We all saw the report, most likely on espn.com’s front page: Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2003 season. I’m sure there were a number of reactions and emotions felt by his fans and detractors: anger, disappointment, schadenfreude (the pleasure felt in someone else’s misfortune). Honest to god, none of these emotions hit me as I read this report. All I felt was a sort of cynical confirmation of what I’d already been at least been considering: David Ortiz was just another power hitter using steroids to help him hit. I remember thinking “well, just look at him. Couldn’t you tell?” And you have to understand, David Ortiz is a sports superstar. He is one of the most beloved athletes in Boston sports history. To see his accomplishments so quickly tainted and torn down should have produced more of a reaction in me. And yet, simply put, the didn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to care. This is not to say I forgive his actions: what he did was shameful. Nor do I think the classy manner in which he’s handled himself since this came out should soften our criticism of him and his decisions: they were still wrong. But David Ortiz is a symptom of a problem in professional baseball, not the cause, and it’s had an effect on baseball fans (or at least me) that I don’t think anyone thinks about: it has made us deeply cynical about the athletes we used to worship.
I’ve always felt that people like sports for the same reason they like superheroes: they like seeing people do things that they themselves cannot do. They seek perfection or the closest thing to it, and sports are about nothing if not honing one’s body to as close to physical perfection as humanly possible. We’ll in all likelihood never see a person fly unaided or lift up a car, but we CAN see someone hit a baseball 450 ft, throw a football 100 yards, or jump several feet into the air to dunk a basketball or spike a volleyball. And since that’s as good as it will get, we allow it to meet our need to seek out perfection. I think the steroid era has affected how we look at sports and athletes and made us cynical about them. We know longer see these players as athletes honing their bodies to perfection in order to go as far as the human body is capable of going. Now we see them as normal people trying to take shortcuts such as steroids to enable them to get ahead, most likely in pursuit of something as base as money. And that’s sad. David Ortiz still has my support, but I don’t think I can look at him with the sense of awe and respect that I used to in previous years. In recent games, he’s shown he can rise above these allegations and still be an excellent baseball player. And this may be true. But he will no longer be godly. And that fall from grace is the real tragedy of the steroids era of baseball.