Ortiz shouldn’t be presumed guilty

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy is one of my professional heroes. But I don’t agree with how he handled his recent column on Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

Readers should understand that Shaughnessy’s job, as a sports columnist, is not to be a fan boy, player’s pal or owner’s suck-up. It is not to make sure he remains in good standing with the ever-vigilant Internet police.

No, his job is to provoke thought, and he is one of the best in the country at it. I say this as someone who once was a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun — and wasn’t nearly as good.

In fact, Shaughnessy’s column on Ortiz is, in many ways, excellent journalism.

Shaughnessy didn’t simply sit at his computer and write a speculative column on whether Ortiz, 37, is using performance-enhancing drugs. No, he confronted Ortiz directly, fearlessly. And he got Ortiz to tell him, on the record, “I guarantee you that later, you are not going to find out that I tested positive for some (expletive). It’s not happening. Guaranteed. Guaranteed.”

Terrific stuff, particularly when you recall that most of us were not vigilant enough reporting on baseball’s steroid problem when it first became prominent in the late 1990s. Shaughnessy gave Ortiz the chance to tell his side of the story, face to face, and Ortiz responded at length.

But here is my problem.

It is the same problem I had with Midwest Sports Fans’ Jerod Morris in 2009 when he raised suspicion about Raul Ibanez’s fast start for the Phillies, the same problem I had with the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox in 2010 when he wrote a column about the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista headlined, “Gotta at least ask the question.”

It is the presumption of guilt.

It is not right.

Yes, Ortiz appeared on a list of alleged drug users secured by the federal government in 2003, according to the New York Times. But Major League Baseball and the players’ union said that some of the players on that list never tested positive. And while Ortiz acknowledged that he was “a little bit careless” in those days with then-legal vitamins and supplements, he said that he never bought or used steroids.

Shaughnessy reasoned that the Times report alone gave him an opening to question Ortiz. I don’t disagree. Shaughnessy’s questions were not unfair. A straight news story by Shaughnessy saying that Ortiz denied using PEDs would not have been unfair.

But Shaughnessy wrote in his column, relating his conversation with Ortiz, “But you fit all the models. You are from the Dominican Republic. You are an older player. Older players don’t get better. You’ve had injuries consistent with steroid use. You showed up on the list from 2003. You fit all the formulas.”

That’s going too far.

Shaughnessy is drawing the heaviest criticism — from Ortiz, the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista and others — for his stereotyping of Dominican players. Yes, a relatively high percentage of Dominican players have been linked to PED use. But it is no more fair to suspect Ortiz on that basis that than it is to suspect an African-American of being a criminal because African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP.

It also is not fair to draw definitive conclusions from Ortiz’s hot start, his past injuries, his continued success in his late 30s. Shaughnessy wrote, “I told him he looks dirty.” He might as well have said, “OK, David, you’re guilty. Now prove yourself innocent.” In this society, it’s supposed to be the other way around.

Listen, we’ve all been burned by players who promised they were clean and turned out to be dirty. But just because so many of them turned out to be liars, it doesn’t make the next one a liar. And what exactly is Ortiz supposed to do?

He told Shaughnessy that he probably has had five urine tests and one blood test this season. Baseball’s testing, while generally acknowledged as the toughest in professional sports, is not foolproof. But if, under the current rules, Ortiz has done nothing wrong, then it should not be assumed he is doing something wrong.

If I were Ortiz, I would not have even answered Shaughnessy’s questions, other than to say, “I’ve never tested positive. I’ve never used PEDs. End of story.” And if I were Ortiz, I would not have continued the discussion for two days after the column appeared, extending the controversy and creating a further distraction.

Then again, players are almost trapped, presumed guilty when they don’t talk, presumed guilty when they do. For that, they can thank the actual users of PEDs, who created an environment in which the innocent no longer receive the benefit of the doubt. But as journalists, we cannot relax our standards and fall into that same trap.

We blew it once before, blew it big time. But where many of us once were too cautious in our reporting, now we’re overly suspicious.

We’re supposed to ask hard questions, yes. But in the end, we’re supposed to be fair.