Did David Ortiz Get Away With Cheating?

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This weekend, David Ortiz was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He earned election in January when he was the only player to capture as much as 75% of the vote in the annual election by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Ortiz is a larger-than-life figure, a cheerful man who, when he was between the lines, was often a happy big old slugger. The Dominican-born Ortiz was such a happy-go-lucky personality with a delightful “you da man” disposition that he even became the subject of parody on Saturday Night Live. He was the Chico Escuela of his generation.

From his days as a Minnesota Twin, when Ortiz was a moody platoon player who barely moved the needle of applause, Ortiz went to Boston where he transformed into “Santa Claus in Spikes,” a sort of television character of what many people think a Latin ballplayer is. He became Big Papi.

Most importantly to the ownership of the Red Sox, Oertiz was a key member of three World Championship teams. He pulled enough baseballs down the right field line or over the opposite field Green Monster to become a legend. And in April of 2013, following the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon, Ortiz became an indelible icon in the city after his famous “This is our fucking city” speech.

The Birth of Big Papi

No one can deny that David Ortiz became one of baseball’s most recognizable players, or that he delivered a slew of big hits to match his nickname. In the 2004 postseason he produced three walkoff hits in the postseason. Ortiz stacked up the numbers: 541 homers, 1,768 runs batted in, a .552 slugging percentage; that leaves him as the greatest Red Sox player in the minds of most members of Red Sox Nation, after Ted Williams.

But there’s a stain on the red sock. Ortiz’s legacy may seem unassailable in Massachusetts, but outside of the sycophants, there’s room for serious speculation about the methods for Big Papi’s success at the plate.

In 2003, Ortiz’s name was included on a list of players who failed performance-enhancing drug tests, as part of a voluntary survey by MLB. HIs teammate Manny Ramirez also was on the list, and continued to use steroids for years. Did Ortiz suddenly stop?

Ortiz has denied responsibility, sort of.

“We had someone coming out with this one list that you don’t know what anybody tested positive for,” Ortiz said early in 2022 after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. “All of the sudden, people are pointing fingers at me but then we started being drug tested and I never failed a test. What does that tell us?”

So, does that mean Ortiz DID take steroids before 2004, and that the 2003 test did find he used performance-enhancing drugs? Or is Big Papi claiming he may have failed a test for another substance than steroids or PEDs?

If Ortiz does not deny he failed a test in 2003, why not reveal what he was taking that triggered a positive test? Seems that would clear a lot of things up. If he was using something else, and he thinks that was what MLB found in the test, why not say so? If he was using PEDs in 2003 and before, why not admit it?

There are other head-scratching things about Ortiz’s career.

The Dominican Connection

As of June 30, 2022, 44% of all MLB players to be suspended for violation of the league’s PED policy have been Dominican. That’s 32 out of 73 players. Clearly, the tiny Caribbean nation has been haven to a lot of professional ballplayers who got their hands on steroids. Ortiz failed a test in 2003, before MLB was regularly testing and before he could be punished. Are we to assume he stopped in 2004, despite the fact that many players from his country kept using? How many Dominican ballplayers kept using after 2004 and were never caught? Was Ortiz one of the lucky ones? Or the smart ones?

Many Dominican-born MLB stars have been implicated: Robinson Cano (twice), Manny Ramirez (three times), Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Jhonny Peralta, Starling Marte, Aramis Ramirez, Neifi Perez, and Tony Batista.

Ortiz failed his test in 2003. Are we to believe he never tried steroids again? Or did he, like Robby Cano and his teammate (and close friend) Manny Ramirez, keep using. Did he have a better masking agent? Was he luckier?

Not every professional ballplayer from the Dominican Republic should be indicted because they were born there. But, the fact is clear: nearly half of all MLB players suspended under the PED policy have been from the Dominican. It serves as a circumstantial nugget, for sure.

There are performance reasons to wonder.

Where Was the Natural Late Career Decline?

In his final five seasons, Ortiz hit 163 home runs, an average of 33 per. His HR total in his last five seasons is exceeded by only four players in baseball history: Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, and Jermaine Dye. Both McGwire and Palmeiro used steroids. Belle was suspected, but it has never been proven and he may have been a clean player. Dye was never implicated. Of the ten highest HR totals by players in their last five seasons, six of the players were implicated or convicted of steroid use, and Ortiz is one of the other four.

In his final season, when he was 40 years old, “Big Papi” hit 38 home runs and slugged a league-leading .620 with a 1021 OPS, which also led the American League. No batter has ever hit that well in their final season (discounting years where players retired due to injury).

Was Ortiz just that good? Why didn’t he age out of the game? Why did he, alone among all the great clean sluggers in baseball history, keep on raking until his final day, until he was 40? Why did Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera age in their mid-to-late 30s, and lose a lot of bat speed and power, but Ortiz never seemed to? The only time a player has ever come close to what Ortiz did post-38 years old, was to be named Hank Aaron or use steroids.

I don’t know for a fact that Ortiz used steroids after 2003. You don’t either. Maybe only he knows the real truth. Maybe Ortiz used them up to 2003, and then stopped when MLB started their policy.

Or maybe he was like others in the game who kept defying the rules and finding more scientific ways to beat the system.

I know this: the circumstantial evidence, combined with the fact Ortiz did fail a PED test, lends me to suspect the former slugger quite a bit.

It leads me to also ask this question: why does Ortiz get a pass when others like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens do not? Clemens and Bonds never failed an MLB drug test, though we have lots of associates of the two that say both players purchased and used PEDs.

Maybe that’s why Big Papi gets his Big Day in Cooperstown: no person, no face we can see or name we know, has ever fingered him.

For that, Ortiz should be Big Happy.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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1 year ago

Thanks for the really good article on a topic that gets too little attention. The circumstances make me believe that PED penalties and Hall of Fame inductions are largely popularity contests. David Ortiz is universally liked and was a hero in a major baseball market, so he gets a pass while players with superior careers are held accountable.

Perhaps your less cynical take is more reasonable. With no witnesses willing to point a finger, Ortiz has plausible deniability – especially if you’re not clear on how stats trend when accompanied by natural aging.

If your article ever gets wider attention, prepare to be inundated with hateful messages (unless that’s already happened and they’ve been removed).