In Boston this week, a patchwork collection of athletes with grimy beards and dirt-caked knees had the remarkable strength to elevate a city torn by tragedy.
A baseball season that began with the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing ended with the magic of a Boston Red Sox world championship.
When the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals and clinched a title at swaggering, swooning Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years, you really wanted to believe this was another example of Boston Strong.
But, sadly, it is completely fair to wonder if the biggest part of this strength is real.
His name is David Ortiz, and for the last week he has been an enigmatic mixture of beauty and baggage.
At age 37, five years after his power seemingly began declining, four years after he finished a full season hitting .238, Ortiz became the World Series MVP after putting on an October hitting show for the ages.
He was unstoppable. He was unbelievable. Seemingly every swing brought chills, the ball appearing to shoot off his bat like a Roman candle, his .688 batting average and .760 on-base percentage the second-highest numbers in World Series history.
He reached base 19 times in 25 plate appearances, the second-highest total in history. He also became only the second player to reach base at least three times in five consecutive World Series games. After a throwback regular season in which he had his most RBIs in six years and second-most home runs during that time, Ortiz became the third-oldest player to win the series MVP award.
In the end, it became clear there was really only one thing his 2013 bat could not obliterate, that being the question of whether he was doing this cleanly.
It is the lingering curse of baseball’s steroid era that every aging player who suddenly puts up superhuman numbers is worthy of a closer look, but Ortiz is under an even stronger microscope because he has acknowledged association with the scandal.
According to a 2009 New York Times report, Ortiz was on a list of more than 100 major league players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during baseball’s initial survey test in 2003, three years before the establishment of baseball’s drug policy.
Ortiz later confirmed his appearance on the list, yet claimed he tested positive because he was using allowed supplements, echoing the future defense of another guy on that list named Manny Ramirez.
In his many tests since then, Ortiz has never tested positive. Baseball has since become the first major sports league to even test for human growth hormone, and Ortiz has never flunked.
Yet this summer’s Biogenesis scandal, in which 13 players were suspended without a positive test, showed that players are still one syringe ahead of the drug enforcers. And if one can’t imagine Ortiz leading a team to a big series win while playing dirty, well, it wouldn’t even be the first time in the last three years.
In 2011, Ryan Braun led the Milwaukee Brewers to a thrilling National League division series win over the Arizona Diamondbacks with a .500 batting average, .571 on-base percentage and .889 slugging percentage.
Also during this series he involuntarily peed in a cup, his urine tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and many lies later, he was given a 65-game suspension.
Here’s hoping this doesn’t happen here. Here’s hoping the wonderful 2013 Ortiz saga does not end up in the ruins of the 1998 home run chase.
The smiling giant carried his Red Sox not only with his bat — his teammates hit a combined .169 in the series — but also with his spirit. His dugout pep talk in the middle of Game 4 inspired them to win that game and never lose again. Heck, he carried them into the World Series, as his struggling American League Championship Series performance contained a Game 2 series-altering grand slam. With three rings and the highest career batting average in World Series history added to his luminous regular-season numbers, Ortiz may have just earned his plaque in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Here’s hoping it sticks. Here’s hoping Boston Strong stays strong. Here’s wishing the baseball owners and players could have agreed to keep it strong.
Because of baseball’s sordid drug history, the game should treat its world champions like the officials at the Olympics treat their medalists. All are immediately tested for drugs, and the results of those tests are often known before the end of the Games.
The Red Sox should not have been allowed to touch a drop of champagne until they had each been tested. The timing stinks, but it would be one way to rid baseball of the remaining stench of drug cynicism. If nothing else, baseball needs to be able to say its champions are clean.
But it can’t, so it won’t, so we’ll continue to wonder about the wonder that is David Ortiz. It’s not fair, but it’s baseball, the sport of ghosts, the Boston Red Sox battling them still.