For all his might, David Ortiz feels the weight of “millions of people out there who believe I used steroids at some point in my career.’’
Haters haunt him on Twitter. Opposing fans taunt him. One day, he found himself in the heartbreaking position of explaining to his young son the chants of “Steroids! Steroids!’’
As he approaches the twilight of an indelible career, Ortiz bears a scarlet asterisk on his résumé for his discomfiting role in baseball’s struggle early this century to kick its addiction to performance-enhancing drugs.
In 2009, six years after every major leaguer was granted confidentiality to participate in a “suspicionless’’ drug-testing survey, the privacy agreement was selectively violated and Ortiz became one of four players who were exposed as having failed the 2003 screening. Nearly 100 others failed and remain anonymous.
The stigma has stuck to Ortiz like pine tar, scarring his legacy, and threatening to play keep-away with his dream of reaching baseball’s Hall of Fame, which has yet to honor a player formally linked to performance enhancers.
“If one day I’m up for the Hall of Fame and there are guys who don’t vote for me because of that, I will call it unfair,’’ he said in a lengthy interview in the Red Sox clubhouse in Fort Myers.
Ortiz is a cheater in the eyes of many. They care little that he has not failed a test since Major League Baseball officially launched a drug screening program in 2004. He remains hostage to the taint of ’03, before there were rules to enforce.
The older Ortiz has gotten, the more skeptics have wondered. Is he longevity’s gift to baseball? Is there something remarkable about his approach to designated hitting that has enabled him to outperform nearly every other great DH in his late 30s?
Or is it suspicious that only seven players in baseball history hit more home runs at age 38 than the 35 Ortiz hit last season? Three of those players are Hall of Famers: Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Frank Thomas. Three others hit in the steroid era: Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Steve Finley. And one was an outlier, Darrell Evans, who became the oldest player ever to lead the American League in home runs when he hit 40 for the Detroit Tigers in 1985.
Ortiz swears he plays clean. He wants history to show he has done his best work in the past decade, when drug testers have surprised him day and night, in season and out of season, at ballparks and private homes in Massachusetts and his native Dominican Republic, to draw blood, none of which has tested positive for a banned substance.
Ortiz and his supporters believe he was unjustly smeared, that he became an unwitting victim of a breach of trust perpetrated in part by the criminal justice system.
The betrayal began with federal agents defying the privacy agreement between baseball players and owners in 2004 by seizing the ’03 test results in their pursuit of Bonds and others in the BALCO scandal.
Five years later, a US appeals court declared the seizures unconstitutional. But the ruling came too late for Ortiz.
Less than a month earlier, the New York Times reported that unidentified lawyers familiar with the seized records had cited Ortiz and his former Boston bash brother, Manny Ramirez, as having failed the tests.
To this day, Ortiz seethes.
“The way they pointed a finger at me, it was very [messed] up,’’ he said.
Confident about 2003 testing
When the saga started in 2003, Ortiz was a marginal major leaguer, fearful at age 27 that he never would establish himself as an everyday player. He joined the Red Sox that February as a Minnesota Twins castoff, a would-be slugger with a thin résumé and a lot to prove.
The drug testers were close behind.
Baseball was in crisis. Steroid use seemed rife, and performance enhancers were readily available, perhaps nowhere more conveniently than over the counter in the loosely regulated pharmacies of Ortiz’s native country.
Ortiz was a regular at those drug stores, though he insists he never knowingly bought steroids.
Nine days before he arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., he was crowned the Most Valuable Player of the Caribbean World Series for leading his Dominican team to the title. In the following years, at least five members of that Dominican club, including Ortiz, would be publicly linked to performance enhancers.
“I was taking whatever supplements were good at the time, stuff that everybody was using that would sustain me in my workouts,’’ he said.
Which supplements? The substance that triggered his positive test result has yet to be identified.
“It’s been a long time,’’ Ortiz said. “I don’t know.’’
He must have a clue, he was told. He had previously stated he was “careless’’ about the products he put in his body.
“All I can tell you is, I was using what everybody was using at the time,’’ Ortiz said. “It’s not like I was picky about it.’’
In a first-person story that was published Thursday on Derek Jeter’s website, ThePlayersTribune.com, Ortiz elaborated on his inability to identify the substance for which he tested positive.”
“I called my agent and asked what was going on,’’ Ortiz wrote. “He didn’t have any answers for me. I called the MLB Players’ Association and they didn’t have any answers for me. To this day, nobody has any answers for me. Nobody can tell me what I supposedly tested positive for. They say they legally can’t, because the tests were never supposed to be public.”
Ortiz knew he would be tested that spring. Players and owners, under fire from Congress, had agreed to confidential screens of every major leaguer to gauge the scope of steroid use in baseball.
“I believed I had nothing to be afraid of,’’ Ortiz said. “I never thought I could buy anything over the counter that would get me in trouble.’’
Only later did he learn that his legally available supplements may have contained ingredients such as androstenedione, which had been banned by numerous sports at the time but not by baseball.
Ortiz would not want to be remembered as having used “andro,’’ the compound that a muscled-up Mark McGwire famously credited with helping him hit 70 home runs in 1998. Baseball banned the substance in 2004.
Nor would Ortiz want to be known for ingesting nandrolone, a steroid that several medical specialists said may have caused some positive tests in 2003 for players using over-the-counter supplements. Nandrolone has been linked to purported doping cheaters such as Bonds. It also was outlawed by baseball in ’04.
Springing a leak
Ortiz understood the gravity of the 2003 screening because the major league players union advised members that if at least 5 percent of their tests came back positive, then they all would be subject in 2004 to strict screening and penalties.
Despite the advance notice, nearly 100 players — more than 5 percent — failed. The results were filed away, presumably never to be released, and Ortiz fast became Big Papi, one of the game’s most feared hitters.
From the moment he stopped languishing behind Jeremy Giambi on the Sox bench in 2003, Ortiz went on an epic tear, averaging nearly 38 home runs and 128 RBIs a year through 2007, not including his monstrous postseasons en route to World Series victories in ’04 and ’07.
The slugging binge earned him big paydays, endorsement deals, and a book contract. In 2007, he published, “Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits,’’ with Tony Massarotti. But his book made no mention of performance enhancers, even though everyone who failed the 2003 drug tests had been informed of the results by the players union in 2004, according to former Senator George J. Mitchell’s landmark report on steroids in baseball.
Ortiz’s secret still seemed safe when he decided during spring training in 2009 to take a strong stance against performance enhancers.
Several steroid stories were popping at the time. Sports Illustrated had identified Alex Rodriguez as having failed the 2003 screening. Miguel Tejada, one of Ortiz’s teammates on the 2003 Caribbean team, had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about steroids. And a Dominican trainer, Angel Presinal, who had been banned by baseball after customs agents allegedly caught him with a bag of steroids, had been linked to many major leaguers, Ortiz among them.
Ortiz said he merely trained with Presinal and had done nothing wrong. Then he called for a crackdown on drug cheats.
“I would suggest everybody get tested — not random, everybody,’’ Ortiz told reporters. “You go team by team. You test everybody three, four times a year.’’
Cheaters should be suspended a full season for their first offense, he said, rather than the 50-game penalty that was in effect.
“If I test positive by using any kind of substance, I know I’m going to disrespect my family, the game, the fans and everybody, and I don’t want to be facing that situation,’’ Ortiz said.
But he suggested that anyone who tested positive before the disciplinary program began in 2004 should be exempt from penalties. In other words, he would grant himself clemency.
The irony came into sharp relief less than five months later when the Times exposed Ortiz and Ramirez as having failed the 2003 tests. Former Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa was named in a similar leak.
The 2003 records have since been destroyed under a court order, and no one has identified the lawyers who leaked Ortiz’s name. Nor have inquiries by the players union and Major League Baseball determined why the leakers specifically targeted Ortiz and Ramirez.
Ortiz suspects he was the victim of a New York-based scheme aimed at diverting attention from doping scandals involving the Yankees. The New York media had focused intensely at the time on those scandals, the coverage exemplified by a Times book review that appeared several days before the paper broke its story about Ortiz and Ramirez.
Under the headline, “Damn Yankees,’’ the author, Touré, wrote, “Why do Yankee fans still love the Yanks? The team has embarrassed its supporters by leading the league in steroid scandals — thanks, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez.’’
Ortiz smelled a rat.
“The way [the leak] went down, the only thing I can think of is that it was a setup,’’ he said. “I really think they wanted to do damage to my image so it would be a distraction.’’
Was it the Yankees?
“I don’t know, but it was something based in New York,’’ he said. “That’s all I can tell you.’’
Taking supplements, passing tests
Ortiz still uses high-potency, over-the-counter supplements, most recently, he said, on recommendations from Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli.
He keeps the pills stocked near his locker.
“As athletes, we need supplements because that’s the only way you can live through the season,’’ Ortiz said.
The supplements include Boss 24/7, whose manufacturer claims its proprietary formula has been tested by NSF International, an independent certification group, and contains no substances banned by Major League Baseball.
Ortiz said he has passed numerous drug tests since he began using the product last year. He was screened most recently when a tester paid a surprise visit to his home in the Dominican Republic at 7:30 a.m. one day in early February.
“They chase me everywhere,’’ he said. “There is not a player in baseball who has been drug-tested more than David Ortiz, I guarantee that.’’
How can he be sure?
First, he said, because he is among a small minority of marquee players who have remained active since 2004, when the testing began. Also, because whenever testers arrive to take “random’’ samples from the Sox, he said, he invariably is tested.
His teammate, Shane Victorino, corroborated Ortiz’s account.
“It’s true,’’ Victorino said, “and it doesn’t seem fair.’’
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred declined interview requests to discuss Ortiz’s claim as well as his complaints about the privacy breach and his legacy.
Ortiz now finds himself in the unusual position of professing great faith in baseball’s drug screening program. While he considers himself a victim of a testing protocol gone awry in 2003, he embraces today’s screening as his best hope of protecting what’s left of his reputation.
“I actually would love them to drug-test me every day because I have nothing to hide,’’ Ortiz said. “My conscience is clean.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.