In light of the recent New York Times article claiming that both Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz appear on the 2003 list of performance-enhancing drug users, I'm left with a strange feeling of emptiness.
I feel as though I should be angrier.
Perhaps I should feel more outraged or indignant. Maybe I should demand proof or dismiss all allegations as heresy or slander with malicious intent.
But instead, I find myself numb. The outing of Manny is, by definition, not surprising since Ramirez just recently returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers after serving a 50-game suspension for the use of PEDs.
But Ortiz? That's our Big Papi, the savior of Boston baseball. If we believe in anything in this town, we believe in the power of Big Papi. Now what do we believe?
Here's what I think. I think, despite what we might tell ourselves, we all knew this was coming eventually. Not because we necessarily suspected Ortiz of bending the rules but because it was our biggest fear. Just as nobody spoke of a potential injury to Tom Brady before last season for fear that lending voice to such a thing would bring it to light, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Red Sox fan who, when the allegations and revelations came out about Alex Rodriguez and Manny, would have said, "I wonder if Ortiz is on the list."
It was, quite literally, the fear that dare not speak its name.
But now it's out there, and I find myself a little bit conflicted about it. I may be a sports writer, but I'm a fan first, and that's where this becomes hard. I've never claimed to be anything other than an unapologetic Red Sox homer, born and bred in New England. I can't separate that from the fact that it's sometimes my job to write about professional athletes and the messes they find themselves in, on the field and off. But neither one of these things makes me feel any better about this. Perhaps the worst part is that I feel like I already knew it, and I knew that someday I'd have to tackle this issue.
I have heard some Yankee fans claim that they were never that surprised or hurt when A-Rod was named as a PED user, primarily because they've never considered him one of "their guys." We know New Yorkers' relationship with Rodriguez is complicated, to be sure. This just exacerbated the distance the fans already felt from their superstar player whom they'd long held at arms' length.
Yankee fans claim they'd feel differently if they heard the same news about Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, and I think that's probably true. The tendency to distance oneself and his/her team from the person cheating the system is a natural one.
In Boston, we did that with Ramirez. "Sure," we'd say, "Manny might've used PEDs, but he's not our problem anymore." No one wants to acknowledge the connection.
With Ortiz, it's different. He is one of ours, perhaps the most iconic one. True, he didn't come up through our farm system, but in a sense, we do feel like we made him. Minnesota didn't want him anymore, and Theo Epstein grabbed him off the scrap heap. Soon after, the Legend of Big Papi was born.
Distancing ourselves from him now would seem disingenuous. This is not an A-Rod situation. We've embraced Ortiz from the beginning. What are we supposed to do now? Especially when we admit to ourselves, in our heart of hearts, that we always had an inkling that this day was coming, particularly early in the season when Ortiz was struggling mightily and couldn't get the ball out of the infield. The whispers about possible PED use started around that time.
Then, just like that, he got an eye exam, some new contacts, and he was back to his old self. Or was he? I guess we'll never know. Ortiz, by and large, is a less inflammatory character than Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, or even Ramirez, to be sure. As such, he's never been as big a target in the sense that people seemed less inclined to want to tear him down. But a megawatt smile and the fact that you seem to be a gregarious and generous guy, happy to speak to the media and to genuinely love playing baseball doesn't put you above suspicion.
So what are our options now, as fans?
There's the disgraced superstar route: We could shame Ortiz, turn our backs on him and cut all ties, booing him every time he comes to bat. But that doesn't seem realistic. I was at the game on Wednesday night. When Ortiz was sent in as a pinch hitter for Jed Lowrie, the entirety of Fenway got to its feet.
We love David Ortiz. Most of us still will despite these allegations. There are children who have come of age in New England over the past six years who don't know a Red Sox team without David Ortiz anchoring the lineup. So turning on him seems unrealistic. It also seems unfair considering all he's given us.
True, some of that is now in question, but the fact remains that David Ortiz provided Red Sox baseball with some much-needed energy, and for that, we can always be grateful.
On the other hand, it's unlikely and perhaps irresponsible to just continue as though nothing has happened. Those same children are now facing a painful truth about the fallibility of their hero.
Presumably, Ortiz will have to address this at some point in the near future, and we can't just ignore it and put our blinders on, proceeding with the status quo. That does no one any good.
Yes, sports are a departure and a distraction for most of us in what is too often a difficult world, but every now and then reality seeps in. Heroes make mistakes. Superstars fail. The good guys don't always win.
As much as sports are about triumph and vindication, they are equal measures sadness and heartbreak. Anyone who lived through 2003 knows that only too well.
That said, perhaps in a situation like this, when the integrity of one of our favorite players is called into question, the best we can do is think about it, discuss it, decide whether these allegations change our memories of both the good and bad times and perhaps realize that sports heroes really are just men after all. Men who should be held accountable for their actions absolutely – both good and bad – but still men.
Maybe this is a lesson for us. No matter how high you elevate someone, there's always room to fall. And perhaps we can get back to rooting for the laundry.
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