Ortiz in Cooperstown: Now, about that (ahem) other stuff

David Ortiz

Boston’s 21st Century king of swing wasn’t as tainted as you still might think.

It almost figured that I’d see at least one person only start reminding us of now-Hall of Famer David Ortiz’s “taint” by noticing he’d hit only 20 home runs in his final Minnesota season, 2002, then 37 in his first Boston season, 2003. Heaven forbid such people do their homework. So I did it for him, and for anyone else who cares.

As a Twin in 2002, Ortiz hit fifteen home runs on the road but only five in the Metrodome, which was still the Twins’ home playpen. (Calling the Metrodome a park is like calling Itzhak Perlman a fiddler.) As a Red Sox in 2003, Ortiz hit fourteen homers on the road and seventeen in Fenway Park.

In other words, Ortiz—who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent after the Twins released him—went from a home stadium that was killing him to a home park that was great for him at the plate. He didn’t need actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances for that.

Now, about that 2003 positive for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances? The one that marks Ortiz as a “steroid cheat” for life, in the eyes of only too many? Can we shoot that one down once and for all?

1) Those 2003 tests were supposed to be anonymous, done to determine whether the problem of actual/alleged PEDs was indeed rampant enough to begin mandatory testing. Well, they were anonymous . . . until somebody leaked the results to the New York Times six years later.

2) The 2003 tests turned out to be very problematic and even tainted. (Not to mention seized improperly by the federal government.) Even Rob Manfred himself has said of them, “it was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program.”

Ortiz was never even told the substance in question. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association would tell him what it was. The last I looked, if you were accused of something horrible but never once told just what you were accused of doing, you’d have grounds to dismiss your accusers as bloody fools at minimum—and targets of defamation suits at maximum.

Manfred even said it couldn’t be confirmed for dead last certain that Ortiz actually did test positive for such a substance. That may have been the case with several other players testing positive in that supposed-to-be-anonymous test.

3) Mandatory testing for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances began in MLB in 2004. Ortiz was tested regularly, several times a year, over the final thirteen years of his career . . . and never. once. tested. dirty.

4) By contrast, of course, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were suspect prior to the mandatory testing era and starting around 1999-2000. They’ve fallen off the BBWAA ballot now, after failing to be elected in their tenth and final tries and despite getting their highest vote percentages yet. (Bonds: 66 percent; Clemens: 65.2 percent.) Yes, their records prior to 1999-2000 said Hall of Famers both. Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark says, simply, “They just ran out of minds to change.”

Maybe not quite. Both their cases, the good, bad, and ugly, go to the Era Committees. The Today’s Game Committee could take them both up as soon as next fall. That’ll be small comfort to those excoriating the Baseball Writers Association of America for saying OK to some who’ve been suspected but never proven and no to others suspected and suspected and suspected again.

Saying no to those absolutely affirmed is different. Manny Ramírez tested dirty twice during the mandatory-testing era and put paid to himself. He didn’t help his own cause, either, by having been one of baseball’s biggest pains in the rump roast. What they used to call “Manny Being Manny” was Manny graduating from a fun-loving nutbag to a self-centered jerk who often wounded his teams with his antics.

Aléx Rodríguez, who was a first-timer on this year’s BBWAA ballot as well, got nailed stone cold in the Biogenesis probe, of course. That probe had its own issues, unfortunately, but A-Rod’s self-immolating bid to sue his way out of that jam until he was forced to sit an entire season out under suspension took care of him.

My own ambivalence about the actual/alleged PED question comes down as well to the following: It was and remains genuinely impossible to prove for dead last certain that using them did or didn’t give someone a performance or statistical edge. You can even look at a considerable majority of such suspects and discover their stats actually dipped, not rose, during the periods they were believed to indulge. (Jason Giambi was one such candidate, in fact.)

You can also find considerable research to suggest very plausibly that the substances which inflated arm and shoulder strength weren’t really going to help for one good reason: nearly all power hitters generate their power from the lower body, from the torso and thighs.

There were enough players, too, who dipped into the actual/alleged PED well not because they thought it would give them an edge at the plate or on the mound but because they thought—foolishly enough—that they could recover from injuries quicker and without consequences. If they learned the hard way about the consequences, could you blame them for trying? Really?

Baseball doctors aren’t exactly chock full of Nobel Prize for Medicine candidates. In enough cases they could be tried by jury for malpractise, if not quackery. You can remember how many players with careers compromised or ended for rushing it back, being rushed back, or playing foolishly through injuries?

And don’t get me started on how many injured players were denounced as “quitters” for not wanting to risk the long term and play through injuries that might have become worse. (Were, and still are. Carl Crawford had Hall of Fame talent but was sapped by injuries—including one or two he was foolish enough to try playing through, for fear that his manager might call him a quitter, too.)

As a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, I participate in an annual vote for the Hall of Fame. Symbolic regarding the real Hall of Fame, of course. But we elected Bonds and Clemens a couple of years ago. I’d like to think we, not just me,  knew Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame worthy by their careers before they were suspect.

(We also figured, I’m sure, Clemens having been acquitted of lying to Congress’s Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids [thank you again, Mr. Will] when he denied using actual/alleged PEDs.)

I’d like to think we also knew the tainted 2003 anonymous test shouldn’t taint a David Ortiz who burned to play in the biggest of the big, shone in the biggest of the big, and has three World Series rings to show for it, but never tested dirty in thirteen seasons to follow of playing in the mandatory testing era.

But it’s easier to clean up an oil spill than it is to change minds made up before or despite the real evidence coming before it. That’s something that even ironclad evidence has a tough time overcoming.

This is his [bleeping] Hall of Fame

David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez

David Ortiz (left) with an arm around buddy Pedro Martinez after Martinez’s Hall of Fame induction. Martinez returned the favour, being there when Big Papi got the call he was a Hall of Famer on Tuesday evening.

In the end, the big man with the garrulous personality was the boy in the toy store handed carte blanche to help himself. With Hall of Fame Red Sox teammate Pedro Martinez’s arm around him and his cell phone on speaker, David Ortiz got the call he finally suspected would come—but not necessarily on his first try.

The man whose real coming-out party was a mammoth game-winning home run to finish what the Red Sox started improbably enough, in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series, stopping a Yankee sweep and launching the Red Sox to four straight wins, a pennant, and a World Series sweep, was overwhelmed at last.

Before Ortiz was elected, twelve Latino men were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and three who played in the Negro Leagues before the Show colour line was broken were chosen by committees designated to consider Negro Leagues greats. The most recent Era Committee votes elected Tony Oliva and Minnie Miñoso, too.

Ortiz now makes eighteen Latinos in the Hall of Fame and four from the Dominican Republic. His fellow Dominican Hall of Famers are Martinez, Juan Marichal, and Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero told the Cooperstown gathering in 2018 that he was aware his election could open a door for other Dominican-born greats to follow. Big Papi probably gave the door a blast open comparable to any he’d hit in the biggest of his big moments in a Red Sox uniform.

He’s also the first full-time designated hitter to reach the Hall of Fame on his first BBWAA ballot. It took Edgar Martinez ten tries to make it, before he finally and deservedly punctured any longtime bias against full-time DHs. (Frank Thomas didn’t become primarily a DH until the tenth of his nineteen-season career; Harold Baines—the most mistaken Hall pick of the past decade—didn’t get to primarily DH service until his eighth of 22 seasons.)

But if Martinez should have ended up failing and gone to an Era Committee for second and third looks, Ortiz would likely have blown the bias away. It doesn’t denigrate Martinez to say that, between the Hall’s now two fullest-time DHs, Big Papi has a big advantage on the depth and height charts, according to my Real Batting Average metric:

Hall of Fame DH PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
David Ortiz 10,091 4765 1319 209 92 38 .637
Edgar Martinez 8674 3718 1283 113 77 89 .609

Among the four Hall of Famers recognised as designated hitters first, the average RBA is the same as Martinez’s. (Baines, in case you were curious, has an RBA 71 points below that average.) Ortiz’s 28 points above the average is topped among the Hall DHs only by Thomas’s +45 points. (Thomas’s RBA: .654.)

David Ortiz

Big Papi’s real coming-out party—the game-winning bomb in Game Four, 2004 ALCS.

It’s not their fault that their teams didn’t deliver unto them as many chances for the big moments that Ortiz’s Red Sox delivered unto him. It’s certainly not fair that we’ll never know how they would have acquitted themselves if they had been. Ortiz’s postseason RBA is sixteen points higher than his regular-season career RBA, and he was even more of a one-man highlight show in the postseason than he was in the regular season, which was often enough and then some.

“It’s a next-level type of thing,” Ortiz said after getting The Call. “You don’t see this every day. You don’t receive this phone call every day . . . I have so many great and wonderful times while I played, but this one, it’s the type of baby that you just want to hold onto it and never let go.”

Just the way those who knew and played with and even against him hold onto and never let go of their encounters with him. Short-time Red Sox teammate and now Cubs manager David Ross is one. Grandpa Rossy will tell you one minute that Ortiz was a mentor who counseled him to hit according to your nature (If you’re a fastball hitter, don’t miss the fastball; if you hit breaking balls, crush the breaking ball) and the next that there might not have been a body big enough to contain his heart.

“The heart was as big as the baseball skills,” Ross says. “He had parties after every playoff win. Everyone was invited. Ownership, his pastor. He’s a special human being. When he stepped out of the dugout, everyone knew he was there to put on a show. Pretty special presence that he brought.”

“He treated everybody with a high level of respect,” says his former Red Sox teammate Gabe Kapler, currently the manager of the National League West-defending Giants. “He was a very normal guy who reached a high level of performance and superstardom that nobody expected . . . A moment was never too big for him. He was never too wound up . . . He was a very in-control man, a very thoughtful man. Very measured. That measured, calm heart rate helped him succeed in those moments.”

Not even when it came time to put an entire city on his back in the immediate wake of the terrorist act the Boston Marathon bombing was in 2013. But I say again: beware the odds that Big Papi won’t be able to resist the temptation to holler from the Cooperstown podium, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame! If he can’t, who could blame him?

Big Papi leads my IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

David Ortiz

David Ortiz, Hall of Famer in waiting. 

It would be nice to think that the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s annual Hall of Fame voting can be more than merely symbolic in the bigger picture. Not just because I happen to be a life member, but for reasons I enunciated in a previous essay addressing how to adjust the Hall vote.

Including that we of the IBWAA aren’t just a gaggle of bathrobe scribblers. We do have members of the Baseball Writers Association of America among us. But we also have a flock of very dedicated writers who watch baseball and think hard about the game we love, at least as hard as the average “legitimate” reporter/commentator.

We think hard about the Hall of Fame, too. We want to see the worthy get their due. We cringe with everyone else when the less worthy stand at the Cooperstown podium. We lament when the worthy don’t get their due. We want to see the Hall of Fame represent geniune greatness, not mere sentiment or a kind of gold or platinum watch.

Our baseball hearts break with anyone else’s, too, when we see men on the ballot we thought looked to be Hall of Famers in the making when they first hit the field or the mound only to be waylaid for assorted sad reasons.

There’s sadness enough on this year’s Hall ballot. But there’s also joy enough. And, additional or recurring controversy enough. That’s one, two, three bases, you’re in at the old ball game’s vote for the game’s highest known honour. Let’s hope that, this time, between the BBWAA, the Golden Era Committee, and the Early Baseball Committee, they step up with the bases loaded and knock it right out of the park.

We of the IBWAA vote only for those on the BBWAA ballot. More’s the pity, because I’d love to see us make ourselves known about the Golden Era and Early Baseball Committees’ candidates. (Frankly, I’d love to have even a symbolic hand in giving their due  to Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bill Dahlen, John Donaldson, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Buck O’Neil, and Tubby Scales.)

Following will be my Hall votes this time around, and why, symbolic though they are. You may notice no review of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. That’s because the IBWAA already “elected” them and thus removed them from our annual ballot. In the real world, of course, neither Bonds nor Clemens are in yet. They’re also now on their final real-world BBWAA ballots. (So, for that matter, is Sammy Sosa.)

They’re still hobbled by, you know, that stuff with actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. Never mind that a) they’re believed to have indulged during the pre-testing, so-called Wild West PED era of the 1990s/early Aughts; or, b) they had Hall of Fame credentials to burn before the points at which they became suspect.

But on with it. There’s only one BBWAA ballot newcomer getting my vote:

 

David Ortiz 

Big Papi is problematic for one reason only: that anonymous 2003 testing that 1) turned him up positive but 2) was supposed to be anonymous and to determine just how broad a testing program to come should be. And even Commissioner Nero has said, often enough, that there was enough false positive doubt to remove the taint from him.

Ortiz didn’t even know about that anonymously-tested positive for a few years to follow . . . and he never flunked a drug test in thirteen years once the mandatory testing programs began in earnest not long afterward.

The anti-DH bias doesn’t hold anymore, not with Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez in the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t. (Harold Baines, you say? Sorry, that was a Today’s Game Committee mistake—a big mistake. Baines was and remains a classic Hall of the Gold Watch player and nothing much more than that. The Today’s Game Committee decided to give him the platinum watch of a plaque in Cooperstown. Nobody says I have to agree with it or keep my mouth shut about it.)

But as a designated hitter, especially once he joined the Red Sox, this guy was a wrecking machine. Not given much of a shot with the Twins while they still played at home in the old Metrodome, Ortiz going to the Red Sox got a big boost right out of the chute: he moved from a home “park” that wasn’t so great for him to one that was.

He also moved from a team that wasn’t as good as the 2003 Red Sox were at putting men on base for him to drive in. He’d given previous hints to what he could do in the postseason; then, in 2004, he damn near became the postseason with what he did to help the Red Sox overthrow the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

Ortiz helped the Red Sox break the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino at last and helped them to two more World Series rings before he was finished at last. He was nothing to trifle with in the postseason overall (.289/.404/.543; seventeen home runs; .947 OPS) but he was a weapon of mass destruction in the World Series. (.455/.576/.795 in fourteen World Series games; 1.372 OPS; nine of twenty Series hits going for extra bases including three over the fences.)

Big Papi was must-see everything once he flipped the switch and went from good to great to off the charts at the plate. That’s before considering he finished his career with 541 home runs, 1,192 extra base hits total, and 48 percent of his hits going for extra bases overall. He’s also one of only three men to finish their careers with 500+ home runs and 600+ doubles: the others are Bonds and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron.

So how does Ortiz stack among the Hall of Fame DHs according to my Real Batting Average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances)?

DH PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Frank Thomas 10,075 4550 1667 168 121 87 .654
David Ortiz 10,091 4765 1319 209 92 38 .637
Edgar Martinez 8674 3718 1283 113 77 89 .609
Harold Baines 11,092 4604 1062 187 99 14 .538
HOF AVG .610

Ortiz is only fourteen RBA points behind Thomas and 28 points ahead of Martinez, and he’s 27 points above the Hall average for DHs. (Yes, that’s Baines 72 points below the Hall’s DH average—considering those who spent all or the majority of their careers in the role.)

You know something? Yes, let’s get it out of the way, since there’s been more than a little carping from the anti-DH crowd: Ortiz played 265 games at first base lifetime . . . and he wasn’t terrible at it.

He didn’t have a lot of range, but he was only three points below his league average for fielding percentage, he was only seven defensive runs saved below the league average, and he had decent hands that enabled him to turn more than a few double plays. We’re not exactly talking about the second coming of Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart here.

But we are talking about the arguable second-greatest full-time DH ever to check in at the plate. We’re also talking about a guy who avoided more than a few Red Sox scandals during the heat of his career there (they don’t remember Papi Being Papi with due derision) and a guy who could and often did put the entire city on his back when disaster or terrible mass crime struck.

Who can forget This is our [fornicating] city! that Opening Day following the Marathon bombing and launching the Red Sox to their third World Series conquest with Ortiz in the lineup? Just pray that, during his Cooperstown induction speech, Big Papi doesn’t surrender to the overwhelming temptation to holler, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame!

 

The rest of my yes votes

Todd Helton—Unlike Hall of Famer Larry Walker, the Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors Field as his home park. Even with the width of his home/road splits, though, Helton hit respectably enough on the road that you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn’t as Hall of Fame as a first baseman gets.

Helton also crosses the average Hall of Famer’s batting threshold according to Bill James’s Monitor and Standards measures, and his peak value is a few points above the average Hall of Fame first baseman. He was a rare bird who walked more than he struck out, was an on-base machine (.414. lifetime on-base percentage), and he was deadlier at the plate with men in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

He wasn’t the second coming of Keith Hernandez at first base, but he was a well above-average defender. That still sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.

Andruw Jones—I’m pretty sure people still have a near-impossible time reconciling Jones’s too-staggering decline phase to his peak through age 29. It started with his final, injury-marred Atlanta season, and continued so profoundly in Los Angeles that he became indifferent enough to be a sad punch line before he was finally bought out of his deal.

But that peak should still be enough to make Jones a Hall of Famer. He wasn’t just a Hall-level hitter before those later-career health issues, but he was way off the proverbial charts as a run-preventive center fielder. He had a great throwing arm, a genius for finding sure routes to balls despite his habitual shallow positioning, and both elevated him where it mattered the most—and not just in the highlight reels, either.

Jones retired with the second-most defensive runs saved above his league average for any player at any position—only Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson’s +293 out-rank Jones’s +253. Jones is also +80 ahead of Hall of Famer Willie Mays, incidentally.

Don’t be silly. I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, or even Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. They were just too much better all-around to kid yourself. I am saying, however, that taken strictly for his defense Jones was the most run-preventive defensive center fielder who ever played major league baseball.

Measure him by wins above replacement-level player (WAR), and Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above that of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There are plenty of peak-value Hall of Famers in Cooperstown. Jones’s Hall of Fame teammate, Chipper Jones, wasn’t just blowing smoke when he said upon his own induction that if you wanted to beat the 1990s Braves “you had to go through the Jones boys, too.”

That’s the way Hall of Famers play the game. And if the Hall now gives more value to defense than in the past, Jones assuredly deserves the honour even more.

Andruw Jones

Andruw Jones—the best in the game at center field for long enough, and the second-most run-preventive defender at any position, ever. That sounds like a Hall of Famer to me. 

Jeff Kent—The best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era was traded three times before finding a home with the Giants at 29. He was also a product of a high-scoring era, but he wasn’t a particlarly great defensive second baseman even if he was slick on the double play. That -42 defensive runs saved below his league average doesn’t enhance him.

Neither does his reputation as a personality often described as “prickly,” and its still to wonder whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude issues remain enough to keep the BBWAA from putting him in despite the continuing ballot crowd. More telling, though, is that both early-career mishandlings plus enough injuries over the second half of his career had big enough hands in his final performance papers.

Kent’s 351 home runs as a second baseman remain the most for any player playing that position. (The man most likely to have threatened that record, Robinson Canó, may not get the chance after all.) That helps his Hall case, as does his overall fine postseason record.

He wouldn’t be the worst man or second baseman in the Hall. I’ll vote for Kent on the record alone, but I do suspect he may yet find himself needing a future Era Committee to give him the second look he may yet need to get his plaque.

Scott Rolen—It wasn’t Rolen’s fault that he was villified and sullied during his early seasons in Philadelphia. He just wasn’t the kind of guy Loud Larry Bowa and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green loved. He was soft spoken, he let his prep and his play do his talking, and he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed or a play faltered or a game was lost. You hear a lot of lip service to let’s just get ’em tomorrow. Rolen lived it.

If he’d been a fighter pilot, Rolen would have earned a rep as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff. Bowa, Green, and the Phillies front office misread Rolen as indifferent. Even if every teammate he had knew better. He hustled himself into injuries and that only added to the sullying, in Philadelphia and in St. Louis, where he ran afoul of Tony La Russa despite playing his usual kind of hard and delivering performances that helped the Cardinals to a few postseasons and a World Series ring.

Rolen fumed over La Russa souring on him for being injured in honest competition. If only he could have then-Brewers manager Ned Yost for a skipper. Yost called him “the perfect baseball player. It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

Then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak came publicly to regret trading Rolen to the Blue Jays. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty caught wind that Rolen wanted to play closer to home   and pried him out of the Jays for the Reds. Rolen helped the Reds to a couple of postseasons, too.

Rolen wasn’t the hitter Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. Not by about ten country miles. Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t by reputation alone. Only Robinson and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt have more such awards at third base.

Rolen had eleven seasons averaging ten or more runs saved at third and three in which he averaged twenty or more. His 140 defensive runs above league average are tied for sixth amont third basemen all time. Preferring to leave it on the field and at the plate without starving for publicity or acting like the star he did his best not to present himself being may have been Rolen’s number one career problem.

Every team should have that kind of problem, then sit back and watch themselves win a little bit more with it. Rolen’s Hall candidacy gets more traction year by year. He deserves a plaque in Cooperstown and he should get it before his ten years’ ballot eligibility expires.

Curt Schilling (with prejudice)—On the mound: no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. (Only Schilling plus Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez have ever struck 3000+ batters out and walked -1,000 batters.) He sought the biggest of the big games and delivered when he got them most of the time.

Off the mound: no-questioned-asked jerk. It only begins with eleven words: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” on a T-shirt; “OK, so much awesome here,” in a tweet he deleted at the speed of light when the you-know-what hit the you-know-what and he pleaded sarcasm. He also said of it in due course, “Gotta own the times you go off the rails.”

Schilling’s Phillies general manager Ed Wade once said he was a horse every five days and a horse’s ass the other four. I’ll say again: When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see his plaque, just tell them he’s not the first and won’t be the last Hall of Famer at the ballpark who was a Hall of Shamer away from it.

I don’t have to love the man to respect and vote for the pitcher. But let’s let Jay Jaffe have the penultimate word, from The Cooperstown Casebook:

I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.

Gary Sheffield—Strictly by his counting statistics, Sheffield has a Hall of Fame case. His talent was as outsized as his reputation for self-centricity. He was a study in pending destruction at the plate, and he had a one-for-one-and-all-for-Gary reputation that wasn’t always justified.

His career happened mostly in a high-offense era, but he had an odd problem: he played too much in home ballparks that hated righthanded hitters. (Strangely, too, he did well enough in one of them, Dodger Stadium.) Marry that to the nagging injuries dogging him much of his career and he lands in a strange position.

For all his home runs (509), for all that he sits in the top 25 for walks and runs created, his offensive winning percentage (.687) puts him just inside the top one hundred. A player that talented with his kind of stats should have pulled up a lot higher. Taken all-around, his lack of black and gray ink (top ten finishes) leaves Sheffield as borderline as it gets. His defensive deficiencies (-195 defensive runs below his league average) killed him for peak and career WAR, too.

Sheffield could be his own worst enemy but in some ways he’s also a wronged man. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong, but he was also accused falsely of tanking plays with the Brewers after a hard wild throw in the minors caused a rift with a manager who subsequently apologised to him.

Dinged by the notorious BALCO steroids case when he really might have been tricked into using an actual/alleged PED, Sheffield’s ding, too, came before the formal testing/penalty program. Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt. I do, too.

There are worse men in Cooperstown than Sheffield, and there are Hall of Famers who were their own worst enemies to a far greater extent. He may end up having to wait for an Era Committee to send him there, but Sheffield has a real Hall of Fame case. And he won’t be half as controversial as some other Hall of Famers who might come to mind.

Billy Wagner—Maybe the most underrated relief pitcher of his and just about any time. He was as lights out as relief pitchers got and then some, even allowing that nobody yet has really figured out a final objective and definitive way to rate relief pitchers of any era.

Wagner yanked himself to a pinnacle following a childhood about which “hard scrabble” might be an understatement. (Too-frequent home changes; poverty so profound that peanut butter on a cracker equaled dinner often enough.) He was a small man who made himself into a lefthanded assassin. (Two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside.)

Billy the Kid finished his fifteen-year career with a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; and, when it comes to win probability added, Wagner has only four relievers ahead of him, Hall of Famers all: in ascending order, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and The Mariano. He was also on his own planet when it came to missing bats. In fifteen full major league seasons (he had a cup of coffee with the 1995 Astros), his strikeouts-per-nine innings rate fell below 10.0 only once; he retired with a lifetime 11.9 rate.

Nobody could hit this guy too often: the lifetime batting average against him is .187. Here’s how the hitters did against the other Hall of Fame relievers:

Lee Smith—.235.
Rollie Fingers—.232.
Bruce Sutter—.230.
Goose Gossage—.228.
Dennis Eckersley—.225.
Hoyt Wilhelm—.213.
Trevor Hoffman—.211.
Mariano Rivera—.211.

Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly times? That would be Smith (in the final third of his career), Hoffman, The Mariano, and Billy the Kid. It’s to wonder how much more stupefying the record might be if Wagner could have avoided assorted injuries including late-career Tommy John surgery.

Maybe his only flaw was a Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for far different reasons. Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination. But he finally admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded.”

When he walked away after 2010, he decided his family was a lot more important to him than whatever else he could accomplish as a pitcher. “There’s nothing left for me to do in baseball,” Wagner admitted after leaving the park one last time. “I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about whether I’m a Hall of Famer. People are either going to like me or hate me, and I can’t change their minds. Besides, life is about a lot more than this game.”

If you must, call Wagner the Bert Blyleven of relief pitchers, with a Hall case that kinda sorta sneaks up on you upon deeper analysis. But he does deserve the honour.

The Rest of the Newcomers

I didn’t vote for the rest of the BBWAA ballot newcomers, but a few were geniunely sad:

Carl Crawford—On-base and speed machine ground down by injuries, especially when he tried playing through them anyway to avoid certain managers dismissing him as a quitter. He was a great defensive left fielder, too. (+99 runs saved above his league average.) Short enough of a Hall of Famer, but better than you remember him.

Prince Fielder—Finished at 32 thanks to neck injuries and surgery, but he sure looked like a Hall of Famer in the making for a few years with that big incendiary bat, didn’t he? I did zap him once in print for a seemingly indifferent take on the Tigers’ postseason elimination, but I changed my mind—you’d rather he trashed the clubhouse or wailed about the injustice of it all?

Ryan Howard—Everyone in Philadelphia would love to rewind the tape back to just before Howard’s Achilles tendon injury turned him almost overnight from the deadliest of the deadly to a journeyman who still had some pop but little else in the final five seasons of a thirteen-year career. No great defensive first baseman, the injury eroded Howard’s real ticket to Cooperstown, his thunderous bat.

Tim Lincecum—Won two Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons. A small guy who pitched big, maybe too big for his size, much like Mike Boddicker a few generations earlier. I’ve seen Lincecum described as an injury waiting to happen. His painful fadeaway was too sad especially because The Freak was extremely likeable as a person and known as that kind of teammate, too.

Justin Morneau—Had Hall of Fame talent, won a single American League Most Valuable Player award that he didn’t really deserve (going by WAR, Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana probably deserved that 2006 MVP, too, but if you won’t give it to pitchers Grady Sizemore among the position players really deserved that year’s MVP), and was done in gradually but surely by a few too many concussions.

Álex Rodríguez—Of course it’s sad that a guy who didn’t need help to be Hall of Fame-great went for it, anyway. First out of terrible insecurity after signing that mammoth deal with the Rangers; later, out of hubris at minimum. His post-career image-rehabilitation efforts may be laudable, if controversial. (He’s criticised at least as often as he’s praised.) But it’s going to be impossible to forget that—even if there were many compromising issues around baseball’s Biogenesis investigation—A-Rod did a splendid enough job compromising himself.

Jimmy Rollins—What Rollins has to sell is speed on the bases and solid shortstop defense. The bad news, part one: His 95 OPS+ (OPS adjusted to all parks, not just his home park) and .330 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot aren’t quite what a Hall of Fame leadoff man should have, and he didn’t steal enough bases to make himself a Lou Brock-like Hall case. The bad news part two: He’s 53rd all-time for defensive runs above his league average—with +38. At minimum there are eighteen men going nowhere near the Hall of Fame who were good for more.

Mark Teixiera—He looked like a Hall of Famer in the making, didn’t he? A few too many injuries keep him from pulling up far enough beyond several non-Hall first basemen, but when he was healthy the switch-hitting Teixiera was a genuinely great hitter and a well above-average first baseman.

“Let me wear this uniform one more day!”

2019-06-10 DavidOrtiz2004ALCS

David Ortiz hits the winning bomb,  Game Four of the 2004 ALCS.

Baseball was stunned to learn retired longtime Red Sox superstar David Ortiz was ambushed and shot in the back outside a Santo Domingo nightclub Sunday. His father has said Ortiz is in stable condition following surgery to remove parts of his intestine and his colon as well as his gall bladder.

Aside from prayers for his recovery, I can think of no tribute other than to republish the last essay I wrote about Ortiz, who was responsible for so much Red Sox success after the franchise incurred so many surrealistic failures over its long, storied history. This one’s for you, Big Papi . . .

“Let me wear this uniform one more day!”
(12 October 2016)

Both American League Championship Series combatants get there by way of division series sweeps. For the Indians, it had to be a little extra special to get there by sweeping the Red Sox.

Twelve years ago, Indians manager Terry Francona managed an entirely different club of Red Sox to the Promised Land the franchise hadn’t seen since a kid named Ruth was in the starting rotation.

That was then: Francona’s charges had to figure out a way to keep an entirely different gang of Yankees from sweeping them out of the ALCS when they were down to their last out. This is now: His Indians — who haven’t seen the Promised Land since the Truman Administration — will have to figure out ways to keep the Blue Jays’ bats quiet and arms at bay.

It wasn’t supposed to be that simple against the Red Sox, was it? Even as youthful as they’d become?

But who could bargain that the formidable Red Sox youth corps who’d all but carried the Olde Towne Team to the postseason in the first place, pocketing the American League East to get there, would finally run out of fuel?

As adroitly as Francona shepherded his Indians, especially his bullpen, Red Sox manager John Farrell turned out to have his hands full with young players getting their first tastes of postseason play and a grand old man, who’d meant so much to the franchise’s championship revival for three World Series rings worth, finally spent by the time the postseason arrived.

Rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi had a decent first trip, going 3-for-9 overall, but all three hits came in Game One, including a solo home run to lead off the third and give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead that lived for exactly that half inning — before the Tribe hit three homers in a sequence of four plate appearances in the bottom of the inning, before Francona answered a too-close 4-3 Indians lead by going to Andrew Miller when starter Trevor Bauer was spent in the fifth.

But Mookie Betts, a young sprout and a Most Valuable Player award candidate, finished 2-for-10 in the series and found himself struggling to adjust when he realised the Indians plan was to keep pitches out of his reach. Fellow young sprout Jackie Bradley, Jr. struck out in seven of his first nine at-bats and had only one hit all series long, a single to right in the Game Three ninth.

And Xander Bogaerts, first seen in 2013 in brief flashes including in the World Series, finished the set 3-for-12 overall, seeming to spend most of his plate time trying to find the target on sliders all over the place.

The homegrown Red Sox trio learned the hard way that your first trip to the postseason can turn into your worst nightmare.

“It’s a great experience, a lot of pressure,” said Bogaerts, whose brief 2013 Series sightings weren’t quite the equal of being thrown full tilt into the postseason fire. “But we have to learn how to control it, how to think in that moment. Just not overthinking a lot of stuff. Just trying to be in the moment and being focused.”

Veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who’d been there/done that himself, concurred. “I think the tough part is you play every day during the year and then you have a few days off,” he told reporters about the young trio’s initiation. “You wait different times between games. It just throws you out of whack. I think they didn’t know what to expect out of that because it is different. It’s hard to get into a rhythm.”

Manager John Farrell, who shepherded the 2013 Series winner, gets it.

“There’s been a lot of conversation for the first-year guys, for the guys going through it for the first time, and not just with the staff but with their teammates,” he told reporters. “But there’s the old adage: You can’t replace experience. There’s a different feel to it. The fact that we had three days down, a later [Game One] start, five guys in our lineup being their first postseason, there were some things that were firsts, and I’m sure that lent to swinging at far too many pitches below the zone and above the zone.”

“Now we kind of know what to expect,” said Betts, rather thoughtfully, when the sweep was finished. “It’s going to be really important in the years going forward. We’ll know what to expect and how to handle adversity and how to go about the games and whatnot. It’s going to definitely be a positive.”

Attitudes like that should carry this coming generation of Red Sox back to postseason contention next year and for several seasons to come. But they’ll miss the big man.

David Ortiz won’t be retiring as a World Series champion. He won’t even see one more American League Championship Series. He’d never admit it, but just maybe, as much fun as it might have been for him to bask in the farewell tributes other Show teams gave him in his final season, it finally wore him down.

His final plate appearance? A four-pitch walk from Indians closer Cody Allen. It triggered an eighth-inning rally that put Fenway Park on gleeful edge for awhile, at least to the extent that Hanley Ramirez moved him to second as the potential tying run with a bullet single to left. Then Bogaerts lined out just as sharply to Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, one of the Tribe’s Game 1 bombardiers.

He got a final round of twenty-one guns from the Fenway faithful when it was over and the Red Sox were going on winter vacation. And loved it. Tipping his cap, he tried to keep a stone face but his tears betrayed the effort.

“Those moments, they are always going to be special. They are always going to stay with you,” said the man who left Red Sox Nation with about a hundred times more special moments. “I’ve been trying to hold my emotions the best I can, but that last second I couldn’t hold it no more.”

“He’s helped us in so many ways,” Pedroia said. “We wanted to win the World Series and send him out the way we all wanted to, but that didn’t happen.”

He’ll have to step into the next part of his life without a fourth World Series ring. But Ortiz knows how blessed he’s been in baseball terms. Most never get a single Series ring, never mind the love of a city that Ortiz has known.

And he left the younger Red Sox something, too. In the Game Three sixth, with the Indians up 4-1 and Pedroia on third, Ortiz battled Miller, who’s become the Indians’ relief star this postseason thus far. The big left-handed slugger wrestled the big left-handed lancer and finally hit a low-flying line drive to center field. Indians sub centerfielder Rajai Davis caught it practically at his knee.

It was enough to send Pedroia home with the second Boston run. If only it could have been more. When he came off the field for a pinch runner in the eighth, he was heard to holler at his teammates, “Put me back in it! Let me wear this uniform one more day!”

They tried with two gone in the ninth. Bradley singled and Pedroia wrung out a walk off Indians closer Cody Allen, but Travis Shaw wrung a full count for naught as he flied out modestly to right field.

So Ortiz settled for telling the younger team he would now depart to be proud of having gone from last to first in the AL East on the regular season and build on it. Even if he wasn’t going to be there. Except maybe in spirit.

Then, he settled for one more bath of Fenway Park love on a night it seemed to hurt Red Sox Nation less to lose the division series in a sweep to a remarkable club of Indians than to realize the big man with the big heart who often held Boston’s hand when the city needed him most (This is our f@cking city! he bellowed to a city bludgeoned by the Boston Marathon bombing) and wanted him best.

And Francona, who’d never dismiss the meaning of the two World Series rings to which he managed the Red Sox, rings he’d never have won without Big Papi, is probably telling his own youthful enough Indians that right there was the example of what you might do when the rest of the world has its doubts. The Indians will need a big shot of that going forward now.