With one more walk-off, Big Papi trots into Cooperstown
By Tyler Kepner
The David Ortiz Bridge, on Brookline Avenue, above the Mass Pike, connects the Fenway Park neighborhood to Kenmore Square in Boston. From there it’s about four hours to Cooperstown, New York, soon to be home to another lasting marker of Ortiz’s outsize legacy.
Ortiz, whose slugging and swagger helped the Boston Red Sox become the most successful franchise of the new century, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday. In his first year on the ballot, Ortiz was the only candidate who cleared the 75% threshold needed for election, collecting 77.9% of the votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
The election was the 10th and final verdict by the writers on the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, longtime superstars whose records have been tainted by connections to performance-enhancing drugs. Bonds, whose 762 home runs are the most in MLB history, received 66% of the vote, while Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards, got 65.2%.
“This is a guy who took the game to a whole, totally different level — same as Roger, the Rocket,” Ortiz said of Bonds and Clemens on a video conference call Tuesday night. “When I see these guys, to be honest with you, I don’t even compare myself to them because I saw so many times those guys performing, and it was very special. Not having them join me, at this time, it’s hard for me to believe, to be honest with you, because those guys, they did it all.”
Two other prominent names also dropped off the ballot: Curt Schilling, who struck out more than 3,000 batters, and Sammy Sosa, who hit more than 600 homers. Schilling, who has joked online about lynching journalists, collected 58.6% of the vote in his 10th year of eligibility, and Sosa, who has strong ties to steroid use, got only 18.5%. Like Bonds and Clemens, they could still be elected in future years by small committees.
Ortiz will be honored at a ceremony in Cooperstown in late July with Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, who were chosen by committees in December. Four others were also elected then and will be inducted posthumously: Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil.
Ortiz received 307 of 405 writers’ votes to become the second Hall of Famer from the curse-breaking Red Sox. He joins former pitcher Pedro Martínez, also a native of the Dominican Republic, who was inducted in 2015 and celebrated with Ortiz on Tuesday. Their 2004 team won the franchise’s first title in more than eight decades — a drought that had perhaps been a cosmic penalty for the infamous sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.
As a burly, affable, left-handed power hitter, Ortiz cut a Ruthian figure, with a similar appetite for big moments. In three World Series — all victories — he hit .455 with a 1.372 on-base plus slugging percentage, both records among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances.
Ortiz was named MVP of the World Series in 2013, when he went 11 for 16 with two homers and eight walks against St. Louis. He was also MVP of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees, collecting two game-ending hits with the Red Sox facing elimination to help Boston overcome a three-games-to-none deficit.
“I was always concerned about going home without a trophy,” Ortiz said. “It was something I used to have nightmares about. And it happened a few times, but it was the ride-or-die type of situation, and I used to get really prepared for that.”
In electing Ortiz on his first opportunity, most voters chose not to penalize him for his link to the steroid era. The Times reported in 2009 that Ortiz had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, when baseball conducted survey testing (without penalties) that was supposed to have remained anonymous. In 2016, just before Ortiz retired, Commissioner Rob Manfred cited “legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives,” and Ortiz has maintained that he never knowingly cheated, and cast doubt again Tuesday about the test result from 2003.
“We had someone coming out with this one list that you don’t know what anybody test positive for,” Ortiz said Tuesday. “All of a sudden people were pointing fingers at me, but then we started being drug tested and I never failed a test. What does that tell you?”
Indeed, Ortiz achieved almost all of his success during the testing era, which began with penalties in 2004. Traded by Seattle as a minor leaguer in 1996 and released by Minnesota six years later, Ortiz found stardom in Boston, making 10 All-Star teams and winning seven Silver Slugger Awards as a designated hitter. He had 541 career home runs, 1,768 runs batted in and a .286 batting average, with a .380 on-base percentage and a .552 slugging percentage.
Manny Ramírez, who teamed with Ortiz in the middle of Boston’s lineup for much of the 2000s, had better overall statistics but failed again to reach Cooperstown. In his sixth appearance on the ballot, Ramírez collected only 28.9% of the vote, reflecting many writers’ stance on players who served suspensions for steroid use.
The Hall of Fame has never given specific guidance on evaluating the so-called steroid era, but the institution instructs writers to consider not only players’ on-field records, but also their “integrity, character and sportsmanship.” It is up to individual voters to interpret what that means, and some have distinguished between drug use in the eras before and after testing. (The New York Times does not permit writers to vote.)
Ramírez was suspended twice, and Alex Rodríguez once. Rodríguez, who hit 696 career homers, has crafted a surprising public comeback, becoming ubiquitous on television and social media and joining a pro-basketball ownership group. But he has not persuaded the writers to ignore his misdeeds, and received 34.3% of the vote in his first appearance on the ballot.
As a Yankee in 2009, Rodríguez admitted to past steroid use and asked people to “judge me from this day forward” at a news conference. But he soon returned to banned drugs, admitting to investigators that he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2010-12, leading to a suspension for the 2014 season.
Among other candidates on the ballot, Scott Rolen, a third baseman, continued to gain momentum toward eventual election. Rolen, who spent most of his career with Philadelphia and St. Louis, got 63.2% of the votes, up from 52.9% last year and 35.3% in 2020. There are only 17 Hall of Fame third basemen — the fewest for any position — and Rolen won eight Gold Gloves.
Todd Helton is on a similar trajectory, reaching 52%, up from 44.9% last year and 29.2% in 2020. While Helton played his home games in the hitters’ paradise of Colorado, his .316 average, .414 on-base percentage and .539 slugging percentage were extraordinary; the only players to top all three figures (with at least 3,000 plate appearances) are Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
Schilling had been trending toward election, gathering 71.1% of the votes last year, more than any other candidate. Known for being one of baseball’s premier October performers, including as Ortiz’s teammate, Schilling has since amplified his rhetoric on social media, and asked the Hall of Fame to remove his name from the ballot because he did not respect the writers. The Hall denied the request, but another also-ran finish did it for him.