Red Sox slugger David Ortiz isn’t a bad guy — or a Hall of Famer
David Ortiz comes across as a fairly intelligent fellow, but it seems he’s not quite figured out the whole "Hey, let’s shut out the traditional media and bring our thoughts and feelings directly to the hoi polloi, no middle men" thing.
Last Thursday, EDITOR AT LARGE Ortiz published a lengthy essay – and I say "published" because editors, and especially large ones, are who decide what’s published and what’s not – over on Derek Jeter’s website.
But then the very same day, Ortiz granted a long interview, saying most of the same things, to The Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler! Somebody needs to talk to Big Papi’s ed — oh, right. It’s all so confusing.
Anyway, we’ve sort of got our pick here. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to stick with the old media, mostly. Since if Ortiz and his fellow editors, large and otherwise take over the world, I’m out of a job.
Before I get to the point of my little essay, I will spare a moment for my colleagues; in fact a pair of colleagues who could hardly be more different.
In Craig Calcaterra’s space, he made some interesting points about Ortiz’s claim to have been drug-tested "more than 80" times since 2004. Ortiz also says, "I have never failed a single one of those tests and never will." But as Craig notes, if Ortiz had not failed a test since 2004, there’s simply no reason for him to have been tested more than 80 times. So (according to Craig) Ortiz is either exaggerating about the tests, or lying about not failing a test for amphetamine use (which would have put him "in the program" and thus subject to more frequent testing).
I don’t have any idea which, if either, is true. But considering the once-rampant nature of amphetamine use, not to mention how many players are today using stimulants (thanks to the ever-popular medical exemptions), one should hardly be shocked or even surprised to learn that a) Ortiz did flunk an amphetamines test, but b) he doesn’t really count that, since the baseball writers have never really held amphetamines against players.
In Dan Shaughnessy’s space, no doubt goaded by this passage . . .
In 2013, I came off the DL and started hot. My first 20 games I was hitting like .400. And the reporter with the red jheri curl from The Boston Globe comes into the locker room says, "You’re from the Dominican. You’re older. You fit the profile of a steroid user. Don’t you think you’re a prime suspect?"
He’s saying this with a straight face. I had taken like 70 at-bats. Anybody can get hot and hit .400 with 70 at-bats. I was stunned. I’m like, I’m Dominican? I fit the profile? Are you kidding me?
I wanted to kill this guy. But you can’t react. That’s what they want. They want you to get angry so they can bury you. So I just smiled at him and asked for his address.
"Why do you want my address?" he said.
"Because I just got tested two days ago." I said. "I’ll mail you the f***ing results."
. . . Shaughnessy responded in some detail, and I have to say it’s the first time in a long time that Shaughnessy made much sense to me. I mean, if you believe him. Which I do, mostly. Granted, that was a couple of years ago and memories do fade. Or worse. I sure would like to see Shaughnessy’s notebook from that afternoon.
The problem was not, as I wrote at the time, that Shaughnessy asked Ortiz some tough questions, and referenced Ortiz’s heritage. The problem was that Shaughnessy’s questions were apparently inspired by suspicions based on an absurdly small sample size.
But of course Ortiz, in his complaint now, doesn’t mention that. And if you read Shaughnessy’s account now, you’ll find that he and Ortiz remember that moment, less than two years ago, almost completely differently. I don’t know, man . . . for all my issues with Shaughnessy’s work over the years, I’ll have to take the word of the guy with the notebook. If forced to choose. What I’ll guess is that Ortiz didn’t really get offended by Shaughnessy’s questions until people told him how offended he should be. And he seems to have held a grudge ever since.
Either way, the single best thing about Ortiz’s essay on the vanity site and Hohler’s interview is this: They gave dudes like Calcaterra and Shaughnessy something to grab with their canines and shake around a little, and this is what sports columnists are supposed to do. Some just do it more thoughtfully and elegantly than others.
But I said I would have my own thoughts about Big Papi . . .
When the saga started in 2003, Ortiz was a marginal major leaguer, fearful at age 27 that he never would establish himself as an everyday player. He joined the Red Sox that February as a Minnesota Twins castoff, a would-be slugger with a thin resume and a lot to prove.
The drug testers were close behind.
"I was taking whatever supplements were good at the time, stuff that everybody was using that would sustain me in my workouts," he said.
Which supplements? The substance that triggered his positive test result has yet to be identified.
"It’s been a long time," Ortiz said. "I don’t know."
He must have a clue, he was told. He had previously stated he was "careless" about the products he put in his body.
"All I can tell you is, I was using what everybody was using at the time," Ortiz said. "It’s not like I was picky about it."
Look, you can believe that Ortiz wasn’t "cheating" or not. But without naming names, shouldn’t we assume that players were gobbling up just about anything they thought would make them better baseball players? Especially if their pals were doing the same thing? It does seem that Ortiz has internalized the standard excuse, that drugs were to "sustain workouts" instead of, you know, help him hit the ball 20 feet farther than before. But there’s every reason to think that players a dozen years ago just didn’t care what they were taking, until there were drug tests that actually mattered. In this respect, Ortiz was probably no different than . . . oh, maybe half the guys in professional baseball a dozen years ago.*
*By the way, I love how more than 5 percent of the players failed that 2003 screening, even though they a) knew the test was coming, and b) also knew that if more than 5 percent failed, "they would all be subject in 2004 to strict screening and penalties." Classic free-rider problem!
Whether he’s exaggerating about the frequency or not, Ortiz has been tested many, many times over the last decade-plus, and he’s been clean enough to avoid getting suspended. Yes, he’s done some things that late-30s sluggers don’t usually do. But I’m perfectly willing to assume he’s been just as clean as the next guy.
Was Ortiz’s failed 2003 test the result of a "New York conspiracy," as he claims? We’ll probably never know. Sounds pretty wild to me, though. All we can say is that such claims don’t really enhance Ortiz’s credibility. Which is touching, in its way. There’s something endearing about a man-child. You know, as long as he’s not knocking down an old man for kicks or allegedly slapping his wife.
In his Players’ Tribune essay, Ortiz downplays his ambition regarding the Hall of Fame, stressing instead the importance of his children not considering him a cheater. Fair enough. Athletes do feel strongly about that, I’m sure. Even when they did actually cheat at least a little. I don’t blame them. Perfectly fine people have taken sports drugs, crossed picket lines, stolen bread . . . whatever. And nobody wants to be defined by his worst moment. Or what others consider a worst moment.
So what about the Hall of Fame, though? From his essay:
Hell yes I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. I’ve won three World Series since MLB introduced comprehensive drug testing. I’ve performed year after year after year. But if a bunch of writers who have never swung a bat want to tell me it’s all for nothing, OK. Why do they write my legacy?
. . . and then from Hohler’s piece:
The stigma has stuck to Ortiz like pine tar, scarring his legacy, and threatening to play keep-away with his dream of reaching baseball’s Hall of Fame, which has yet to honor a player formally linked to performance enhancers.
"If one day I’m up for the Hall of Fame and there are guys who don’t vote for me because of that, I will call it unfair," he said in a lengthy interview in the Red Sox clubhouse in Fort Myers, Fla.
Would it be unfair to withhold a Hall of Fame vote because Ortiz failed a drug test in 2003? Yeah, I think so. For so, so many reasons. But that essentially is the precedent that’s been set.
Would it be fair to withhold a Hall of Fame vote simply because you don’t think Ortiz has Hall of Fame numbers? Yeah, I think so. His career numbers aren’t really Hall of Fame-worthy, considering his nonexistent value as a defender and the shutouts of (so far) Edgar Martinez and Mark McGwire (among others).
Really, a good Hall of Fame case for Ortiz must give seriously heavy weight to his postseason performance. I have recommended using postseason performance as a sort of tiebreaker . . . but oddly, Ortiz hasn’t been tremendously important in postseason games, according to this metric anyway (which doesn’t include 2013, and Ortiz did hit a few big homers that October).
Tiebreaker? Yeah, but Ortiz needs more than a tiebreaker. Leaving aside the sports drugs completely, and knowing just what I know now, I couldn’t support his candidacy without at least two more big regular seasons.
Which doesn’t make him a bad guy. Just a great hitter. That’s about all we can know from here.