TORONTO – Sometimes you can’t overthink this whole Hall of Fame thing; sometimes a guy’s career writes him into Cooperstown, which is why David Ortiz – all 250-plus, DH/PED-linked pounds of him – should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Ortiz announced Wednesday – his 40th birthday, no less – that 2016 will be his final major league season and it’s a safe bet that for every ceremony he is feted with during his retirement tour, there will be at least a thousand articles written debating the legitimacy of his Hall of Fame case.
Ortiz has collected 2,303 career hits, 503 home runs and 584 doubles (18th all-time and more than the likes of Hall members Tony Gwynn, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams, and there are folks who consider doubles the ultimate sign of a hitter). He also has 14 RBIs in 14 World Series games to go along with a .455 batting average (fifth-best) in 59 Fall Classic plate appearances, a .576 Series on-base percentage (second-best) and his .688 batting average in the 2013 World Series is the second best of all time. I know we have trouble defining the concept of “clutch,” but I think that’s a good start, no?
But Ortiz also has flashpoints galore and this is what will make this debate so interesting. He has made 1,888 starts as a designated hitter and 188 as a first baseman; he had the type of late-20s career surge during the steroid era that would raise suspicions even if there wasn’t the existence of that 2009 New York Times report that included him in a list of 100 major league players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003; and your level of love for Ortiz’s on-field personae likely depends on your allegiance to the Red Sox during years when they became a polarizing franchise.
Now, it is remarkable that the DH has been in effect for 43 years and voters still have at least a measure of resistance to the notion of putting one into the Hall – much as they used to squirm when faced with considering the candidacy of a closer. In part, it’s because there is an underlying belief that the DH is a “failed” position player, that the position is manned by players not good enough to be in the field in the first place or by a player slipping into his dotage.
Frank Thomas never had to deal with the issue, because he played 971 games at first base as well as 1,301 at DH. Thomas also profited from the fact that as one of the game’s first superhuman sized players, he was smart enough politically to get ahead of the PED backlash curve by adopting a position of strident criticism of steroid users and sounding a siren call long before Congress started up committees and reporters started rummaging around players’ lockers. Thomas was, of course, driven by money as much as a sense of moral outrage, because he felt his “clean” contributions were undervalued by a market saturated with chemically enhanced sluggers. Truth is, as is the case with the vast majority of players whose careers straddled drug-testing, all we really had was Frank Thomas’ word that he was clean; and that was good enough for everyone.
So Thomas had what might be called a certain amount of “reputational capital.” (As an aside, I remember being stonewalled by Thomas in arranging a sit-down interview during his first spring training with the Blue Jays – until the day he took note of the low number on my BBWAA card, did the mathematics that suggested I might be a Hall of Fame voter and once that was confirmed granted me a 45-minute session, fetching a cup of clubhouse coffee for me at one point.)
And Ortiz also has similar capital. For New Englanders … well, I’m going to direct you to this terrific column by Tim Britton of the Providence Journal that details how he gave the region’s baseball fans reasons to believe, not just hope. The Red Sox had many heroes in breaking the Curse of the Bambino; but Ortiz’s massive frame and personality made him the chief Babe antidote. Big Papi also had an ability to disarm teammates and media – something he demonstrated time and again when the media hordes (and I was one of them) descended on the tiny, cramped, Red Sox clubhouse during those dramatic post-seasons. Ortiz is the common thread running through the Red Sox’s three World Series titles; and whether you are a citizen of Red Sox Nation or, like me, somebody who is uncomfortable being around too many of them at one time, it is extremely difficult to work up any animus toward Big Papi: Red Sox icon.
Like it or not, the fact that Ortiz has essentially become part of the post-season furniture for baseball fans and media is a thing that separates him from Thomas or even the great, forgotten DH, Edgar Martinez. I mean, God bless Edgar but his at bats didn’t stop time; and he had the misfortune of playing in a market and for a team (the Seattle Mariners) that has never elicited strong feelings one way or another among the general public. He doesn’t have nearly as many of what we used to refer to as “Kodak moments.” (Teenagers and kids: ask your parents.)
The PED issue will be thorny, but I’m guessing that by the time Ortiz’s name is on the ballot (2021) there will be a generational and perhaps philosophical shift among a voting base that will most likely be streamlined, or at least think and look and sound vastly different than the current collection. Unless more details emerge (and six years is a long time), it will depend, I guess, on the degree of suspicion with which each individual voter is comfortable.
So, yes, David Ortiz’s first-ballot Hall of Fame case is unique. It is going to be ornery, tough and, my guess, emotional. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t legitimate. Far from it.