The Greatest, without question

<![CDATA[ortiz_250_080709.jpgWord hit the press box long after former heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali — for me, always, The Greatest — appeared at Yankee Stadium for a stirring pregame ceremony. This was sometime during Thursday night’s Yanks-Red Sox series opener, and the news I was hearing up in the box was that that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and incoming MLB players’ union head Michael Weiner would make a special appearance of their own before Saturday’s game.

It will be anything but a ceremony for them. Instead they will be addressing reports that Ortiz tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs in 2003.

Over a week has passed since Ortiz name was leaked as being among 104 others on the list of players who drew positive results — a list that was supposed to be anonymous when the union agreed to testing and now under a court seal that’s obviously looser than the waistband of the trousers that were always slipping down below Harpo Marx’s knees in all those old movies.

A real Harpo Pants list we’ve got here. It makes me feel wonderful about how our legal system protects your and my constitutional rights in the US of A. But I’m not writing about the leaks now, the injustice and basic moral wrongness of those names getting out to the public one by one despite binding guarantees to the contrary. That’s for another time, maybe.

This is about how far we’ve come from when I was a kid who watched so many of Ali’s fights with my father on our huge black and white living room console television, and loved Ali for what he did in boxing ring and his larger-than-life personality, and never had to wonder whether his accomplishments were aided by some kind of doping.

Clean it up. That’s the slogan on the sleeveless red T-shirt David Ortiz wore at his locker over an hour before Thursday’s game in the Bronx. It’s in the middle of this immense chest, right below the Red Sox logo. Ortiz wore the same shirt during warm-ups in Baltimore a few days after it was revealed he was on the Harpo Pants list. When a news story revealed his name was on it, Ortiz said he was “surprised” to find out he’d tested positive for anything.

Of course that doesn’t jibe with what we’ve heard before from the Feds, namely that all the players on the list were notified they were on it. Who knows if that’s true, or exactly true. I don’t.

I don’t know that to believe from David Ortiz, just like I didn’t know exactly what to believe from Alex Rodriguez when his name slipped off the non-anonymous anonymous list a few months ago. Throw our Harpo Marx government into the pot, too, since I definitely don’t know what to believe from them. Everybody’s got an agenda.

“You know me — I will not hide and I will not make excuses,” Ortiz said over a week ago. And since then there’s been nothing but silence.

Clean it up. Ortiz has advocated more thorough testing and stiffer penalties for PEDs, and maybe that’s what the slogan on his T-shirt is about. Again, I don’t know. All I do know is that in the visiting team clubhouse at the Stadium before Thursday’s game, he joked around with friends at his locker, and then got serious with the reporters around him, said he’d soon “let them know” whenever he was going to about his testing positive. And then he cranked up the music on whatever mini sound system he had in his locker and didn’t say anything else.

A little later, when the Sox were taking BP, I was hanging around the visiting dugout, and happened to find myself between Ortiz and the field. As he made his way to the batting cage Ortiz passed me, put a huge hand on my shoulder, squeezed it warmly, and smiled.

I’ve never met David Ortiz. I don’t know him any more than I knew the network TV cameraman who pushed me out of his way trying to get to Mark Teixeira’s locker about five, six hours later for some postgame footage.

“Hey c’mon, outta my way I gotta get in here!” the cameraman yelled as he bulled through from behind me, swinging around his video contraption.

Compare and contrast. Ortiz the besieged baseball superstar giving me the shoulder squeeze when I’m getting in his way near the steps of his dugout, and the cameraman who’s got no business telling anybody anything in the Yankee clubhouse acting like a jerk when a simple “excuse me” will do the trick.

Ortiz got booed loudly every time he came up to bat Thursday night. There were a few “Steroid!” chants mixed in for most of the nights. Comes with the territory, I’m not crying for him. Personally, though, I’d have liked to hear the cameraman getting booed out of the clubhouse.

Which is to say that Ortiz makes it easy to like him, and hard to want to see him go down as just another name on the list, even for this diehard Yankee fan.

I was at a Portland Sea Dogs game in Maine once when I noticed all the Big Papi merch in the team store. The Sea Dogs are a Double-A Red Sox affiliate, and they sell out on a regular basis. But go into the store, and you won’t see a fraction as many T-shirts and jerseys with the names of Sea Dogs on them as you’ll see the Ortiz stuff. At least that’s how it was a couple of years back. Ortiz stuff was clearly outselling everything else, especially in the kids’ sizes. The store’s mascot was even a gigantic Ortiz bobblehead.

I remember thinking back then that I was glad those Maine kids had a big, loveable athlete who’d captivate their imaginations and make them proud of their team. You have to want that for kids, even if you’re a diehard Yank fan. It isn’t as if they’re going to be rooting for Derek Jeter up in Maine anyway.

That’s why I’m sad David Ortiz is on the Harpo list. One by one by one, we hear the names. One by one by one, the careers and records are tarnished. No matter what Ortiz says on Saturday, which I have a hunch is going to be irresolute at best.

ali_250_080709.jpgWatching Muhammad Ali being honored on the field before the game, I was glad he fought his game before any of us ever heard of PEDs and leaky government lists. As he was driven around the warning track in a golf cart, everybody was on their feet. The fans, the players in both dugouts, on their feet as he waved and pointed to them with the one arm that seemed easiest for him to move. I stood in the press box, pretending it was for a better look, but really to show my own respect for this man, the best heavyweight fighter of a generation, and maybe ever, who stood up for his principles even though it stripped him of a title and almost sent him to jail. Who has not only kept his dignity while enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, but enhanced his reputation with countless humanitarian efforts.

When that old chant — “Ali! Ali! Ali!” — broke out from the stands, I felt a shiver run through me. And I wasn’t alone.

“I got chill bumps, to tell you the truth,” said Jorge Posada, who’d jogged up to shake the fighter’s hand. “I didn’t know what to say. It was a good feeling to see him at the Stadium.”

One day, a long time from now I hope, Ali will be gone, but his magnificent accomplishments as a man and athlete will remain with us forever.

Sad, really sad, about steroids and leaky lists. For we are helpless as they leach our tomorrows of moments such as the one everyone shared at the Stadium on Thursday, Yankee and Red Sox players and fans, all briefly standing together to recognize a man’s unassailable greatness.


  1. ladytoni

    You took the words right out of my mouth Jerome. It was wonderful to watch the great Ali honoring celebration at the Stadium. On the subject of the infamous steroid list, I thought it should have stayed dead and buried, but now with this one or two at a time leakage, I just wish they would release the whole thing and get it over with. Whether it’s true or not who used or who didn’t use, their names will be forever tarnished. By releasing the list and not really surprising many of us with the players names on it, we can finally put it behind us and get back to enjoying our favorite game of baseball and rooting for the up and coming younger players who weren’t in the “steroid” era of baseball. Thanks for sharing another great column.


    It’s amazing how time changes things! People from my generation (I’m 74) remember when he was Cassius Clay. He didn’t want to respond to the military draft (as countless young men were doing at the time) so he adopted the Islamic religion, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and got out of going into the army by saying his religious convictions prevented him from doing so. Needless to say, he wasn’t revered in the sixties; he was just another draft dodger.

  3. Jerome Preisler

    Ladytoni, thanks for your comment. Thanks, too, Yddandy. We obviously disagree.

    I also remember when Ali was called Cassius Clay and changed his name. And remember the names of weekly war casualties rolling down my television screen when watching the ten o’clock news on what was then known as WNEW, Channel 5 in NYC. So while I understand your point of view, I would only stress that mine is not the revisionist history of some naive young pup. Indeed, I was actually close to draft age during the latter stages of the Vietnam war, and would have been faced with the same choice as Ali had it stretched on just a little longer. Fortunately, I was spared the decision. But many of my friends and relatives went to Vietnam.

    I believe a man ought to be called what he wants to be called in this country, and was among the millions who knew even then that what Ali did was an act of courageous principle–not, as you state, a slippery ploy to avoid going to war. He did not cut and run. He stood tall and faced disgrace and loss of his career. The admiration he drew around the country when he returned to the ring are documented in the films of his fights–no one has to take my word for it.

    To say Vietnam was a divisive war is an understatement. It tore apart families and lives. If we oversimply the issues surrounding that war, and the opposition to it, we do ourselves a disservice as a nation.

  4. yanksfaninboston

    Great piece, Jerome. I was draft eligible during Vietnam, and Ali was a hero to many of us who were against the war. His principled stand remains an inspiration to all of us, decades later. He was stripped of his title during the best years of his career for taking what was, at the time, an incredibly unpopular stand, after converting to an rather unpopular religion. Of the nearly 7 billion people on this planet, he is today among a literal handful of the best loved, and for many good reasons. He has lived a life of undaunted courage and grace, with an incredible sense of humor. He remains a treasure.

  5. yankeespacificnw

    Wow! And I thought the great statesmen had long gone. You have done a great service with this article.

    I saw Mr. Ali at an event in Las Vegas several years ago and it was the same reaction. We not only stood, we were standing with tears running down our cheeks – about 10,000 men, women, old, young. He at that time had to be helped to walk, a man on each side holding him by the arms. It was one of the most moving moments of my life, one I will never forget.

    I love your Harpo Pants analogy. It is brilliant. I once commented on a Boston website about the future of David Ortiz, and my remarks were much kinder than those at that time being handed out by Boston “fans” who were leaving comments. That was just when he was slumping. I wonder how loyal his fans will be now that this steroid leak has happened. That’s one reason why I am such a strong Yankee supporter. There is such a strong history of loyalty and honoring the game of baseball, of dealing with things head on and moving forward.

    Keep up the good work! You are always spot on and such a joy to read.

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