David Ortiz goes by a number of names inside the Boston Red Sox clubhouse. Most teammates call him Pun, an abbreviated version of Big Punisher, which itself is an offshoot of his most well-hewn nickname, Big Papi. A select few, as Tim Brown wrote the other day, reserve for him the sort of sobriquet bestowed upon only the best.
Ortiz does not argue when someone calls him this because he believes it to be true, that he is a Hall of Fame-caliber player despite his position and positive drug test, a pair of variables that individually have torpedoed past candidacies and in concert portend doom. Ultimately, however, Ortiz may be prescient. The designated-hitter wall is soon to fall. Even if Ortiz retires at the end of his current contract in 2014 – and seeing how he's hitting this postseason, with five more home runs added to his already long playoff résumé, why would he? – by the time he's eligible for induction, the Baseball Writers Association of America will have taken out retroactive justice on 13 classes with a known PED user. Considering he's got 14 more tries after that first year, and the voting bloc will skew younger and likely more progressive annually, a tipping point will arrive whereby the BBWAA gatekeepers begin to realize what's inside their gates feels emptier than it ought.
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I receive the privilege of a Hall vote for the first time this year, and I can say unequivocally that five years after he retires I will vote for Ortiz, unless the ballot is stuffed with 10 superior candidates on account of my colleagues' choice to blackball others linked to PEDs. Ortiz is one of his generation's great hitters, and while such statements about other hitters have led to dubious inductions, Ortiz's numbers support his candidacy.
By the end of his career, the 37-year-old Ortiz almost surely will exceed the 450-home run mark – he's at 431 today – and could sniff 500. His complementary counting stats match up favorably with other Hall of Famers (1,429 RBIs would be 40th among 138 position-playing Hall of Famers, according to Baseball-Reference.com, his 431 homers tied for 22nd and his 1,208 runs in the top half). His rate stats fare just as well (a .381 on-base percentage is near the top third, a .549 slugging percentage near the top 10). And there is the matter of postseason heroics. Because Mr. October already is taken, allow Ortiz another nickname: Señor Octubre.
That will, and should, count for something. Ortiz didn't single-handedly bring Boston its first championship in 86 years, a second title three seasons later and possibly a third within a decade this year, as the Red Sox head to St. Louis tied 1-1 in the World Series with a game beckoning Saturday night at Busch Stadium. He did play an integral part in each. If every postseason series is a small patch that doesn't look like much by itself, Ortiz's career has stitched them together to make a resplendent quilt.
The demerits that will be held against Ortiz are nothing new. Almost 87 percent of Ortiz's games have come at DH, and it's a legitimate gripe. He does not contribute anything in the field. Calling a DH the equivalent of a closer is excessive – his ability to change the game over its entirety rather than in a one- or two-inning stint is important – but arguing that by dint of his very DHness he should be disqualified doesn't hold much water.
Any standard-setting argument – there are no DHs in the Hall, so why should we elect one? – should become moot this year when Frank Thomas becomes eligible for the first time. Any vote against Thomas is a protest against the game's evolution. He won back-to-back MVPs. His peak was dominant. He finished his career with 270 more walks than strikeouts. Oh, and he happened to play 58.2 percent of his games at DH.
Moreover, we must remember that already there are bat-only guys in the Hall. The best comparison for Ortiz may be Willie Stargell, who played outfield as though he shouldn't have played it at all. It's almost as if Pops was cloned for a new generation and called Papi. Stargell's career line: 2,360 games, .282/.360/.529, 475 home runs, 1,540 RBIs, 1,195 runs and a 147 OPS+, or 47 percent above average when adjusted for era and park. Ortiz's career line: 1,969 games, .287/.381/.549, 431 home runs, 1,429 RBIs, 1,208 runs and a 139 OPS+. Stargell was chosen by 82.4 percent of the electorate on his first ballot.
Numbers aren't the true issue for Ortiz. When The New York Times reported Ortiz tested positive for a PED in 2003, he denied having taken it. While there was a loophole – reportedly eight of the 104 players on the list from the survey testing had used 19-nonandrostenedione, a tainted supplement – it never has been confirmed Ortiz was one of the eight. And considering mere PED speculation left this year's class empty, the presence of a positive, no matter what caused it, may initiate a death blow before his candidacy even begins.
I will not cast one of those votes. I will vote for PED users, even though I find such use ethically wishy-washy, particularly when the players during the testing era agreed to a collectively bargained drug program. Even before then, players say, there was an implicit understanding that using steroids was seen as a distinct advantage, one that plenty of players actively chose not to gain because they felt it would compromise their integrity and the game's as well. PEDs work. Studies putting steroid era numbers up against other eras try to argue otherwise, but doctors and players agree that PEDs' inherent advantages – from faster recovery to greater muscle growth – are neither mirages nor vacuous.
These are valid points. I respect those who want to keep players out of the Hall on account of them. I also think it's unfair to penalize so many players outed because their suppliers were pinched by authorities and forced to spill details to Major League Baseball. Countless others who received PEDs from cautious sources may never see their names publicly linked to drugs. And that leads to a very important question.
Should we shut someone out of the Hall of Fame because of his drug dealer?
The logical nightmare for those who take a stand against PED users is simple: What happens if they vote for someone who they believed was innocent but later find out used? Does that change their pattern going forward, or is it simply a “my bad” and move on? Because of the actions of the players, the Hall of Fame has become an all-or-nothing proposition. Either consider everyone, because we don't know who was clean, or consider no one, for the same reason.
The latter could lead to a Hall missing so many seminal players from a 20-year period. And considering the Hall is supposed to reflect baseball history, let it do so: induct the best players from every era and ensure their plaques note whether they were caught up in the early steroid scandals or tested positive later through MLB's program.
Separating it pre- and post-testing is fraught with issues, too. To base a Hall of Fame vote on the rules of a league that has constantly evolved its stance on PED use doesn't make sense, particularly becasue the league still hasn't had an honest conversation about the purpose of PEDs and how they're not this chainsaw-wielding bogeyman. Just as important, it is impossible to trust the current drug-testing programs enough to tell us who actually used. Look at the Biogenesis case. More than a dozen players were on an Anthony Bosch-prescribed regimen of banned substances. Testing caught three. Alex Rodriguez allegedly spent three years pumping himself full of a pharmacy's worth of dope, and not once did the system pop him. This cannot be voters' threshold, not when it's so flimsy and fallible.
Perhaps the feelings toward properly recognizing those linked with PEDs will change by the time Ortiz becomes eligible. We'll be into the 2020s by then, and baseball surely will have seen more scandal, more controversy, more of what it has grown so used to. It could harden the hard-liners; it could soften them. The response to PEDs can be disproportionate to the crime.
Until then, the candidacy of Big Papi will continue to rise against the Green Monster-sized wall in front of him. Numbers will help him ascend it. Time may help him scale it. And Cooperstown, N.Y., will await to see if David Ortiz deserved that nickname after all.