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Thursday, May 21, 2009

"He's done-er than done." - Matthew Berry

I'll admit it, I'm unfairly picking on Matthew Berry because he's somebody I read and listen to consistently. So, clearly, I often agree with or benefit from his analysis. But in this instance he joins a whole chorus of journalists who have been so eager to declare Big Papi's six week slump evidence of a steep, inevitable decline, impossible for him to bounce back from. This declaration troubles and offends me, frankly.

Also, let me be clear, a 2-for-5 night with a homer doesn't necessarily mean that the slump is ended. Ortiz fans will need a couple more of these before they can show genuine relief. But it's a start.

What bothers me most about Ortiz's situation is the so-called "scarlet letter" of steroids, discussed here by Bill Reynolds, which is now being affixed to a player for whom there isn't really even circumstantial evidence. People will say that I'm in denial about the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. That's not true. I'm willing to concede their ubiquity. Which is part of why (and this is what really bothers people) I really don't care. I don't believe that steroids/PEDs are especially dangerous when taken by grown men of their own accord (for starters, check out the documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"). I don't think baseball should be held to a different standard than say the NFL or any other forum for professional athletics. I don't think that any substance diminishes or explains the exceptional talents of a Barry Bonds or a Manny Ramirez. I don't think baseball history is in any way tarnished, that is, any more tarnished, than it's been from any number of ball-playing assholes from Cap Anson to John Rocker. This is just another (very entertaining) episode in the sport's history, which, like American history, is filled with glorious imperfections.

But, back to Ortiz.

What bothers me about the treatment of Big Papi is that it is the most publicized instance of the trend towards explaining any drastic drop in production by insinuations about steroids. This is deeply ironic (or tragic, if you're a player) because now you can be presumed guilty if either a.) you are too productive in your mid to late thirties or b.) you are suddenly unproductive in your mid to late thirties. Basically, if you don't follow the loosely-defined "normal" career path, than you are fair game for "juicing" speculation.

Another issue here is Ortiz's physique. It used to be that steroid speculation was fueled by extraordinary physical changes. Either an eruption of muscles on a formerly slim(mer) player (Brady Anderson, Sammy Sosa, McGwire, etc.) or a sudden atrophy in the wake of more stringent testing (Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, etc.). As somebody who has experienced his share of drug-unrelated weight fluctuations, I have real problems with this hypothesis. Regardless, in Ortiz's case, no transformation is evident. In fact, he has exactly the build (insert favorite euphemism here) which we would expect for both a.) the kind of player who accumulates sizable home-run totals in the prime of their career (i.e. Cecil Fielder, Danny Tartabull, Dmitri Young, Matt Stairs, etc.) then drops off drastically as their immensity catches up with them (i.e. Cecil Fielder, Danny Tartabull, Dmitri Young, Matt Stairs, etc.).

Meanwhile, it has somehow become "naive" to blame some of Ortiz's struggles on his wrist injury. We should note, however, that the torn tendon sheath which sidelined Ortiz relatively briefly in 2008 has ended seasons for players like Nick Johnson, Billy Wagner, and, most recently, Rickie Weeks. Wrist injuries are notoriously difficult to recover from. Derrek Lee, for instance, has yet to display the power he showed prior to his disastrous injury in 2006. A wrist injury in 2003 limited Adrian Gonzalez to only 5 HR (in the minor leagues) that season and only 12 at AAA in 2004. Those are hardly the kind of power numbers you would expect for a player of his caliber at that level, which may be why he was traded twice (from the Marlins to the Rangers to the Padres) before he became the consistent 30+ HR threat he is today.

Might Ortiz have reached, at age 33, a point in his career where age and unfortunate injuries make him better suited to hit fifth or sixth, rather than third or fourth? Possibly. May he be prone to more slumps and perhaps even need to be benched against tough left-handers? Possibly. But then, the same can be said of Jim Thome and Ken Griffey Jr. Is there also the possibility that he might, like Carlos Delgado or Jason Giambi, make the purveyors of his "doneness" eat their words by stringing together several more prime (or, at least, semi-prime) seasons? Quite possibly.

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