Steroids, Popularity and David Ortiz

It is no surprise that Alex Rodriguez is not popular at Fenway Park. He’s not really popular anywhere, and Boston fans in particular have never been very fond of the Yankees. Nevertheless, I was still a little surprised when the Yankees went into Boston a few weeks ago (June 9-11), and A-Rod was greeted with a pretty loud and forceful “You do steroids!” chant.

Now, as a Yankees fan, I’ve never had much respect for fans of the Red Sox, but this seemed beneath even them. To taunt an opposing slugger for juicing requires ignoring a pretty giant elephant in the room:

Boston fans jeering A-Rod for steroid use is kind of like FOX News complaining about bias in the media.

For those who have been living under a rock recently, David Ortiz, the clutchiest clutch hitter in the history of clutch, has been in quite a slump recently. And by “recently,” I mean the past year and a half. This year, his OBP is .313. His OPS has fallen almost 200 points from last year, when it fell about 200 points from 2007.

Of course, it’s not as if Ortiz has never experienced dramatic statistical shifts before. When he joined the Red Sox in 2003, his OPS shot UP 120 points, from .839 to .961. While he had never hit more than 20 home runs during any of his four seasons in Minnesota, he never hit fewer than 31 with Boston before last year. Between 2004 and 2006, he actually averaged over 47 a year.

Hmmm. If only there were some common explanation for statistical spikes in baseball during the past few decades…. If only there were some reason why moving to Boston would make power numbers jump up…. If only someone else from that team who Ortiz was close with would fail a drug test….

But no. David Ortiz is too great of a guy to have done steroids. After all, in spring training this year Ortiz came out so strongly in favor of more rigid testing. It’s not like anyone linked to steroids would ever come out so strongly against them.

The media’s reaction to Ortiz’s decline is a collective embarrassment. They are desperate to find some other explanation: Everyone knows Fenway is a hitter’s park… except that Ortiz’s power numbers during his 2004-06 heyday were always better on the road. Maybe Ortiz’s eyes are bad. Bill Simmons suggested in ESPN the Magazine that Ortiz is likely older than he claims he is: “Watching Papi flounder now, I’d believe he’s really 36 or 37 (not 33) before I’d believe PEDs are responsible.”

Nevermind that this explanation undercuts the most common reply to Ortiz’s statistical jump in 2003—that Ortiz was just heading into his prime at the age of 27. Nevermind also that a lot of Ortiz’s struggles have been attributed to last year’s wrist injury, an injury consistent with steroids causing increased muscle mass.

The fact is that Ortiz fits the profile of a steroid-user almost perfectly. But he has always had a great relationship with the press. He is responsible for some of baseball’s most memorable moments the last five seasons, mainly during the 2004 ALCS. He is not a jerk like Barry Bonds or a prima donna like A-Rod or a hothead like Roger Clemens. So the media isn’t vilifying him like it has done with those guys. Even when they do acknowledge the elephant in the room, as Simmons and Howard Bryant did, they lament the tragedy that they even have to consider the possibility before ultimately rejecting the ridiculous notion that Ortiz’s phenomenal, aberrant numbers may have been artificially produced.

The issue of steroids in baseball/professional sports is a complicated one—much more complicated than most people recognize. But this isn’t really about steroids, it’s about fairness. If we are going to condemn players based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay, we can’t do it selectively and we can’t assume that all the good guys are “clean.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the Jack Parkmans of the world who do steroids. We can’t just ignore it when our real-life Jake Taylors do it as well.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by janechong on June 21, 2009 at 1:22 PM

    “If we are going to condemn players based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay, we can’t do it selectively and we can’t assume that all the good guys are ‘clean.'”

    Seems to me that condemning players based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay can hardly be expected to be done non-selectively. And wouldn’t exactly be fairer if it were.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on June 21, 2009 at 1:50 PM

    John,

    You know I agree with you that the circumstances surrounding David Ortiz suggest some sort of performance enhancement. First, though, isn’t there a difference between players who have been caught cheating and those who just might be cheating? It’s not like it was Giants’ fans chanting at A-Rod.

    Second, where do we draw the line of skepticism? Guys such as Ortiz, Bret Boone, and–most fantastically–Brady Anderson, show significant evidence of rapid improvement. But that’s not the case with other convicted steroid users such as A-Rod or Manny. Those guys came into the league as good hitters and used steroids to become, well, slightly better hitters (which means they just managed to be more statistically discrete about it than Bonds).

    What other criterion can there be, then, besides seeing this rapid improvement? Ortiz has shown some physical signs, I suppose, but he was a pretty big guy in Minnesota. A-Rod and Manny didn’t explode like Bonds did.

    Along those lines, how do you evaluate players like Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard, who entered the league as home run hitters? Is it possible Pujols used steroids in the minors, and that’s how he jumped from 19 minor-league homers in 2000 to 37 his rookie season? Or why Howard went from 19 to 23 to 46 as a minor leaguer?

    Or must we be skeptical of any and all, much to the chagrin of the Raul Ibanezes of the world?

    Reply

  3. Posted by John S on June 21, 2009 at 2:28 PM

    First of all, let me reply to Jane….come on, these are professional athletes. When I say “condemn” here I’m not talking about sending them to the gulags or prison. We’re talking about maybe delaying admittance to the Hall of Fame for a couple of years. It’s a lower standard, yes, but it’s a harder thing to prove and the penalty is pretty harmless overall. Plus, nobody made these guys sign up.

    Now, Tim. You know my stance on steroids…. namely, that we shouldn’t be condemning ANYONE for using them–not A-Rod, not Bonds, not Ortiz–but if Boston is going to jeer A-Rod for using them, then they shouldn’t be offering Ortiz standing ovations for every sacrifice fly. I’m against the hypocrisy about the crime, not the crime itself.

    As for the line of skepticism, based on what we know now about Manny, et. al, I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable to assume that, if a guy hits a lot of home runs, then he has probably taken SOMETHING at some point. This is what I mean about steroids being a complicated issue… it shouldn’t be a binary between “users” and “nonusers” and we shouldn’t rush to pillory anyone who qualifies as the former. As always, there is nuance. But if we’re as disingenuous and biased as we tend to be about the Ortizes (and, admittedly, about the Pettittes and Giambis) of the world, it’s always going to be black-and-white.

    Reply

  4. […] S asked why we aren’t asking more questions about David Ortiz and steroids…well, The Big Lead and Jeff Pearlman of SI asks the same question about […]

    Reply

  5. […] the circumstantial evidence is not really there. Unlike some players, Pujols’ power numbers have been a model of consistency. While 2009 is shaping up to be his best […]

    Reply

  6. […] of the season, then cooled off dramatically, then picked it up a bit in September. David Ortiz had an atrocious first half, but has taken out the old syringe hitting stick and quietly become a power hitter again. Victor […]

    Reply

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