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Friday, May 10, 2013

Sox in Six: Why Red Sox Fans Should Ignore David Ortiz Steroid Rumors

Innocent until proven guilty.

"It's like when you're winning really big at Monopoly, and people think you're stealing from the bank."

This was my 8-year-old daughter's response when I asked her for an example of when someone doing well might be unfairly accused of cheating. I posed the question after reading Dan Shaughnessy's column in Wednesday's Boston Globe, in which he detailed his locker room steroids chat with David Ortiz the previous afternoon. 

Since Ortiz emerged from seven months on the shelf nursing a bad heel to hit .426 in his first 14 games back in the Red Sox lineup, Shaughnessy posed, it was only natural that people suspect steroids were fueling the comeback. Ortiz denied any doping, and while I give Shaughnessy credit for questioning the slugger to his face, I felt the exchange deserved a paragraph low in Tuesday's game notes rather than a bold, top-of-the-fold headline.

Why should Red Sox fans ignore the steroids talk surrounding Ortiz's big start? That's the subject of today's Sox in Six.

He's following the rules -- and passing the tests

Unlike his old buddy, Ortiz passes each test.

As Ortiz explained to Shaughnessy Tuesday, he's subject to the same random testing as all big leaguers:

"They test me all the time," Ortiz said. "They make you pee and the test your blood, too. This year I would say I've probably been tested five times, peeing. Blood, just once. That was in spring training. They don't warn you. They just show up."

This information is probably easy enough to verify. It has been speculated that conspiring ballplayers, trainers, and chemists are constantly exploring ways to beat the system, but the fact remains that Ortiz has been repeatedly tested, and found to be clean.

Being on the 2003 list doesn't make him guilty
Young Papi was careless.

After Ortiz initially avoided the steroid scandal that tarnished the reputation of other superstars including Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa, he faced his first doping accusations in May 2009 when it was revealed his name was on the sealed list of roughly 100 MLB players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. 

The list was leaked by anonymous lawyers with knowledge of the results, who did not reveal which drugs had been detected in Ortiz's case. Within days of the news breaking Ortiz gave a heartfelt press conference in which he denied PED use but said he "definitely was a little bit careless back in those days when I was buying legal supplements and legal vitamins over the counter."

At the time Ortiz's name surfaced on the list, the New York Daily News reported that Ortiz could have been "one of eight players who were believed to have tested positive for a spiked dietary supplement in 2003, rather than for hard-core injectable steroids. The supplement 19-norandrostenedione was legal in 2003 and contained the steroid nandrolone, a hard-core performance-enhancing drug used to build muscle."

In other words, there is a good chance Ortiz did nothing wrong in '03, the year he joined the Red  Sox and had his first breakout season with 31 home runs.

His stats don't match a "typical" steroid user
Ortiz hits with more consistency today.

Ortiz has been a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy for a decade, with only two years in which his totals went up considerably (2005-06, when he had 47 and 54 homers). Most accused steroid users like A-Rod have seen their offensive output plummet in recent years with the introduction of random testing, but Papi has actually enjoyed a resurgence the past two seasons.

This was a big part of Shaughnessy's premise -- that "athletes do not get better as they mature into their late 30s." But if you look closely at Ortiz's numbers, they are not the result of his suddenly becoming stronger -- but rather his getting smarter.

Ortiz has improved as an all-around hitter 
Lefty or righty, pitchers feel Papi's power.

For most of his career, Ortiz had a tough time against left-handed pitchers. In 2004, for instance, he had 31 home runs and a .326 average against righties but only 10 homers and a .250 mark against lefties. By 2010 the disparity was worse than ever: 30 homers and a .297 average vs. righties, just TWO homers and .222 vs. lefties. 

Another hole in his game was Ortiz's inability to consistently hit the ball to left field. Like they had once done against Ted Williams, opposing teams exploited this by employing a "Papi Shift" in which the shortstop moved to the right of second base during Ortiz's at-bats and other infielders and outfielders also drifted in that direction. 

For years Ortiz struggled against the shift, but now he is rendering it useless. For the past one-and-a-half seasons, he has batted nearly .320 against lefties and is hitting the ball to left far more consistently. His pure power may not be at 54-homer strength anymore, but he's finding the holes and harming more pitchers.

He's lost weight, not gained bulk
A healthy choice for his career.

Compare a 1990 Barry Bonds baseball card with a 2002 Bonds card, and you have the poster boy for steroids. Whereas the young Bonds was trim and taut, the older version was bulky to a cartoonish degree.

Now take a look at Ortiz. In the past season, he's actually shed considerable pounds off his husky frame, which has helped him keep his bat speed quick and is not consistent with PED use. Unlike past big-boned Sox sluggers like George Scott and Mo Vaughn who fizzled quickly in their mid-30s, Ortiz realizes that stepping away from the table may be his ticket to a longer career and maybe even the Hall of Fame.

He's earned a large degree of trust
Like Brady, Ortiz commands respect.

During the past 10 years, only Tom Brady has achieved the cult status of Ortiz among Boston athletes. Big Papi has been a tower of strength on the field, a leader in the clubhouse, and a champion of the Jimmy Fund and numerous other charities. Like Brady, he's been his best in the clutch and a driving force on championship teams.

Red Sox Nation may never truly know if Papi ever cheated, or, if he did, whether he did so knowingly. In the meantime, it is no more fair to suspect him of juicing when he is hitting .426 than it is to claim he has come clean if he goes 1-for-14 -- as he has since his talk with Shaughnessy.

What is clear is this: if the Red Sox hope to have any chance of making the playoffs, they need a healthy and happy Ortiz in the middle of their batting order.

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