NEW YORK -- “All right, everybody ready?”
David Ortiz offered the inquiry a bit sheepishly, a tone that belied his high-wattage arrival at a 12:30 p.m. press conference in Yankee Stadium. Ortiz, flanked by his father, Enrique, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona, arrived in a diamond-covered ensemble -- sunglasses, earrings, watch and a skull pendant on a necklace –- that shimmered for the shutters of roughly a dozen cameras.
He sat down at a table next to Michael Weiner, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. A room of about 150 reporters (along with some Sox officials, including President/CEO Larry Lucchino) awaited his statement.
Yes, the room -- and the baseball world -- was ready. At least in one sense.
But in another, no one was ready for what Ortiz said, or what he now represents. And there are no certainties about how to proceed in the wake of his public denial of having ever knowingly used anything more damning than legal, over-the-counter supplements and vitamins that may have triggered a positive test.
“The List” -- representing the group of players who triggered positive tests for performance-enhancing substances in 2003 survey testing that was meant to be anonymous, and for which there were no penalties -- is an incredibly tricky thing. Since 2004, any player who has tested positive has been publicly identified and suspended. The precise steroid or PED that he used has come to light.
Manny Ramirez got busted for a female fertility drug that is used as a masking agent. Rafael Palmeiro got caught using a steroid employed on horses. After Alex Rodriguez was outed as having been on “The List,” he admitted to having injected Primobolan.
Roger Clemens’ reputation has been trashed because Brian McNamee, the trainer who claims to have injected him with steroids, has gone into immense specific detail about what Clemens used. The same was true of Barry Bonds due to the minutiae of the BALCO revelations.
But as of now, there’s insufficient information to permit a clear judgment about Ortiz’ positive test from six years ago. As Ortiz noted, he has not produced a positive result in 15 or more tests, and two more tests administered by the World Baseball Classic, since 2004. No one has identified what he tested positive for in 2003.
One can choose to take the player at his word. Perhaps he was the victim of a completely unregulated supplements industry. (And make no mistake: doctors have been saying for more than a decade that legal but poorly regulated supplements were loaded with steroids.)
Or one can say that Ortiz -- in his insistence that he never bought or used steroids -- committed an elaborate hoax in his press conference on Saturday. Ultimately, without the details of his test made publicly available, only Ortiz will know.
But it seems virtually certain that at some point, some player –- perhaps it is Ortiz, perhaps it will be someone else –- will have his reputation shattered unjustly without any definitive proof. Someone will be crushed for having used substances that were neither banned nor regulated by the federal government or Major League Baseball. Or, even worse, someone will see his reputation ruined by a report that has no basis in fact at all.
And that player -- or, more likely, those players -– will never have the opportunity to offer a defense before a verdict is rendered.
Does that exonerate players, the MLBPA and MLB for having failed to regulate steroids and PEDs earlier in the era of the inflatable slugger? Does that absolve the government of having failed to properly regulate a supplements industry run amok, or journalists of having ignored the glaring story of how chemicals were changing the game?
Of course not. Some players -- lots of players -- cheated. They looked for an edge, or at least, a means by which to keep up with the rest of a sport in which needles were prevalent.
But not everyone decided to jump on that train, even though some players were no doubt unwittingly run over by it. And until now, that fact has seemed almost irrelevant for anyone accused of using PEDs.
There was remarkable interest in rushing to judgment as soon as a report of use by a player came to the surface. Fans and members of the media took Ortiz’ silence as an act of desperation, and an admission of guilt –- particularly once reports circulated that players had been informed that the government was in possession of information about their positive tests.
Yet yesterday, Ortiz and Weiner both said that such reports were inaccurate. The Players Association, Weiner stated, never had access to information that would allow it to say whether a player did or did not test positive. Until the New York Times report on July 30, Ortiz suggested, he had never been told that he had tested positive.
While Ortiz wanted to gather facts before addressing the situation –- in part, according to Weiner, at the encouragement of the Players Association –- the public found such an approach to be wholly unsatisfactory, as if silence somehow eroded or even erased a presumption of innocence. The verdict (guilty! guilty!) was rendered far before the trial.
Many refused to give Ortiz a few days, or a week, or 10 days to address a report with the potential to shatter everything he’d accomplished in his Red Sox career. Legal processes offer such protections (the right to remain silent, opportunities to examine evidence in full before trials, etc.).
In this instance –- whether Ortiz was or was not guilty of willfully using PEDs –- the court of public opinion offered no such protections. Even if the Times' report had been entirely wrong, and Ortiz had not tested positive, there are some who would never look at him the same way.
Again, based on currently available information, only Ortiz truly knows whether or not he used. It is up to everyone else to judge his denials.
For the sake of fairness, however, one can only hope that such judgments are rendered more carefully going forward than they have been up to this point. Players deserve the time and opportunity to prove their innocence and salvage their reputations. Ortiz was given neither.