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While the road to Red Sox deliverance from baseball’s most pathetic joke in 2012 to its most joyous resurrection in 2013 figures to lead to a wicked celebration in the coming hours, it seems worth pointing out that the road has been paved by a number of individual stories of redemption.
John Lackey, the World Series Game 6 starter Wednesday night, immediately comes to mind.
Yet in a different light, so does David Ortiz.
Twenty-four months, 18 months, even a year ago, Lackey was as welcome in Boston as head lice. He was a sore loser. Worse, he was a loser. He had a facial contortion for every misplay in the field, everything that went awry. The $82.5 million showered on Lackey in December 2009 was seen as money horribly spent. About the only thing that stopped Lackey from being surgically removed from the Red Sox like Josh Beckett and others was the Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Twenty-four, 18 months, a year later, John Lackey is as welcome in Boston as Tom Brady. More than a few talk-show jockeys have cobbled various forms of apologies and the radio waves have been clogged with callers revising their Lackey history. Some of it was Lackey’s fault, of course, especially the on-field reaction, the off-field irritability. Some of the circumstances surrounding his divorce won him no admirers. Yet the fact is, Lackey was hurt. And when he got healthy, he turned in a full season of consistent starts and congeniality.
By the time the World Series rolled around there, he was in Game 4 ready, willing and able to come out of the bullpen, throw a scoreless inning of relief after starting in Game 2, immediately resetting himself for what could be the second World Series-clinching start of his career and the first clinched by the Sox at Fenway Park since Sept. 11, 1918.
“It would be awesome,” said Lackey, who won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie for the Angels.
At the risk of sounding trite, the most miserable man in the world has taken that frown and turned it upside down. There are refreshing stories up and down the Red Sox lineup, guys likeDavid Ross, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes who have come from other teams and destroyed every notion that team chemistry doesn’t matter. There are the old reliables like Dustin Pedroiaand the young bucks like Xander Bogaerts. Yet in some way, nobody represents the 2012 glum gone 2013 plum like John Lackey.
“Everything in my life pretty much sucks right now,” Lackey said at one point in 2011.
“Everything in my life pretty much is awesome,” Lackey figures to say tonight.
Lackey has shown precious little of that nagging tetchiness of his previous years in Boston. His barbs are now delivered with a smile, not a sledgehammer. Even when the bait was thrown his way Tuesday at Fenway Park, when asked about the experts picking the Red Sox for last place again this year, Lackey did nothing but evoke a laugh.
“These days the word ‘expert’ gets thrown out way too much,” Lackey said. “We’re all experts. We had a great group of guys, great chemistry, you could feel from the start, had a lot of guys with some rings, have been on playoff teams. Our expectations were high.”
Nobody’s expectations are higher than Big Papi’s, and the higher they rise the more he has exceeded them. In a series where both lineups are begging for hits, Ortiz is hitting a beer-league softball 11-for-15. His OPS is 2.017, which, oh, p.s., is ridiculous. And just for good measure, he went Pacino in “Any Given Sunday” with a rousing dugout speech in Game 4.
“It was like 24 kindergartners looking up at the teacher,” Gomes said.
“We weren’t the Red Sox,” Daniel Nava said. “We were the Boston Ortizes.”
“The epitome of a superstar and a good teammate,” Jon Lester said.
“That’s why we call him ‘Cooperstown,’” David Ross said.
Those are powerful words from teammates.
Ortiz needs no redemption, really, from Red Sox fans. They all love him, most unconditionally. Ortiz’s deliverance is a little more complex and outlying than Lackey’s. It involves not only the Hall of Fame-voting members of the BBWAA but also the national baseball dialogue on performance-enhancing drugs that has dragged on for years.
Maybe it’s Ortiz’s absolute joy for the game. Maybe it’s the joy Ortiz brings to those who watch him play. There is something transcendent about the man, transcendent enough to alter arguments.
When it comes to Cooperstown, a player’s performance in the postseason should count plenty and for me, as a voter, it probably counts more than others. It counts for Jack Morris. It counts for Curt Schilling. It should count for Ortiz.
Ortiz has played more than 85 percent of his games as the DH and that will be held against him even as he comes closer to hitting 500 home runs. Should DH be a consideration? Absolutely. Yet the DH issue is something the game’s gatekeepers ultimately must solve. Frank Thomas, who played more than half his career at DH, is going to roar into Cooperstown. This should lead to some re-evaluation of Edgar Martinez. And watching Ortiz play the field in the World Series, it is a reminder that some fairly shoddy fielding first basemen, third basemen and left fielders have long been enshrined in Cooperstown.
Yet the redemptive story of Ortiz really has nothing to do with the DH. You know it. I know it. It’s about The New York Times report that Ortiz and Manny Ramirez tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 in what was supposed to be an anonymous and confidential survey test.
“I never buy steroids or use steroids,” Ortiz said in a Yankee Stadium press conference in 2009. He said he was careless about the vitamins and supplements he bought in the Dominican Republic. As I sat there that day listening to him did I believe Ortiz?
Did I want to believe Ortiz?
The road to PED forgiveness is made easier for those who give a heartfelt apology. The road to Cooperstown is not necessarily easier. It still depends on the voter’s convictions.
Some say let them all in.
Some say let none of them in.
One seems immoral. One seems unnecessarily punitive, especially since we deal with so many unknowns. I admit. I don’t pretend to have the answer. We don’t even know what Ortiz used.
In a compelling piece, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! argued, among other things, that it is unfair to penalize players outed because their suppliers were caught by authorities and forced to give details to MLB. How many others got away in the process?
Much of the PED use also was before baseball’s ever-evolving drug policy brought down the hammer. The circumstances and the evidence are all over the place. The fact is, David Ortiz has tested negative ever since 2004.
For those who always loved and hugged Big Papi he was and always will be innocent. He is capable of doing no wrong. Yet the great road to Red Sox redemption has done more than make a jolly fellow out of John Lackey. The great joy of David Ortiz this October has opened the minds of many to reconsider the standards for Cooperstown immortality. I can feel it.
By Jeff Jacobs, Hartford Courant.