David Ortiz’s 500 Home Runs Doesn’t Cement Hall of Fame Candidacy
David Ortiz is a superstar with an asterisk next to his name, no matter how unfair that may be. The greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history deserves a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame after he hangs it up—but, he has two strikes against him that make his enshrinement improbable, if not impossible.
Ortiz belted his 500th career home run Saturday night against the Rays in front of a seemingly half-empty Tropicana Field, which is an oddly appropriate symbol for a once monumental milestone that’s meaning has been sullied with the stain of performance-enhancing drugs. The 500-home-run mark used to be a non-refundable ticket to Cooperstown, but that’s no longer the case. Twelve of the 27 players in the 500-home-run club have reached the plateau over the last 16 years, and only one out of the six new members who have been eligible for the Hall of Fame has gotten in.
This sobering dose of reality isn’t meant to dampen Ortiz’s accomplishment, but is rather a recitation of facts. Most members of the largely antediluvian Baseball Hall of Fame voting bloc view every player who played in the steroid era with suspicion, and are leery of placing them among the game’s all-time greats.
Ortiz is one of more than 100 players who tested positive for PEDs during a preliminary round of drug testing in 2003, though the results were supposed to be kept anonymous. In 2009, Ortiz’s name was leaked to the New York Times along with three others. The other positive tests have remained confidential.
Ortiz has disputed his positive test for years. He maintains he doesn’t know what he tested positive for, and says nobody has helped him find out. In an impassioned first-person defense of his legacy that was published on Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune website this spring, Ortiz claims to have been tested more than 80 times since baseball’s steroid ban was enacted in 2004.
The facts don’t seem to back up Ortiz’s rodomontade, because as Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports notes, players can only be tested a maximum of four times per year unless they’ve previously been caught using a banned substance. It appears as if Ortiz may have revealed more than he intended to, or is lying. (Ortiz has never been suspended for a positive test, but up until recently, players have not been disciplined for first offenses for amphetamines.)
None of this should matter, of course. It’s impossible to determine how many players have used steroids, and how much of an affect they have on performance. The best way to handle this would be to just induct the best players from each era into the Hall, and leave the guessing work to someone of a higher power.
But that’s not how it works. Players far more accomplished than Ortiz have been able unable to overcome the stain of their alleged or confirmed steroid use.
Barry Bonds is, statistically speaking, the best hitter in baseball history. But yet, the all-time home run leader only amassed 36.8 percent of the Hall of Fame vote this year. Bonds admitted to a federal grand jury in 2003 he unknowingly used anabolic steroids commonly referred to as “the cream” and “the clear,” but says the drugs didn’t work. He was cleared of obstruction of justice charges earlier this year, which stemmed from his reply to a federal prosecutor about whether his former personal trainer, Greg Anderson, had provided him with an injectable substance.
Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers to ever take the mound, but steroid accusations have plagued his Hall of Fame candidacy as well. Clemens garnered 37.5 percent of the vote this year. Sammy Sosa, who also tested positive in 2003 and has more than 100 home runs than Ortiz, has never been able to break single-digits in Hall of Fame balloting.
Mark McGwire only got 10 percent of the vote this year, even though baseball didn’t have a steroid testing program in place when he played. Gary Sheffield, an admitted steroid user, barely broke the 11 percent threshold this year. Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive for PEDs in 2005, didn’t even receive enough votes to stay on the ballot.
All of these players have better numbers than Ortiz. If they haven’t been able to shake the “cheater” label, it seems unlikely that he will.
The other knock against Ortiz is the position he plays. Though the American League introduced the designated hitter in 1973, the majority of voters appear to hold a bias against players who don’t play the field. Ortiz has started as a DH in more than 1,800 of the 2,277 games he’s appeared in.
The only other pure DH with Hall of Fame credentials is Edgar Martinez, and he couldn’t crack 30 percent of the vote this year. That’s not a good sign for Ortiz, especially considering Martinez was a better hitter.
Martinez has a higher career batting average and on-base percentage than Ortiz. His OPS+, an offensive statistic that accounts for league and park effects and thus can be used to compare players from different years and teams, is better than Ortiz’s as well. The only areas in which Ortiz has Martinez beat are counting stats such as home runs and RBI.
Maybe it won’t always be this way. The Baseball Hall of Fame announced this summer sportswriters who haven’t covered the game for more than 10 years will have their voting credentials revoked. This will go a long way toward weeding out the dinosaurs, but it might just take some time.
Time is Ortiz’s biggest ally here. It may be close to a decade before he appears on the Hall of Fame ballot, as players have to wait five years after they retire in order to be eligible. Given that Ortiz is on pace for yet another 30-home-run, 100-RBI campaign, it appears as if retirement is a long ways away for Big Papi.
That’s good news for Red Sox fans, who should cherish every remaining moment of Ortiz’s legendary career. This is a man who belongs in the Boston sports pantheon alongside Bird, Brady, Williams, and Orr.
He also belongs in the Hall of Fame. The numbers are there, and his postseason heroics should push him over the top.
But players more deserving than Ortiz with just one strike against them have been kept out, and in many cases, haven’t even gotten close. As it stands today, Ortiz is about as far away from Cooperstown as the Red Sox are from first place.