Thoughts from the Dugout: The Legend of Big Papi

Image of David Ortiz

Here at the Addison Recorder, I make no bones about it – I’m a huge fan of David Ortiz. The heart and soul of the Red Sox, he is the only man alive to have played on three World Series winning teams from Boston. And on Saturday night, he further cemented his legacy as one of the all-time great power hitters by slugging his 499th and 500th home runs.

There’s a lot to unpack here, for multiple reasons – chief and foremost among those being that 500 home runs may or may not carry the same meaning that it used to. However, at the end of the day, it must be argued that Big Papi has achieved a career worthy of respect…and he’s still not done yet.

Tainted Honors

Before the Steroid Era, 500 home runs was a relatively rare achievement. Even after Big Papi’s big night, he’s only the 27th player in major league history to collect 500 round trippers.

But that damn Steroid Era keeps cropping up in conversations. Take a look at the following names: Gary Sheffield. Manny Ramirez. Rafael Palmeiro. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. Alex Rodriguez. Barry Bonds. All of those players either tested positive for PEDs, admitted to it, or are rumored to have tested positive at some point. And all of them hit 500 home runs or more (and counting, in A-Rod’s case).

To that list must be added David Ortiz, who is rumored to have tested positive for PEDs in that “anonymous” 2003 survey of MLB players. I don’t like counting that because A) nothing has ever been officially proven, B) an anonymous test really should stay anonymous, and C) most of Big Papi’s home runs came after stringent testing procedures were put in place. Ortiz is on record as saying he’s one of the most tested players in the game, which makes a certain degree of sense. He’s not tested positive while doing the majority of his work with the Sox. Dare we say it, he might just be one of the most prolific home run hitters of the modern era.

So we cannot add Ortiz’s name alongside the other greats of the 500 home run club, if only because the “club” has become a bit diluted. Never mind that other players like Albert Pujols, Jim Thome, and Ken Griffey Jr. have also joined that club in the span of Ortiz’s career. The point is – the luster might have faded a bit from that club.

An All-Time Great

But let’s ignore that for a minute and focus instead on the greater truth – David Ortiz is one of the best players of the past twenty years, a Hall of Fame talent and a fantastic person to boot.

Papi just had his 9th season of hitting 30 or more home runs in the major leagues. Ask Juan Pierre – hitting just one home run is a fiendishly difficult task. Ortiz has done it 500 times. He’s driven in over 1600 runs, and has been a staple of Boston’s line-up for nearly 15 years. He’s finished in the top five of MVP voting five times, though he’s never actually won the award (because A-Rod was a person in the 00’s). Nine All Star selections speak towards just what a mainstay Ortiz has been at designated hitter in the American League for years.

Papi’s career has had two peaks of sorts – his prime from 2003 to 2007, during which Ortiz hit 208 home runs in five years, and his latter-day renaissance, lasting from about 2011 to the present day. There was a slow period in 2008 and 2009 where Papi’s bat lagged and his core stats dropped, which can probably be chalked up to aging and his initially slowing bat. To my mind, the fact that Ortiz made adjustments makes him all the greater of a player – he demonstrated an unteachable ability to adopt, adapt, and improve on what he was doing.

That ability to adjust on the fly demonstrated itself this year, as Ortiz batted .231/.326/.435 with 15 home runs over the first half of the season (80 games) before rebounding to hit .346/.416/.754 with 19 home runs in the 50 games of the season’s second half. Ortiz getting hot after the early season doldrums can probably be attributed to an older player taking a little bit longer to get warmed up, but mechanical adjustments in his swing can also help explain for the difference. Good hitters adjust to what they’re being given, and Ortiz is one of the best hitters in the game.

And that’s not even taking into account his lifetime .295/.409/.553 batting line in postseason play, including a World Series slash line of .455/.576/.795 in three World Series. Many players claim to try to raise their level of play in October. Big Papi actually does it, and has authored several indelible moments through his career with the Red Sox. The 2004 ALCS comeback against the Yankees doesn’t happen without Big Papi. And let’s not forget his planet-eating appearance in the 2013 World Series.

Image of David Ortiz eating planers

Big Papi, Eater of Planets.

Beyond the diamond, Big Papi has become one of the signature faces of the game. Who can forget his memorable appearance after the Boston Marathon bombing? “This is our fucking city” etched him permanently in the roster of Boston sporting heroes, alongside Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, and Tom Brady. Getting back to the PED issue – unlike other leading figures in the game, Ortiz has never tested positive for steroid use. He’s more likely to appear in Sportscenter commercials than he is to appear on a PED release. He’s a hugely recognizable face in a game that is constantly seeking its next face of the game, and he is beloved by the entire region of New England.

Is he a Hall of Famer? (Yes.) That debate won’t be settled for many more years – there’s arguments that as a DH, Ortiz hasn’t been as valuable as he may have seemed. Voters may find the PED issue to be too much to overcome. 500 home runs aren’t as sexy as they used to be. Never mind that he’s one of the greatest postseason hitters of all time. Never mind that he’s won three World Series for the Red Sox. Never mind that he’s been a consistently dangerous hitter for fifteen years. Never mind that – you know what? Never mind.

Big Papi will probably hit several more home runs over the rest of this year, and the next, and however long he intends to keep playing. For now, let’s take a minute and soak in the achievement that is David Ortiz. He makes the game better and more fun to watch – and that is certainly worth celebrating.

Image of David Ortiz

Travis J. Cook

Travis J. Cook is the Editor-in-Chief and one of the original founders of the Addison Recorder. He writes about baseball, movies, and music, among other topics. He resides in a hole in the ground near Wrigley Field.

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