Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 29, 2015

Big Papi Strikes Out

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz had reportedly promised to contribute to The Players’ Tribune since the website started by retired Yankee captain Derek Jeter went live last October. Earlier this month, when a member of the Tribune’s small staff saw Ortiz at spring training in Fort Myers, the two talked about Ortiz’s long-simmering resentment at being suspected of using performance enhancing drugs.

Five years ago the New York Times reported that Ortiz was one of the 104 players who tested positive for banned substances in 2003. That was the year baseball conducted drug testing without any penalties and with supposed anonymity to determine whether enhanced screening was required. The result of the conversation, published Thursday on the website under the title “The Dirt,” was a nearly 2,400 word profanity-laced screed in which Ortiz denounces those who suspect him of cheating, says he didn’t know he had failed the 2003 test until six years later, claims he has been tested more than 80 times in the past decade, vilifies an unnamed but readily identifiable Boston Globe reporter, and promotes his own candidacy for the Hall of Fame.

Since it went live last fall Jeter’s website has produced numerous entertaining and frequently insightful articles under the bylines of athletes from across the sports spectrum. As fans learned in the coverage of the Ortiz column, and likely to no one’s surprise, the pieces are generally not actually penned by the athlete. Rather a Tribune staff person engages the star in a conversation about the chosen subject matter, offering up the occasional question to keep the words flowing. Once the original conversation has been recorded the staff, ideally with minimal editing, puts it into the form of a first-person essay which is subject to the athlete’s final approval. In an interview with the New York Times the Tribune’s editorial director Gary Hoenig said that Jeter himself reads and comments on every article before it’s published.

The concept has obvious appeal to athletes who in exchange for often great wealth and the opportunity to make a living playing games live their lives subject to the constant scrutiny of both mainstream and new media outlets. No matter the sport, every player who has ever felt misquoted or believed some comment was reported out of context surely welcomes the chance to connect directly with fans in their own (more or less) words. Since it began The Players’ Tribune has published fascinating accounts by Matt Harvey on his recovery from Tommy John Surgery, by Danica Patrick on being a female in a testosterone-fueled sport and being in a relationship with a competitor to boot, and by Andrew McCutchen on the myriad challenges faced by low-income children hoping to play baseball, to cite but a few.

Given the high quality of the website, it’s unfortunate that the Ortiz rant, which quickly went viral, has become one of The Player’s Tribune’s most widely read pieces. Unfortunate, and yet also inevitable; for if the piece by Big Papi illustrates the power of athletes communicating directly to fans it also reminds us of the important role that the normal media filter plays. For even as fans clicked over to peruse Ortiz’s words, both traditional and new media outlets were responding.

Lisa Swan, writing on her Subway Squawkers blog, was one of the first to point out numerous factual errors by Ortiz. While Major League Baseball won’t reveal how often players are tested, she noted that ESPN has reported that there are fewer than 500 tests in total each season, and that Ortiz himself claimed in 2009 that he had been tested 15 times since 2003. If Ortiz is to be believed one must accept that he’s been asked to pee into a cup much more frequently of late. Of course as other outlets reminded fans, that would only be true, and even then not at the frequency Ortiz suggests, if he had tested positive and was subject to the enhanced testing aspects of MLB’s anti-drug program.

The Boston Globe’s Eric Wilbur mocked Big Papi’s supposed surprise at the 2009 news that he was on the list of positive results from 2003. Wilbur points out that earlier that year he had responded to a question on the issues from a New York Times reporter with “I’m not talking about that anymore.” It’s also a fact that everyone who tested positive during 2003 was so informed by the players union.

Ortiz recounts a 2013 locker room interview with “the reporter with the red jheri curl from the Boston Globe,” writing that by the end of it he “wanted to kill this guy.” The Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy responded with an “open letter” column on Saturday. After pointing out that his hair is neither permed nor red, Shaughnessy offered a startlingly different account of the interview. The Globe writer recalled Ortiz giving “thoughtful answers to hard questions;” and inquiring about Shaughnessy being “banned at Fenway,” a reference to his coauthoring former Red Sox manager’s Terry Francona’s book, which was then on the best seller list. “We had a laugh about it and you took a selfie with me,” writes Shaughnessy. If Ortiz wanted to kill him, he was exhibiting remarkable self-control.

David Ortiz is as loved as any athlete in New England. Patrice Bergeron has his following. Rob Gronkowski is widely liked, and Tom Brady is admired and respected. But the emotion for many fans toward Ortiz is something stronger, a heartfelt tie to Big Papi with the gap-toothed smile. But while this won’t likely change that relationship for most fans, it surely does nothing to promote such a carefully cultivated image. The most accurate sentence in “The Dirt” is when Ortiz addresses his doubters, acknowledging the likelihood that “there is nothing I can say to convince you different.” That only raises the obvious question, why make such a flawed attempt to do so?

The Players’ Tribune will continue to offer an opportunity for athletes to communicate directly with fans, and there is great value in that. But the filter of the media has its own time-honored value, in checking the facts, asking tough questions, and not allowing half-truths or outright falsehoods to gain acceptance.

One of the website’s conceits is to affix mainstream media titles to the athletes who contribute. Ortiz is listed as a contributing editor for “The Dirt.” For his piece on recovering from surgery Matt Harvey is the New York City bureau chief, and Patrick and McCutchen are senior editors. No doubt publishing Ortiz’s rant seemed like a good idea at the time. But this is one case where a real editor would have killed the story before it ever saw the light of day.

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