David Ortiz is not the greatest player in the Boston Red Sox’s long history. He wasn’t nearly the hitter that Ted Williams was. He could not match Carl Yastrzemski’s three batting titles, 18 All-Star selections and seven Gold Gloves. He didn’t dominate opponents the way either Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez did as they won three and two Cy Young awards, respectively, while with Boston.
He is, however, the most historically significant player ever to don a Red Sox jersey. Of that, there is no doubt in this mind.
Ortiz, in his 14 seasons with the Sox, transformed an entire baseball-obsessed region of our country. Before he arrived, New Englanders always loved and rooted for the Red Sox with the underlying dread that they ultimately would fail, especially against the Yankees. When he was done, there was a generation of Sox fans that not only expected World Series titles, but also no longer felt inferior to their Yankees counterparts. Can we say that about any other player, enshrined in the Hall of Fame or not?
And this is the reason that he is the only addition I made on my Hall of Fame ballot this season, where he joins my three holdovers from last year: Clemens, Barry Bonds and Curt Schilling.
Even as Ortiz was playing his final season in 2016 and further burnishing a stellar resume — leading Major League Baseball in OPS with American League bests of 48 doubles and 127 RBIs — there loomed one specter over his future Hall of Fame candidacy. There was the allegation he tested positive in 2003 for a performance-enhancing drug during what was supposed to be anonymous survey testing.
Two factors helped with discarding the allegation: numbers and words.
Ortiz played 12 seasons with an MLB drug-testing policy in place, never failed a test and batted .290 with an OPS of .956 and averaged 35 home runs and 110 RBIs during that period. (He finished his career with 541 home runs, 1,768 RBIs and a .286 average.)
And MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made a point of clearing him of the allegation because nearly 10% of the results indicating PED use were false positives. "Even if your name was on that [anonymous] list," Manfred said, "it’s entirely possible that you were not a positive . . . I don’t think anyone understands very well what that list was."
A second knock on Ortiz’s candidacy at the time he retired was that he didn’t play the field. The designated hitter and 10-time All-Star finished in the top five in voting for the AL MVP five times, and the question of comparing him against contenders who played defense worked against him each time. One can discard that issue as well because the DH has been a position in the AL since 1973 — and could be in both leagues as soon as next season — and Edgar Martinez was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2019.
In the early weeks of the 2016 season, I traveled to Fenway Park in Boston with a mind to write a story about the star all New England called "Big Papi." My thinking was a fairly simple approach. Williams had a way that he wanted to be remembered: He wanted those who saw him passing by to say "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter that ever lived."
Since Ortiz had announced and begun his final season with the Red Sox, the obvious topic was what he wanted for a legacy. Near the conclusion of a 20-minute conversation that hit all the highlights — coming back from 0-3 to beat the Yankees in the 2004 AL Championship Series, ending the 86-year "Curse" by winning the World Series that season and then subsequent World Series titles in 2007 and 2013 — he arrived at an answer.
"I'm going to tell you this: I would like people to say when they see me walking by, 'There is the guy who made the impossible become possible,’ " Otriz said.
That’s pretty much exactly who he is.
No baseball team had ever won a postseason series after losing the first three games. And though Ortiz didn’t do it alone, he was the unquestionable fulcrum for the comeback with his game-winning homer in the 12th inning of Game 4 and his walk-off single in the 14th inning of Game 5. Boston rid itself of nearly a century of disappointing endings. And those things changed the national image of the Red Sox.
There is one more thing that must come up in any discussion about David Ortiz, a different sort of time he delivered in a huge moment. When the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, he felt compelled at a pregame ceremony to pick up the microphone and speak to the many thousands in attendance, watching on television and listening on the radio. His words were unrehearsed but indelible: "This is our [expletive] city. And nobody's going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."
When I asked him that day in 2016 where that came from, he replied, "I guarantee if you'd pulled anyone from the stands and put the microphone to them, they would have said almost exactly the same as I did."
And he went on to explain that the number of people who thanked him for helping the Sox finally win a World Series was equal to the number who thanked him for that.
In his deeds and also in his words, Ortiz is a Hall of Famer.
Roger Rubin's Class of 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot