nothing but a hologram, generated by science and appealing to the eye but quite literally impossible to touch.

After the game, Ortiz issued a statement saying he was surprised to learn of the positive test and that he was going to find out what he tested positive for.

"I want to talk about this situation and I will as soon as I have more answers," Ortiz said in the statement. "In the meantime I want to let you know how I am approaching this situation. One, I have already contacted the Players Association to confirm if this report is true. I have just been told that the report is true. Based on the way I have lived my life, I am surprised to learn I tested positive. Two, I will find out what I tested positive for. And, three, 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."

Red Sox diehards are certain to know that Alex Rodriguez was identified as being on this same list during spring training. Within days, Rodriguez conducted his unforgettable press conference at the Yankees' spring training facility and Ortiz similarly held a press briefing in Fort Myers. Rodriguez claimed to be a foolish young man operating during "amateur hour." Ortiz suggested that any player who tested positive for steroids should be suspended for an entire year.

In retrospect, doth he protest too much?

Sooner or later, we all knew this was coming, if not Ortiz then with someone else. Earlier this year, when Ramirez served a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's current substance-abuse policy, the most loyal Red Sox followers dug in their heels. There was no evidence to suggest Ramirez used PEDs in while in Boston. In a promotional ad that routinely runs on WEEI-AM 850, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said even Red Sox officials believed that Ramirez did not start using performance-enhancing substances until he got to Los Angeles and played the final two months of last season auditioning for a new contract.

But this? This leaves no doubt that the Red Sox had users during the most critical years of their recent history. After Ortiz became the MVP of the 2004 ALCS, Ramirez was named MVP of the World Series. From June 1, 2003 through July 31, 2008 -- the time Ortiz effectively became a starter to the time Ramirez was traded -- the Red Sox scored more runs (4,723) than any team in baseball but the New York Yankees (4,766). The Sox won more world titles (two) than any team in the game. The Red Sox had the most fearsome 1-2 punch in baseball, the Ruth and Gehrig of the modern era, a two-headed monster around which Bill Mueller became a batting champion and Johnny Damon became a cult figure.

Again, in retrospect, we now know that Ortiz and Ramirez seem have a great deal more in common with Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy than they do with the Bambino and the Iron Horse.

With regard to Ortiz, in particular, today's news is disappointing, damning, downright sad. More than Ramirez or Rodney Harrison -- local sports stars similarly tarnished by the use of performance-enhancing substances -- Ortiz was embraced by this region like few stars in New England sports history. He wasn't just a prolific slugger, he was a good guy, too. With regard to the latter, maybe he still is. But what Ortiz is, without question, is forever damaged by his own vulnerability and frailty, his inability to distinguish right from wrong, his careless decision-making, his suddenly empty rhetoric for harsher penalties against those using performance-enhancing substances.

Today, Ortiz is no better than Ramirez or Rodriguez or Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Rafael Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, or Jason Giambi.

With them, Big Papi stands as a symbol for everything that went so terribly wrong.

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, Tony Massarotti collaborated with David Ortiz on a 2007 autobiography.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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