Sometimes we forget this when we make our lunging attempts at predicting the future, but it’s the truth. The passage of time – and the information and insight gained in that time – is certain to shift, if not outright change, our collective perspective. What’s accepted and commonplace today or even in the nearest tomorrows might not be in a year, a decade or a generation. The mystery, of course, is precisely how it will change.
I can hear you now. Whoa. Enough with the navel-gazing, Socrates Finn. And put away the Philosophy 101 text book while you’re at it. Hey, I didn’t mean to go deep there. That’s David Ortiz’s job. It’s just that there seems to be a confident consensus among fans and pundits in the aftermath of Ortiz’s milestone 500th home run that he still faces a difficult task in winning election to the Baseball Hall of Fame someday.
I’m in the minority. I think he gets in with relative ease, perhaps not on the first ballot, but without much suspense or drama a year or two or three after he is first eligible. He has at least a year left of playing, maybe a couple more given that he has 28 homers in his last 79 games, then the obligatory five-year waiting period before he’s on the ballot. I’d suggest Papi should have what is likely to be the second-best speech of his life ready by, oh, 2024.
Why do I believe he gets in? Well, the most obvious reason is that he’s worthy. There have been some thoughtful and thorough analyses of his Cooperstown chances written recently that express skepticism about his odds. They note that statistically, he’s similar to the likes of Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado, neither of whom has come close to enshrinement. They are reasonable points …but mine are more reasonable, dang it. Neither McGriff (493 homers) nor Delgado (473) hit 500 homers, an arbitrary number, yes, but one that carries much more cachet than, say, 499 home runs would.
That duo also lacks something Ortiz has in abundance — memorable moments, plural, in crucial situations. I’ve said for years that Ortiz is the most important player in the history of the Red Sox, at least in terms of changing history and — there’s that word again — perception.
I’m sure McGriff and Delgado have a home run or two that is particularly memorable to Braves, Blue Jays or Mets fans. But they have nothing resembling Ortiz’s Big Moment Resume, which Tim Healey neatly outlined in a recent Sports on Earth piece.
His walk-off long ball finished the 2004 American League Division Series against the Angels, and his back-to-back walk-off hits in Game 4 (home run) and Game 5 (single) in the ‘04 AL Championship Series keyed Boston’s historic comeback against the Yankees. His grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS — the one that sent Torii Hunter flipping into the bullpen — changed the tenor of the series. He was the 2013 World Series MVP. Ortiz was the only Red Sox player on all three World Series-winning teams this century.
The easy statistical comparison for now might be Delgado or McGriff. But after considering context and the full checklist of accomplishments, the best comp for Ortiz is the original Mr. October: Reggie Jackson. They are two of the four players in history to hit 500 home runs and win three World Series titles. Ortiz is the only one among the four who did not play for the Yankees – Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle are the others.
In 21 seasons, Jackson slashed .262/.356/.490 with 563 homers and an adjusted OPS of 139. Ortiz’s slash line is better — .284/.378/.547, with an adjusted OPS of 140. Ortiz is 63 homers shy of Jackson, who is 13th on the all-time list and not entirely out of reach given that he has hit 69 since the beginning of the 2014 season.
Their postseason feats are remarkably similar — Jackson hit 18 homers and drove in 48 runs in 77 games, with a .278/.358/.527 slash line. In 82 playoff games, Ortiz has 17 homers, 60 RBIs, and a .295/.409/.553 slash line. Ortiz never hit three homers in a World Series game like Jackson did in ’77. But Jackson never hit .688 in a World Series like Ortiz did in ’13. It should also be noted, if that sort of thing matters to you, that Ortiz on his worst day was more authentic and blessed with good character than Jackson on his best.
Reggie Jackson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993. He received 93.6 percent of the vote. It was his first year on the ballot.
The main reason I believe we’ll someday read the words “Big Papi’’ on a bronze plaque is that worthiness. The main reason the majority is skeptical that he’ll eventually be enshrined is because of his vague but relevant association with performance-enhancing drugs. In 2003, every major league player was granted confidentiality to participate in a drug-testing survey that would determine whether PED testing would be part of the collective bargaining agreement. One-hundred and three players tested positive. Their names were supposed to remain anonymous. Ninety-nine names did, and have to this day. Four – Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa – were revealed to The New York Times.
That is the extent of Ortiz’s known association with PEDs. It’s as vague as can be. He has not failed a test after it was implemented in 2005, like Manny Ramirez has. He has not had investigative books dedicated to his system of using PEDs, like Barry Bonds has. He has not been suspended by baseball for a full season, like A-Rod has. He has been stained by a test that was supposed to be confidential 12 years ago. That’s it.
Maybe you think that’s enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame, or at least that it’s enough that 75 percent of voters will never agree that he belongs. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the DH thing will be held against him, though by the time he’s eligible it will have been around for nearly 50 years, and hopefully Edgar Martinez will already have broken that silly barrier.
But I that’s where time and perspective will come into play and perhaps change the expected narrative. (Shame on you for forgetting my philosophical mumbo-jumbo from the first paragraph so soon!)
The Hall of Fame voting body is already changing, and I believe for the better. Writers who haven’t covered baseball for years are being pared. A new generation of writers, many of whom tend to look at PEDs as an unfortunate time baseball history, but not one that warrants collective exclusion based on vagaries and suspicion from what essentially is a museum – I’d include myself among them – have recently joined the BBWAA. What’s accepted and commonplace now might not be in a decade or a generation from now.
It’s not just the context that will change. I believe we’ll have more information on the extent of the PED era. And let me tell you, there is a lot of time between now and Ortiz’s time on the ballot for someone who is already in the Hall of Fame to be outed as a PED user – or for one or more to be elected in the interim. There are 10 current Hall of Famers who were still active during the ’03 testing. What if one of them is revealed to have been among the Unknown 99? What if another beloved Hall of Famer who retired before ’03 is exposed by, say, a jealous ex-teammate to have dabbled with a loaded needle from time to time?
Maybe none of that ever happens. But there’s plenty of time for it to happen before the Ortiz question needs to be answered. He belongs in, anyway, as much as Reggie Jackson and so many others do. That should be evident now, with chapters remaining in his career. The pages that will be revealed in the coming years should only make that more apparent. Ortiz’s time as a player isn’t up. But once it is, that’s when time will become his friend.