Ortiz folds under pressure

David Ortiz is the best clutch hitter in baseball, a slugger whose success under pressure led the Boston Red Sox to five playoff appearances and two World Series titles in the last six seasons.

Ortiz came up in another pressure situation Saturday at Yankee Stadium. But this time he whiffed.

Ten days after the New York Times reported Ortiz's name was on the list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, 10 days after pledging not to "hide" or "make excuses," Ortiz essentially did both.

Rather than coming clean, Ortiz took the easy way out, blaming the test results on nutritional supplements and vitamins he bought over the counter.

Rather than keeping his promise to reveal what he tested positive for, Ortiz took cover behind Michael Weiner, the top lawyer for the players' association, who said the union cannot give out that information.

How convenient.

"I definitely was a little bit careless back in those days when I was buying supplements, vitamins over the counter. Legal supplements, legal vitamins over the counter," Ortiz said. "But I never buy steroids or use steroids."

And what were the supplements he bought, legally and over the counter?

"No idea," he said.

Well, whatever they were, they sure worked. Because the year before Ortiz failed his drug test, he was released by the Minnesota Twins after two seasons in which he combined to hit 38 homers and drive in 123 runs. In each of the three seasons after testing positive, Ortiz hit no fewer than 41 homers and drove in at least 137 runs.

That proves nothing, of course. But then neither did Ortiz's news conference, during which he repeatedly admitted to being "clueless," "careless" and "confused."

Which still left him more forthcoming than Weiner, whose lawyerly explanations and accompanying two-page news release made it clear the union will never agree to release the names of players who failed baseball drug tests in 2003, as several prominent players and managers have requested.

He even quibbled with the number of names on the list, saying there were no more than 83 positive tests in 2003. Baseball released a competing statement that said there were as many as 96 positive tests. And the government list the New York Times cited, compiled following a federal raid on baseball's drug-testing companies five years ago, reportedly contains 104 names.

It's a list the union wants back to hold under lock and key forever.

Three U.S. District Court judges have sided with the union, calling on the government to return the material it seized. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and in December an 11-judge panel heard further arguments.

A ruling is pending, but the case could eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, all Weiner's spin and subterfuge and legal sleight of hand does is muddy the waters even further while delaying baseball's day of reckoning with the steroid era. Because the list will come out. And wouldn't it be better for everyone if the names were released all at once, with the proper caveats and explanations, rather than being leaked one by one -- "a slow poison," one agent said -- with the union fighting to keep even the players from knowing what they tested positive for?

Ortiz's story, for example, is plausible since many common over-the-counter substances available in 2003 could have triggered a positive test.

Also supporting his story is the fact Ortiz says he's been tested 17 times since then without failing.

But as long as the players' association fights to keep private the facts Ortiz needs to defend himself, his story will be met with the same doubt and derision as the explanations provided by Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and the finger-pointing Rafael Palmeiro.

So many liars and cheats have gone before him that, without some evidence, we just can't believe Big Papi, no matter how sincere he seems or how often he smiles.

The union's stance may eventually win in the court of law, but right now it's being routed in the court of public opinion. And that's the one that ultimately counts most. Just ask O.J. Simpson.

So as long as baseball and the union fight to keep the names of the guilty secret, the innocent will continue to operate under a cloud of suspicion. Have a career year and you'll be rewarded, not with congratulations, but with accusations. And pity anybody who had a good year in 2003.

The steroid genie can't be put back in the bottle. Players used, records fell and the game moved on. Judging from the cheers Ramirez received last month when he returned from his 50-game drug-related suspension -- and from the ones Ortiz received last week -- the public has moved on as well.

Now it's time for baseball and its union to do the same. The fans and the game seem ready to forgive. If only we knew whom to forgive and what to forgive them for.



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