If you needed one sentence to understand why David Ortiz has had a Hall of Fame career, try this: He is the only player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs and win three world championships without playing for the Yankees. If you do include Yankees, he joins only Babe Ruth (who played on seven championship teams), Mickey Mantle (seven) and Reggie Jackson (five, including the 1972 Athletics, when Jackson missed the World Series due to injury).
The Bambino, the Mick, Mr. October and Big Papi. That’s it. How’s that for a Mount Rushmore of legendary sluggers, the kind so famous even a casual fan could identify them without use of their given name? Is that not real, enduring fame?
Now let’s rank them according to where they stand on the all-time list of greatest postseason hitters, using OPS and setting the minimum at 40 games:
1. Babe Ruth (1.214)
6. David Ortiz (.962)
14. Mickey Mantle (.908)
17. Reggie Jackson (.885)
If you ranked all 500 Home Run Club members by postseason OPS, the top looks like this: 1. Ruth; 2. Albert Pujols; 3. Ortiz.
Now think about how Ortiz was an integral part of changing baseball history, especially the perceived raison d’etre of the Boston franchise. From 1919 through 2002, the Red Sox reached the postseason nine times and never won a World Series. From '03 to '13, they reached the postseason seven times and won three World Series. How important was Ortiz in that run? The Red Sox won 45 postseason games in that decade, only three of them without Ortiz getting on base; he drove in 22 runs in the 17 games when Boston faced elimination, with the Sox winning 13 of those 17 elimination games; he hit .313 in the nine clinching games in Boston’s three titles runs; and so on and so on.
The greatest knock on Ortiz’s Hall of Fame candidacy is the 2009 report by The New York Times that he appeared on a list seized by government agents said to contain the names of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during survey testing in '03. In an unprecedented move, the union mounted a public defense on behalf of such a tarnished player—with the backing of MLB. The late Michael Weiner of the union did a superb job explaining why connecting a name on the list to “tested positive for steroids” was a rather big leap.
The facts as defined by Weiner, which still have not been disputed, are that only 83 of the 104 names on the list were considered to be “confirmed positives.” Why the gap? The number 104 represents positive tests, not individual players, meaning some players on the list tested positive multiple times. “A maximum” of 96 players actually tested positive, with the positive tests of another 13 players not confirmed because the union disputed them. Because of testing protocols at the time, a player could be linked to a positive test while using over-the-counter supplements that did not included banned substances in its ingredients.
(Ortiz has denied using steroids, suggesting his over-the-counter supplements and vitamins could have landed him on the list of 104. This position recalls what recently-minted Hall of Famer Randy Johnson told me years ago when I asked him if he had used banned substances: “I’m not denying that I went to GNC and all that stuff, you know? I took a lot of different things that, you know, maybe at that time, maybe early enough, if I would have been tested, who knows?")
That brings us to another key point: We still don’t know what substance put Ortiz on that list of 104.
So here are the facts as we know them: Ortiz’s name wound up on a list in which one of out every five players on it are not considered to be confirmed positives, and we have no idea what substance—anything from an over-the-counter supplement to hard-core steroid and anything in between—put him on that list in the first place.
Does that put Ortiz above suspicion? No, but suspicion is not enough to damn a career, and, for now, leaves the link between Ortiz and steroids as an interpretive one, not a factual one. The book is not closed; the quest for facts is an ongoing one.
Meanwhile, since testing for steroids began in earnest in 2004, Ortiz has been one of baseball’s best sluggers. Only Pujols (441) has hit more home runs in the testing era than Ortiz (411). And his slugging percentage (.565) is better than all players with at least 500 games in this era except Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Manny Ramirez—just ahead of Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton.
Ortiz does enter the 500 Home Run Club as a one-dimensional slugger, a guy who largely doesn’t play defense or run well. In fact, since his stolen base days appear to be over (his last one, career steal No. 15, came in 2013), Ortiz will have the second-fewest career stolen bases of any player who hit 500 home runs. The fewest? That would be Mark McGwire, with 12.
Even stranger is how infrequently Ortiz has been hit by pitches, especially for a guy who likes to flip his bat and watch his home runs. The big guy has been hit by a pitch only 36 times, trailing only Jimmie Foxx and Mantle (13), Eddie Murray (18), Eddie Mathews (26) and Hank Aaron (32) in the 500 Home Run Club.
“Two things,” Ortiz explained. “One, I don’t dive [into the pitch]. Guys who dive get hit. [Derek] Jeter used to dive. My man Hanley [Ramirez] with that leg kick, he gets hit a lot. The other thing is that pitchers know I can hurt them inside. They don’t come in a lot because if they miss over the plate, they know I can hurt them.”
And Yankees fans will love this stat, considering that Ortiz has hit home runs off more Yankees pitchers than anybody in history: Ortiz has batted 647 times against New York righthanders in his career and never been hit by a pitch. (New York lefties have hit him only three times.)
Okay, so Ortiz is not an “inner-circle” Hall of Famer, however you would like to define that imaginary honor-within-an-honor. (Inclusion is binary; how long it took to get it, what percentage of the vote you received, how your numbers compare to others enshrined … it’s all meaningless in a pass-fail world.) For instance, Pete Rose recently told me this about Ortiz: “I wouldn’t vote for him for the Hall of Fame, and I’ll tell you why. This is his 18th year? He’s got 2,100 hits. How can you only have 2,100 hits and you’ve played 18 years? That’s 130 hits a year. And he’s a DH.”
I get it; he’s not Mantle or Ruth. But Ortiz is one of the most prolific and important hitters of his generation. He slugged at an elite level for a very long time, and he was even better when championship history was written.