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One strike and he's in? David Ortiz likely to earn Hall of Fame induction despite PED connection

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When David Ortiz was feted with an elaborate pregame ceremony before his final regular season game in 2016, the Boston Red Sox erred on the side of overdelivering.

Big Papi, after all, is the most beloved player from the most prosperous era in the franchise’s 121-year history, and love was most definitely in the air. Fans hoofing it to Fenway Park over the Massachusetts Turnpike would henceforth do so on the David Ortiz Bridge, and a portion of what was once Yawkey Way was renamed David Ortiz Drive. His No. 34, it was announced, would be retired the next year, and Red Sox ownership kicked in a $1 million donation to Ortiz’s charitable foundation.

It was a sendoff that spared no expense and no sentiment, even with a playoff series looming just days later. Yet for all the honorifics, the most significant development with regard to Ortiz’s legacy that day came in remarks made by commissioner Rob Manfred to the news media.

Ortiz, you see, tested positive for a banned substance during ostensibly anonymous survey testing in 2003, a year Major League Baseball and the MLBPA viewed as a gateway to performance-enhancing drug testing with penalties. Yet in 2009, multiple reports from the New York Times and Sports Illustrated revealed details of the ’03 results that were intended to remain private – that 104 players tested positive, that long-suspected Sammy Sosa came up positive, as did the transcendent Alex Rodriguez, until the slow drip finally made its way to Boston.

Manny Ramirez and Big Papi – PED users.

The news about Ramirez – daft but lovable and an insanely productive hitter as a Red Sox – scarcely moved the needle; he’d tested positive for PEDs as a member of the Dodgers that year, aspersions about his career already sufficiently cast.

But Ortiz was, even to a baseball public still bowled over from the PED era and the 2007 Mitchell Report, a stunner.

Sure, his early career arc might have raised an eyebrow. Beset by injuries in Minnesota, he was released by the Twins after the 2002 season and then, in 2003, became the Big Papi we know, slamming 31 home runs, producing a .961 OPS and 144 adjusted OPS after he was largely a league-average hitter with Minnesota. In a vacuum, a positive 2003 test isn’t startling.

Yet Ortiz went on to enjoy hugely productive years as drug testing with penalties became reality in 2005 and beyond. In 2006, he led the American League in home runs (54), RBI (137) walks (119) and total bases (355). He hovered between 23 and 35 homers from 2007-2014, before finishing with 37 and 38 homers in 2015-16, leading the AL with 54 doubles in his final season.

And that’s when Manfred, perhaps recognizing Ortiz’s import as a future ambassador to the game while realizing PED pariahs like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be denied Hall of Fame entry, issued an unprecedented get-out-of-jail-free card. He told reporters that day that Ortiz could have been among the 10 to 15 positive tests that might have been triggered by a supplement and not a banned substance, and that “there was probably, or possibly, a very legitimate explanation that did not involve the use of a banned substance. I think it’s really unfortunate that anybody’s name was ever released publicly."

Ortiz receives his 2013 World Series ring at Fenway Park in 2014.
Ortiz receives his 2013 World Series ring at Fenway Park in 2014.

And so Manfred, who as MLB’s chief negotiator largely hammered out collective bargaining agreements that introduced drug testing, took the step of urging voters to ignore Ortiz’s positive drug test, an unofficial pardon that has not been afforded to Clemens, Bonds, Sosa or any of the more than 100 players identified before, within or after the Mitchell Report as suspected or likely PED users.

“Whatever judgement writers decide to make with respect to players who have tested positive or otherwise been adjudicated under our program,’’ Manfred said, “that’s up to them. That’s a policy decision. They have to look into their conscience and decide how they evaluate that against the Hall of Fame criteria.

“What I do feel is unfair that in situations where it is leaks, rumors, innuendo, not confirmed positive-tests results, that is unfair to the players. I think that would be wrong.’’

Manfred more recently urged leniency toward a confirmed PED cheat, this time a player he figuratively chased down and suspended under MLB’s drug policy. In 2013, All-Star DH Nelson Cruz’s name emerged in a Miami New Times report that indicated he received banned substances – including synthetic testosterone lozenges - from disgraced Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch.

Cruz never tested positive under MLB’s drug testing program – the lozenges, if used in an appropriately timed manner, can evade detection – but was suspended, along with a dozen others, for 50 games by MLB in 2013. In the nine years since, Cruz has hit 292 more home runs, earned five more All-Star honors and in October was named the winner of MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award for his significant good works in his native Dominican Republic.

In presenting Cruz the award, Manfred noted Cruz was the fourth Minnesota Twin to win it, joining Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett.

“I think you all know what all those three men have in common in addition to winning the Clemente Award,” Manfred said. “Nelson Cruz, I hope you join that group as well.”

Manfred, of course, has neither a vote nor any control over the Hall of Fame selection process, but is free to promote the players he believes deserve strong consideration. Yet in the eyes of voters who opt not to support PED users, and are seeking clarity on Ortiz’s admittedly unclear violation, Manfred’s endorsement of Cruz would only seem to further cloud his support for Ortiz.

Other elements of Ortiz’s candidacy are much more crystal-clear.

The case for

If you like comps and counting stats, Ortiz is a no-brainer when measured against Edgar Martinez, who earned induction in his 15th and final season of eligibility in 2019.

Home runs: Ortiz 541, Martinez 309.

RBI: Ortiz 1,768, Martinez 1,261.

Postseason homers and extra-base hits: Ortiz 17 and 41, Martinez eight and 15.

Championships: Ortiz four, including a World Series MVP award; Martinez zero.

Martinez played roughly four seasons at third base, which is largely why he outpoints Ortiz, 68.4-55.3 in WAR, and his career adjusted OPS (147-141) is also superior.

Yet it’s largely pointless to parse Ortiz’s numbers – plenty Hall-worthy - when you factor in his impact on the game’s history.

He was in the very thick of the biggest on-field story of this century – the 2004 Red Sox breaking an 86-year championship drought and overcoming a 3-0 AL Championship Series deficit to do it. Ortiz’s prints were all over it: Walk-off 10th-inning home run to end the AL Division Series against the Angels, walk-off 12th-inning home run to give Boston its first breath of life in the ALCS, walk-off 14th-inning single to send the series back to New York and sufficiently freak the Yankees out.

A year later, Henry would present Ortiz with a plaque deeming him “the greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox,” an honor as random as it was premature. Yet Ortiz only kept stacking up the postseason production, proving Henry’s plaque prophetic. The Red Sox would go on to win World Series titles in 2007 and 2013, his Game 2 ALCS grand slam that sent Torii Hunter sprawling as big a blow as any of his 2004 heroics. Ortiz amassed a career .947 postseason OPS, with 17 homers and 61 RBI.

Prefer World Series stats to compare across eras? Papi’s got you: A .455 average and 1.372 OPS in 14 games, his OPS ranking third all-time among players with at least 30 plate appearances.

Ortiz celebrates after winning the 2013 World Series against the Cardinals.
Ortiz celebrates after winning the 2013 World Series against the Cardinals.

The case against

The debate over designated hitters and the Hall of Fame is generally a meditation on whether they’re kept out because the position did not exist in prior eras, or because DHs who cannot handle a defensive position don’t deserve consideration afforded everyday field players.

Martinez seemed to largely settle that argument, even if it took 15 years, and a veteran’s committee in 2019 voted longtime DH Harold Baines into the Hall. Additionally, WAR and other metrics apply a penalty of sorts to DHs, making it easier, albeit imperfect, to compare them to everyday position players.

That overly simplified rendering does make Ortiz something of a coin flip. His WAR rent district is flush with great-but-not-Hall-bound players of his era like Johnny Damon, Jeff Kent, Joe Mauer and Ian Kinsler. Yet Luis Aparicio, Hank Greenberg and Ducky Medwick are among those who did earn election.

More simply, Ortiz’s 541 home runs rank 17th all-time, and anyone with more than 500 are in the Hall, save for active players who will be shoo-ins (Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols) and those tied strongly to PEDs (Bonds, Rodriguez, Sosa, Mark McGwire, Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield).

Ah, the PEDs.

The samples from 2003 testing were destroyed, though not soon enough for federal officials investigating the BALCO scandal to seize them and a trickle of names to ultimately leak. Litigating the height of baseball’s steroid era via Hall of Fame voting is already an impossible task; it only gets cloudier when so many specifics about Ortiz’s ties to PEDs are unknown, as opposed to the compendium of deeply reported details on Bonds, and Clemens’ federal perjury trial during which his ties to PED use were strongly established.

One strike has been more than enough to keep Palmeiro and many others out of the Hall.

Voting trends

Through 161 ballots revealed on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, Ortiz has received 83.6% of votes, for the moment enough to vault the 75% mark and earn induction. Yet public ballots always skew on the higher end, and past trends indicate Ortiz will likely fall short.

But he’s assured of a very strong debut, one that almost certainly ensures eventual induction. He should only continue trending upward as voting demographics shift and younger electors, perhaps more tolerant of PED ties, play a larger role. It’s not a stretch to consider Ortiz a strong bet for Year 2 induction.

Outlook

It’s impossible to tell the story of baseball in the 21st century without David Ortiz, whose production is Hall-worthy, whose feats were historic and whose outsize personality made him one of the few instantly recognizable faces in an increasingly stratified media universe. He will almost certainly get in, perhaps not this year but soon, his scale of accomplishments outweighing the stain on his record.

That concept didn’t sufficiently boost Bonds and Clemens, who will likely slip off the ballot without election after this, their 10th year of eligibility. Ortiz should be more fortunate, with one key endorsement already in his favor.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: David Ortiz's Hall of Fame case: Red Sox hero Big Papi has steroid stain