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Suspicion touches 'em all

The Red Sox' big man has heard the whispers, too, an unavoidable consequence of playing in the Steroid Era. It is in the air, is how David Ortiz puts it, especially when you are 6 feet 4 inches, 250 pounds, and hitting more home runs than you have ever hit in your life.

"All the time," Ortiz said with a sigh the other day. "Power pitchers, power hitters, they're the ones who hear it the most."

You don't have to be a home run hitter to hear it. Last week, in a queasy back-and-forth between Johnny Damon and his ex-wife spawned by some unflattering things Damon said in his forthcoming book, Damon's ex told the Herald that Damon's behavior was so aggressive, she wondered if he was using steroids. The center fielder denied, as he has repeatedly, that he ever used the illegal substance. But now it was there, in the air.

Trot Nixon shows up in camp noticeably smaller in his upper body, and among scouts, you hear the questions. Nixon has been adamant about wanting the game cleaned up, but it is there, in the polluted air.

Ortiz, who like many players would welcome stricter testing if it would clear the air, said again the other day he has never used steroids.

"I just work hard, man," said Ortiz, who said that as a kid in the Dominican he used to hate lifting weights but grew from 190 pounds when he signed to 230 pounds when he broke into the big leagues, and has added another 20 pounds of muscle since.

"If you look at my numbers from way back, you could tell I would put up the kinds of numbers I've put up lately. Each year I played with the Twins, I went from 18 home runs in 300 or so at-bats, to 20 home runs the following year, even though I wasn't playing every day. The following year I had more at-bats and hit 30 home runs, and the following year with 580 at-bats, I hit 41 home runs.

"That tells you something. It's not like I'm a guy, you look at him, you don't see power. I work my butt off, brother."

Ortiz was deeply troubled last year when investigative reporters Steve Fainaru of the Washington Post and Tom Farrey of uncovered harrowing stories of how young Dominican kids desperate to make it to the big leagues were ingesting all kinds of dangerous substances, including animal steroids.

"They don't have the discipline," Ortiz said by way of explanation. "I don't blame them. They don't have the person who comes at them and says, `Don't do that, it's not good for you.' But they do have the guy who comes right at them and says, `You know you need to make it to the big leagues, so use this stuff, because you're coming out of nowhere.' So it's understandable they might try it. But Major League Baseball is doing a good job with [educating young players]."

There is a very basic reason, Ortiz says, that he stays away from steroids.

"I'm one guy," he said, "who knows that if something might do something bad to my body, I'd be afraid to use it. Any kind of stuff. I don't want to die in 10 years. That's what it is.

"I feel bad for people getting into that stuff, because it's bad stuff. You may want to do well, but you need a little help, but you know what? The consequences are going to be tough."

Ortiz was one of the players randomly tested this spring. There has been no indication from MLB when it intends to announce any positive tests. The testing program has not yet been formally ratified by the players.

"Every time they test, I get tested," Ortiz said. "We got tested two or three times last year, and I got tested every time. But that's OK. You've got to follow the rules, and if they think that's the way everything will get better, then we have to deal with it."

No Dominican player has been subject to more suspicion in the Steroid Era than Sammy Sosa, the only player to hit 60 or more home runs three times. In a shaky appearance before the House Committee on Government Reform, Sosa primarily relied on a translator to speak for him, but denied ever using steroids.

Ortiz defended Sosa, with whom he was teammates in the Dominican winter leagues.

"Here's what I don't understand," Ortiz said. "There hasn't been one person who comes right at him and says, `I saw your steroids. I injected you with steroids.' Everything is in the air, you know what I mean? Even what [Jose] Canseco said about Sammy is in the air: `I don't know him and I never saw him, but the way his body grew, and I'm a specialist about steroids, I think he used them.'

"What's that? My body grew. But you see me out there, I take my time to work out, and do what I have to do to get stronger. That's what the game is about, getting stronger, stronger, stronger.

"Sammy, hey, let me tell you, if there's a player I know who works his butt off, it's Sammy Sosa. I've known Sammy since I started playing winter ball in the Dominican in '94 or '95. Sammy played on the same team in Escogido. Sammy was the kind of guy, after the game he was lifting. In winter ball! Sammy got to the field early, and was in the gym, and at that time this guy was already 30-30 in the big leagues.

"I'm not saying he either used it or didn't use it, because I don't know. But I can tell you the guy worked hard.

"Sammy's the guy, I'm telling you, I saw Sammy, the way he worked, and I said, `Damn, that's what it takes to get in the big leagues. Damn, I got a long way to go.' Sammy, man, he's strong, bro. I think he's going to have a good season."

If only good hitting was all that was in the air, on the eve of this 2005 season. But even as many baseball people are confident that steroid use has already dropped off significantly, the Steroid Era dirties all.

Still a no-win situation for Pinella

Lou Piniella has two years left on his contract to manage Tampa Bay, and despite the Devil Rays' fourth-place finish in 2004 -- the first time they finished out of the cellar -- there is little hope that they will be contending soon.

"I understand what the job entails," said Piniella when the Devil Rays visited Fort Myers, Fla., last week. "I'm into winning. That's what I am. When I was brought here, I was told we wanted to win. I've been here two years. I understand the situation we're in. I'm going to do the best job I possibly can do as manager of this team. You know what? When you sign on with a baseball team, you manage what you have. I would have hoped that we were a little further along in the process than we are.

"But it's improved. If we keep improving, developing young kids along the way, as we are, we're going to be further along as an organization. Realistically, that's all we can expect."

The Devil Rays have a star in left fielder Carl Crawford; a high-end lefthander in Scott Kazmir, obtained from the Mets; a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher in Dewon Brazelton, their Opening Day starter; a promising second baseman in Jorge Cantu; and more kids coming in shortstop B.J. Upton and outfielder Joey Gathright. They miss Rhode Island's Rocco Baldelli, who won't be back until at least midseason after tearing his ACL playing ball with his little brother in the backyard.

"That's the biggest disappointment in our camp," Piniella said. "That he's not here."

The Devil Rays tried to supplement their kids with a couple of veterans, second baseman Robbie Alomar and outfielder Danny Bautista. But Alomar retired after playing miserably in camp, and Bautista, signed to be a middle-of-the-order run-producer, also quit, citing knee problems.

"That was the biggest surprise we had in camp," Piniella said of Bautista's retirement. "We just didn't anticipate it. It came as a total surprise. It's amazing, but now we have more money to spend than we did this winter, and nowhere to spend it.

"We're just trying to get a little better than last year."

Here's one way to forecast a hot summer

Could David Ortiz be in for even a bigger year than the monster season he had in 2004? It wouldn't come as a shock to number-cruncher John Dewan. The Stats Inc. researcher says you normally can't put any stock in spring training numbers, but there is a possible exception.

"A hitter that has a tremendous spring training does correlate to a better-than-normal season," Dewan writes. "In precise statistical terms, a hitter with a positive difference between their spring training slugging percentage and their lifetime slugging percentage of .200 or more alerts us to a step forward in the coming season.

Dewan looked at hitters with 100 or more career regular-season at-bats and 36 or more 2005 spring training at-bats through last Monday. The top 30 hitters who met his criteria included Ortiz, who ranked 19th on his list with a 269-point difference.

Fantasy leaguers take note: Andruw Jones of the Braves ranked first, with a .682 difference between spring slugging percentage (1.175) and career (.493). Former Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra ranked 10th, with a 331-point spread.


Rocky times ahead?

The Colorado Rockies are realistic in their expectations for Byung Hyun Kim, the reliever who fell off the face of the earth with the Red Sox. Here's one number that should give any Rockies fan pause: In 18 innings in Coors Field, Kim has allowed 8 home runs, and that was when he was with Arizona, throwing with considerably more velocity and bite than he showed in the last year with the Sox. "Kim is someone we want to take a flier on," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told reporters. "You never get a guy like this when he's going good. But he's not that far removed from being an All-Star and a dominant young closer."

The envelope, please . . .

One man's predictions for this season's award winners:

AL MVP: Manny Ramirez, Red Sox

NL MVP: Albert Pujols, Cardinals

AL Cy Young: Johan Santana, Twins

NL Cy Young: Jake Peavy, Padres

AL Manager of the Year: Ron Gardenhire, Twins

NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy, Padres

AL Rookie of the Year: Jhonny Peralta, Indians

NL Rookie of the Year: Jeff Francis, Rockies

Sister has good pitch, too

Keep an eye out this summer for the debut album of the Sally Zito Project, a nine-piece band fronted by Sally Zito, the older sister of A's pitcher Barry Zito, who plays guitar and also sings. Big sister majored in film scoring at Berklee. Their father, Joe, was a composer for the legendary Nat King Cole. Sally and Barry recently performed a set at a club in Scottsdale, Ariz., near where Zito and the A's train. Zito sang a Flaming Lips cover, and an original piece. Said the pitcher, "My dad said that was the first show that I sounded like a singer. That was cool, man."

A lasting impression on Tito

Terry Francona faced David Wells in winter ball in Venezuela, and while Francona was in camp with the Montreal Expos in 1986, a crazy-wild, 6-foot-10-inch lefthander named Randy Johnson was in the Expos' minor league camp, but the Sox manager doesn't believe he ever faced the Big Unit. Francona was released by the Expos at the end of that camp, and caught on with the Cubs a month later.

"But the worst I've ever faced," Francona said, sticking with the crazy-wild theme, "was in a 10 o'clock-in-the-morning B game against Mitch Williams."

Williams, known as the "Wild Thing," was with the Texas Rangers at the time.

"I was 22 years old," Francona said. "I came around the back field at West Palm. This is not an exaggeration. As I came around, and I'm leading off, Larry Parrish, the catcher who we'd just traded, he's laughing his butt off as I come up. I get up to the plate, I'm going to take the first pitch, and it hits me right here."

Francona points to his rib cage.

"I went, `Oh-oh-oh-oh,' " Francona said, demonstrating how he doubled over in agony. "He was throwing about 100. The whole place was laughing."

For Blanco, it's Show time

Former Red Sox phenom Tony Blanco, traded to Cincinnati after he hurt his shoulder and claimed as a Rule 5 pick this winter by the Nationals, is opening the season in the big leagues. Blanco, 23, beat out former Sox bench man Carlos Baerga for the last spot on the Washington roster. He's one of 10 players on the Nationals' roster with less than three years' experience. "I'm so excited," said Blanco, who hit .282 with 6 RBIs in camp and played a decent third base. "This is my first time in the majors. I knew there was a chance. I'm thankful that [general manager Jim Bowden] brought me here from Cincinnati. I'm very grateful to him."

Tickets for Ted

David McCarthy, executive director of the Ted Williams Museum, reminds fans that tickets still are available for the opening of the new Williams exhibit at the Skywalk Observatory in the Prudential Center. The event is scheduled for April 12. Bronson Arroyo and Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson are scheduled to attend, along with Rico Petrocelli, Luis Tiant, Johnny Pesky, and Butch Hobson. Fans also will have a chance to have their photos taken with the World Series trophy. Tickets are $99. For more information, call Sue Colabelli of the museum at 352-527-6566.

Voice goes silent in Minnesota

A visit to Minnesota's Metrodome won't be the same without Bob Casey, the beloved Twins public address announcer who died last Sunday, just days before his 80th birthday. Casey, who was popular with players who enjoyed how he occasionally mangled names, had become good friends with Carl Yastrzemski when Yaz was playing Triple A ball for the Minneapolis Millers. Casey ran into Yaz just a few weeks ago in the Fort Myers airport. As a tribute to Casey, the Twins announced they would play a tape of his nightly stern edict, "There is no smoking in the Metrodome. NO SMOKING!"

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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