Rob Manfred says David Ortiz may not have taken banned substances in 2003

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Death. Taxes. Someone bringing up PEDs in the comments section whenever David Ortiz‘s name is mentioned. These are the only certainties in life. Rob Manfred just complicated that a little bit, however, by doing the closest thing he can probably do to issuing a pardon to Big Papi over his association with a positive drug test in 2003.

You’ll recall that, in 2003, players were subjected to non-disciplinary, putatively anonymous drug testing. The reason: per agreement with Major League Baseball, if a certain percentage of players tested positive for PEDs during this survey testing, binding, disciplinary testing would go into effect in 2004. More than the required percentage did and baseball’s drug testing regime was launched.

The results of those tests were to be destroyed. Overzealous law enforcement, however, seized the test results in a bungled and ultimately unsuccessful investigation and then, seemingly spitefully, leaked the IDs of at least three of the positive testers to the media. The names leaked: Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. All issued denials of various plausibility. Only Rodriguez later admitted a knowing use of PEDs at the time. Ortiz and Sosa have been tarred by it to varying degrees. Ortiz, of course, has taken far less of a hit to his reputation than either of the other two.

Now, on the occasion of Ortiz’s retirement, Commissioner Manfred has made a remarkable statement regarding that 2003 testing as it relates to Ortiz. He did it yesterday, on the occasion of Big Papi’s retirement ceremony. From the Boston Globe:

“There were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives. If in fact there were test results like that today on a player, and we tried to discipline them, there’d be a grievance over it, it would be vetted, tried, resolved,” said Manfred. “We didn’t do that. Those issues and ambiguities were never resolved because we knew they didn’t matter. We knew we had enough positives that everyone agreed on that we knew we were going to trigger the testing the following year . . . Even if Rob Manfred’s name was on that list, he might have been one of those 10 or 15 where there was probably or at least possibly a very legitimate explanation that did not involve the use of a banned substance . . . “it was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program, and certain banned substances.”

Manfred went on to say that Hall of Fame voters should not take the 2003 survey testing into account. He said that while testing positive under the current drug program is fair game for voters and their conscience, “what I do feel is unfair is in situations where it is leaks, rumors, innuendo, not confirmed positive test results, that that is unfair to the players. I think that would be wrong.”

This is remarkable statement from Manfred. Certainly for Ortiz, who was likely to face some pushback on his Hall of Fame case due to being a DH and, more importantly, due to his 2003 positive in the survey testing. Major League Baseball basically just told writers — who have long begged the commissioner for guidance on such matters — to ignore it and treat Ortiz as if he has a clean slate. I suspect voters will do so.

The bigger question is whether they will do the same for Sammy Sosa who, apart from the 2003 survey testing, which Manfred now says to discard, never tested positive for PEDs. Sosa, despite 609 career home runs and credit, at the time, for helping revitalize baseball in the wake of the 1994-95 strike, only got 7% of the vote this past season and will likely fall off the ballot after this year’s voting. I bet he would’ve liked Bud Selig or Rob Manfred to vouch for him like he just vouched for Ortiz.

Or how about Alex Rodriguez? While Rodriguez did eventually admit that he used banned substances around the time of the 2003 testing, how does Manfred’s statement yesterday square with how Major League Baseball treated Rodriguez during the Biogenesis investigation? Rodriguez was banned for a year despite the fact that Biogenesis represented his first violation under the drug agreement and, in the runup to it, MLB officials floated the idea of banning him for life. Part of the reason for that severity was for Rodriguez allegedly impeding the Biogenesis investigation, but the rhetoric surrounding it all at the time, at least from the media, was that Rodriguez was not a first time offender due to the 2003 tests.

So, yes, it is nice that Commissioner Manfred has effectively pardoned Ortiz over the survey testing. It’s the right thing to do for specifically the reasons Manfred states. But when will he say the same thing about Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez? And Will Hall of Fame voters and the public at large give them the same forgiving treatment for the 2003 tests that David Ortiz is receiving now?