By Murray Chass

May 16, 2013

The Boston Red Sox fired Bobby Valentine as their manager after their disastrous 2012 season, but it seems that their exorcism might not have been incomplete. The sins of the devil incarnate apparently live on imbedded in Fenway Park’s Green Monster.

To be sure, the Red Sox won 20 of their first 28 games with winning streaks of seven and five fueling their strong start, and they led the American League East from April 13 to May 7, two-thirds of the season to that point (24 of 36 days).

But it has become a different season for the Red Sox. Entering Wednesday night’s game, they had lost 9 of their last 11 games, a .182 winning percentage compared with .714 previously, and they had tumbled 3 games behind the New York Yankees.David Ortiz 2013 225

Those were the Yankees who were playing without more than half of their regular starting lineup and were not expected to keep up, though neither were the Red Sox. Boston, in fact, had unintentionally contributed to the Yankees’ early success.

Last January the Red Sox signed Lyle Overbay as a minor league, non-roster free agent and thought so highly of him that they devoted five pages of their media guide to him. Why they wanted a 36-year-old first baseman, however, was not clear because eight days earlier they had signed Mike Napoli, 5 years younger, and planned to make the catcher their first baseman.

On March 26 they had to release Overbay because that was the date by which they had to tell him if they planned to put him on their season-opening 25-man roster, and they had decided they wouldn’t. The Yankees signed Overbay later that same day.

Waiting for Mark Teixeira to recover from a wrist injury, Overbay started at first in 34 of the Yankees’ first 40 games and played in 37. He hit 6 home runs and drove in 24 runs.

The Red Sox, of course, knew that the Yankees needed a first baseman, but they weren’t in position to keep Overbay as a defensive move. They didn’t need a first baseman, and they didn’t need a designated hitter because they had David Ortiz.

As the early weeks of the season developed, Ortiz became the center of a Red Sox controversy, not because of anything he did (except hit well) but because of what one influential supporter did for him in response to a Boston Globe column.

There’s no way of knowing if the Ortiz issue was in any way responsible, but it developed coincidentally with the early turnaround in the Red Sox season.

It began with a column by Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe, who asked Ortiz about possible use of steroids that would explain his unusually strong start to the season.

Saying that hitting “is not this easy,” Shaughnessy wrote, “It is not natural for a guy to hit .426 out of the gate without the benefit of any spring training.”

Despite the view of some readers, Shaughnessy, an outstanding columnist, did not call Ortiz a user.

Shaughnessy, one blogger wrote, “accused” Ortiz of “using performance-enhancing drugs.” Another blogger said that Shaughnessy had written “a stupid, awful column,” accusing the Globe columnist of “attempted character assassination.”

Then the blogger, Barry Petchesky of Deadspin, the New York Post of Web sites, proceeded to tell Shaughnessy how he should have written the column, as if he were qualified to offer such advice. Whether or not Petchesky wrote the headline, that got it wrong, too, asserting that Shaughnessy “invents some David Ortiz PED rumors.”

Dan ShaughnessyShaughnessy is too good to have to invent anything. He neither invented anything in this instance nor accused Ortiz of using steroids and their cousins. What he did was take his skepticism and his curiosity, good traits for a newspaperman to have, and ask Ortiz about steroids. Ortiz’s responses did not indicate anger of being accused of wrong doing.

I would compare the Ortiz column to the columns I have written about Mike Piazza and my suspicions about his possible use of steroids. I didn’t accuse him of using steroids, but I was and continue to be skeptical.

In the Ortiz case, a person more prominent than the pedestrian bloggers came to the player’s defense. Tom Werner, the Red Sox chairman, posted his own column on last Friday, and it quickly spread to other sites.

Werner acknowledged that Shaughnessy had a right to write what he wrote but said, “was it right?”

“We’re in a new media world, and fact-less accusations stick,” Werner said.

We are also in a new sports world. When I started in this business more than 50 years ago, we didn’t have anything like steroids to deal with. Before we caught on to widespread use, we were criticized for not paying closer attention and asking relevant, probing questions.

Now we are being criticized for paying too much attention and asking relevant, probing questions.

The news media are not responsible for asking, in what may be some circumstances, questionable questions. The players created this era and this environment. If players get caught up in being accused with circumstantial evidence, let them complain to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Why, Werner wrote, “should a writer publicly assert a presumption of guilt – without any foundation, without any basis, and without any evidence?”

The questions Shaughnessy asked Ortiz were based on what we have learned from our belated entry into steroids coverage, certain types of injuries and improved production at an advanced age (see Bonds), for two examples.

Shaughnessy could have written his suspicions without talking to Ortiz, but what he did was far more acceptable and correct. When I tried to ask Piazza about his alleged use, he refused to talk about it. When I asked the editor of his recently published book and Piazza’s literary agent before publication if he would write about steroids, they refused to say.

“I’m not going to talk to you,” said David Black, the agent, whom I have known for years and who encouraged me to write a book so he could represent me.

I guess I have strayed from where I started. I was writing about the Red Sox and how their quick start had been reversed. Will the Ortiz flap affect the Red Sox? Maybe only if he starts eating fried chicken in the clubhouse.

In recent years, something has always seemed to affect the Red Sox. Neither they nor the Yankees were supposed to be as good as their current records, but the Red Sox have to be concerned about the possibility of remnants of Valentine lurking in corners of the clubhouse. The Yankees don’t have that potential danger.

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