Watching Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, ever since the New York Times said he failed a steroid test in 2003, one can’t avoid the question:

Did he, or didn’t he?

After all, nobody has defended Ortiz more staunchly than Ortiz himself. He has categorically denied using performance-enhancers, as rumors swirled during his precipitous decline in production earlier this year. Lacking any evidence otherwise, it was easy to believe him. He’s Big Papi.

And he’s the same Big Papi today, a garrulous, barrel-chested batsman known for doing two things: hitting a baseball, and rising to the occasion. He’s the brawny soul of a franchise that’s dear to many, earning a level of Boston endearment usually reserved for politicians and mob bosses. (Yes, he’s that popular.)

Now, though, there’s the question. Did he, or didn’t he? It’s impossible to tell. We’re supposed to divine, through the fog of speculation, the veracity of reports saying he took illicit substances six years ago, to build an immoral foundation for the pedestal upon which we’ve all placed him.

Did he, or didn’t he? The question won’t go away. It’s painted a thin veneer of distrust over all the clutch performances and memorable moments. We are being told they are now tainted, not the product of superhuman skills but, sadly, the all-too-human failing of cheating to get ahead.

He looks like the same old Papi, a little bit older, bigger, slower — but still the same. The smile remains as broad and the attitude as jovial. Still, the question torments. Did he, or didn’t he? Admittedly, Ortiz did nobody favors by saying his positive test was a surprise, and he’d get back  to all of us. We don’t know whether he’s actually inquiring, or merely getting his story straight.

The saga of Ortiz has caused regional heartburn for his fans, but the rippling implications are much more serious. As more  names leak from the early testing, the integrity of baseball’s previous investigations into steroids, such as that done by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, weakens.

Baseball is already failing this class. Take Manny Ramirez, linked in Red Sox lore and now court documents to Ortiz, and the joyous fetes that occur nightly in Los Angeles for him. The show must go on, but there must also be accountability.

The problem is that these players — beloved and unloved alike — are guilty before innocent, an adjudication they may deserve, but it is unfair nonetheless. Until baseball comes clean on what it knows about performance-enhancers, the sport suffers.

And so do fans, who are left in limbo. Baseball is America’s pastime for its myths, legends, heroes and heritage. If these are called into question, the fabric of baseball itself becomes torn and frayed.

Don’t make us ask, “Did he, or didn’t he?” That’s not fair to us. Or to him. Tell us who did it. Tell us who didn’t.

Let us, the fans, judge — on the facts.

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