There's no punishment to be meted out six years after the fact.
Suppose for a minute that David Ortiz told the truth. That whatever triggered his positive test in 2003 really was in a supplement or vitamins he bought over the counter, rather than part of a steroid-fueled training regimen.
Suppose, too, that next week or next month the list of names that has baseball grumbling and 90 or so of Ortiz' current and former co-workers gulping Tums is released. And let's say that despite some of the damning details he volunteered — especially the bit about buying supplements in his native Dominican Republic — it confirms the story Ortiz told Saturday before his Red Sox played at Yankee Stadium.
It really doesn't matter what happens to the list anymore — whether it never sees the light of day, or whether the names continue to drip out, come out all at once, or even if we find out who used exactly what.
As a practical matter, it won't change a thing.
There's no punishment to be meted out six years after the fact. The tests were supposed to remain anonymous; they were administered to find out whether enough players were juiced to put a drug policy with real penalties in force beginning with the 2004 season.
The only reason it wasn't destroyed, as the collective bargaining agreement stipulated, is because the government seized the list while conducting a separate investigation into the Bay Area Lab Co-operative, which turned out to be a clearinghouse for athletes in several sports seeking performance-enhancing drugs.
The list is under court seal at the moment and might not be released, if at all, until the Supreme Court weighs in. Revealing the names now will shame some ballplayers and disappoint a few fans, but it won't shock anyone. Worse, we've already seen so many guys busted — from home-run hitters to rag-armed pitchers — that it wouldn't even end suspicion about those whose names weren't on the list.
If it proves Ortiz is a liar, well, he just falls in place behind Manny Ramirez, at the end of a long line that already includes plenty of the biggest names of the era and more than a few of the most obscure.
And if it proves Ortiz was playing by baseball's lax rules back in 2003, it only makes his life a little easier. It might mean fewer boos on the road when he comes to the plate and more cheers back in Boston, where the locals will swear they knew he was clean all along. A few sponsors might bother to fish his phone number out of the waste basket and call to offer work in a commercial.
But that's about it.
Ortiz' standing among the rest of baseball won't change either way. The fact that Michael Weiner, the incoming executive director of the players union, and two senior executives from MLB, were in attendance at his news conference proves that Ortiz is still well regarded. More tellingly, perhaps, Weiner delivered the union's most vigorous defense so far of a player caught in the steroid scandal, and both MLB and the Red Sox released statements cautioning people from jumping to conclusions.
"His reputation has been called into question. He does not know specifically why. And he can't get the information that would allow him to offer a full explanation," Weiner said.
It may be that Weiner's presence at Ortiz' side simply signals a shift in style; that unlike his predecessor, Weiner plans to defend his players vigorously and in person, as opposed to issuing statements couched in legalese from the safe distance of the union's headquarters, the way Donald Fehr did.
But what should we make of the fact that both MLB and the Red Sox came to Ortiz' defense as well? Since one of the cardinal rules of the legal profession is don't ask a question you don't already know the answer to, my guess is Weiner has not only seen the list, but that he also knows what caused Ortiz' positive test — even if he can't tell the ballplayer that.
So remember this: Even if it turns out Ortiz didn't knowingly use a banned substance, he went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the next best thing. Almost everybody playing the game back in 2003 did, sometimes with the tacit approval of the higher-ups, and plenty more crossed the line without so much as a second thought.
Sorting through the names from back then to find out who did what won't give us a complete picture of that time, nor sharpen our focus on the role PEDs still play in the game, despite the much more rigorous drug-testing program in place now.
To me, it was always not about who was using as how many. Until somebody in a position to know produces that list, the debate about whether it's worse for baseball if the names leak out one at a time or all at once will generate plenty of heat, but shed very little light.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org