As I write this, Fenway Park is still reverberating with the aftermath of the first home run by David Ortiz this season.
"David Ortiz to deep center field!" Don Orsillo bellowed, nearly choking on the words after Papi connected. The ball floated over straightaway center, dropping just over the wall in front of the cameras in center field. "Has he done it? HE HAS!"
Papi's teammates could barely give him the silent treatment when he came back to the dugout - it lasted all of three seconds before they swarmed him.
"Everybody and their brother was blowing on that ball to get out of here," said the Eck as Papi popped his head up over the dugout roof for a curtain call.
In the sweet aftermath of that moment, the relief was overwhelming. Relief for Tito, who smacked Papi on the ass with all his might, grinning and hollering in delight. Relief, of course, for Papi, whose face has been more and more uncharacteristically grief-stricken with every at-bat. Relief for myself and the rest of the fans who have cheered him all along.
Just before Jason Bay cranked the third home run of the inning, the cameras showed Papi approach Tim Wakefield at his post on one of the dugout steps, and nestle himself under Wake's right arm. Wake patted him on the shoulder and they bowed their heads together, deep in excited conversation. My heart melted into a puddle of liquid goo.
But it was Josh Beckett, a few seats down from Wakefield, who pointed out the cloud within this admittedly delicious silver lining. As Mike Lowell returned from tattoing another monster shot off the 22-year old Toronto Blue Jays rookie on the mound, if I read his lips correctly, Beckett said, "this kid fuckin' sucks."
And it's true. Brett Cecil was the definition of "lit up" tonight, gulping and gasping like Buccholz during one of last year's panic attacks between hanging meatballs. If you'd told me two years ago that we'd be so overjoyed after Papi barely cleared the wall off a pitcher like this, I'd have told you to shut your mouth.
Even if he'd hit it onto Lansdowne Street off of an ace in his prime, one home run doesn't mean that Papi is cured. I hope, and hope very hard, that this is the beginning of his turnaround. But that will depend on his next at-bat, and the next one after that...
This was a joyous reprieve from the worry about Ortiz that's been hanging over Boston like a looming thunderhead, split by lightning flashes of the news about Papi's former compadre the West Coast and growing darker with every 0-fer effort this year. Regardless of what happens from here, the issue of steroids will still linger over our iconic slugger, maybe forever.
It feels like it has become necessary to pick a stance on this, and there seem to be two camps to choose from. Those who are presuming already that he took steroids, at least up until baseball stepped up its testing program in 2005, maybe for a time after that (presumably the better to hit 50 homers in 2006), and is now struggling without them.
Then there's the second camp, the one that acknowledges the realities of the Steroid Era, but for now is hesitant to come to any conclusion on the issue without further evidence. To some, that's denial. To others, that's loyalty.
Are last year and the last six weeks for David Ortiz the result of a wrist injury from which he will now begin to recover? The inevitable sharp decline of a natural power hitter? Or the evidence that he juiced? We may never conclusively know.
And so right now, it's about what you want to believe. Papi has gotten smaller over the last couple of seasons. Is this because he has been trying to lose weight and be in better shape? Or because he stopped taking steroids?
His current slump could still be attributable to the lagging effects of his wrist injury, for which he had surgery in the off-season, and which at least one expert witness has testified could still realistically be affecting him. To which anyone convinced of steroid use could reply, but steroids can cause the same tissue changes as tendon injuries.
For the people in the first camp, if he gets better this year, that proves he's back on the juice. If he doesn't, it's proof that he definitely was before.
This is the biggest turnoff about all the pearl-clutching over steroids in recent years for me - the tendency for people to try and make players prove a negative. It simply can't be done.
So, for now, as long as it comes down to what I want to believe, I'm going to believe that which causes me to feel the least psychic agony.I realize that to talk about agony over steroids might seem contradictory after I said just a little while ago that the Manny revelation doesn't change how I view 2004. But there are differences when it comes to Papi.
For one thing, he still wears our uniform and most likely will for the rest of his career. With Manny playing for another team, we dodged the bullet of how to respond to this situation with one of our own. In Papi's case, it's more likely we could be confronted with the choice between knowingly supporting a juicer just because we like him so much, or turning our backs on principle to the one player I can't imagine giving up on.
Even if Manny still played for us, Papi would still be different. He's personal. I know the platitudes about rooting for the laundry, but David Ortiz singlehandedly taught us to believe in 2004. He noticed fans crying in the stands, and said so. Then, he went out and sealed the walkoff wins in games 4 and 5 that year. It felt like he was making a personal gesture, sending a personal message, to comfort us. In those moments, he became the face of a miracle. I know the platitudes about athletes not being role models, but Papi feels different.
Right now, there are times things don't look good. Times it feels like we're back in the middle of one of those five-hour October epics, but instead of the game's most dominating closer, Papi's up against the game's deepest problem. What it comes down to for me is that until and unless it's proven to be true, I'm going to keep chanting "Let's go, Papi." I'm going to keep hoping against hope that he'll be the one who teaches us to believe all over again.
If there's ever been a player who deserves that from me--from all of us-- it is David Ortiz.