What made David Ortiz such an icon?

David Ortiz spent the first six years of his baseball career — from 1997-2002 — with the Minnesota Twins, hitting an uninspiring .266/.348/.461 (106 wRC+). In the present pitching-dominant climate, those numbers would suffice for an above-average big league contributor. Back then, still in the heart of the steroid era, they were nothing special, particularly for a 1st baseman/DH — where offense is king. In six seasons and almost 1700 plate appearances, Ortiz was worth a mere +2.2 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs (fWAR).

For context, he ranked 47th out of 56 qualifying 1st basemen in that time frame.

In 2003 Ortiz signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox, which is where you probably know him from. It was also the point where his career took off.

In 2003 alone, he batted .288/.369/.592 (145 wRC+) and generated +3.2 fWAR. In short: He was worth one full win more in his first season with the Red Sox than in six years with the Twins, a nearly unprecedented turnaround for a 27 year-old with so many plate appearances already under his belt.

Over the next 13 years, leading up to now — his final season — Ortiz has been one of the very best hitters in the sport. From 2003-2016 only nine position players have generated more WAR than Ortiz has (+47.2), which is particularly impressive given the fact that he’s done it pretty much exclusively as a DH, offering zero defensive value and zero value running the bases. He’s done it with his bat and his bat alone.

He was part of the iconic Red Sox team that won a World Series in 2004, ending the supposed “Curse Of The Bambino,” and also helped the club to hang banners in 2007 and 2013, as well.

I would be lying if I wrote that David Ortiz was not a great hitter. My persuasion abilities aren’t that strong. One day, likely on the first ballot, the baseball writers are going to vote Ortiz in to the Hall of Fame.

But this story isn’t about how good of a hitter he is. It’s about all the things that people either don’t see, don’t want to see, or apparently don’t give a fuck about. Luckily you have me, because if nothing else I care.

David Ortiz is one of MLB’s few teflon guys. No matter what he does, he is given the pass that so many others never received. I think at this point he could go full on bullpen phone smash mode to someone’s face and the media would say it’s just Big Papi being Big Papi.

Back in the middle-to-late aughts, when Major League Baseball — due to pressure from Congress — decided to crack down on the rampant performance-enhancing drug use circulating around the sport, David Ortiz was one of the names mentioned in the infamous Mitchell Report. 

This isn’t an indictment from me on all the players who did steroids. I’m of the opinion that almost everyone did something or another back then, back when offense was the name of the game. That’s how the guys stayed competitive, put food on the table.

My beef comes from the fact that, while guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were essentially blackballed from the sport, for whatever reason David Ortiz is still given a pass.

It’s kind of ironic how Ortiz is 40 years old, a solid half-decade past any reasonable baseball prime, and he’s having perhaps the best season of his big league career without any mention of his past transgressions. In the entire sport he leads in wRC+ — FanGraphs’ all-encompassing offensive metric — and is hitting an uncanny .332/.426/.682 (182 wRC+) on the year, 82 percent better than league average and 15 percent better than Mike Trout (167 wRC+), who is almost unanimously considered the best player in baseball.

Far be it for me to ask if Ortiz is taking some performance-enhancing drug, and why the fuck would I even care if he is, but it’s hard to deny that his results as a 40 year-old seem quite unnatural.

A cogent example of the way players typically age is Albert Pujols, who is Mike Trout’s teammate on the Angels. Pujols is widely known as the best player of his generation, owner of 575 career home runs and a lifetime 154 wRC+. By any statistical measure he was a better hitter than Ortiz, both in his prime and over the course of his career.

He’s listed at just 36 years old, and he’s batting .249/.324/.416 (101 wRC+) on the season, which is realistic given his age. He’s generated a putrid +0.1 fWAR on the year… basically not worthy of the roster spot.

But it isn’t simply the inconsistencies of his success compared to normal age decline that make me question Ortiz’s behemoth stature in the sport. It’s his attention-seeking nature, his me-first attitude, his borderline petulant behavior over the last decade.

In 2014, during one of Yu Darvish’s handful of no-hit bids, David Ortiz hit a controversial pop fly that was ruled an error in realtime. After the game, a decisive blowout victory for the Rangers, Ortiz bitched to Major League Baseball that the inconsequential error ruling should have been called a hit. Since Darvish later lost his no-hit bid, MLB overturned the call and gave Ortiz a hit.

Oh, but that wasn’t the only time some petty nonsense over a stupid error ruling occurred. Deadspin has an article dedicated to Ortiz complaining about official scorers, once a month after the Darvish incident, and another in 2011 where he’s noted as “[busting] into a Terry Francona press conference after a home game, saying ‘I’m fucking pissed. We need to have a talk’ and muttering ‘fucking scorekeeper always fucking shit up.’ He wanted Francona to push for a scoring change—Ortiz’s potential two-RBI single had been ruled an error.”

Ortiz is also one of the handful of players who’s made the bat-flip, the quintessential action of me-first-ness that exists in baseball, one of his trademarks.

But for whatever reason, baseball writers — the guys who fetishize the act of playing baseball the “right way,” who masturbate all over their keyboards explaining to the common fan the secret code of the ultimate team sport — have never mustered up the courage to keep David Ortiz accountable on any of this.

I don’t have a problem calling it the way it’s always seemed to be, proven time and again by actual evidence: David Ortiz is an asshole who only cares about himself. Any average joe who tried to pull half of what Ortiz has already gotten away with would be treated with the same passiveness, or convenient amnesia.

Amazing that, in 2003, when it appeared Ortiz’s career was on the rocks, he had the best season of his life at the same time his name was mentioned in the Mitchell Report. I’m sure PEDs had nothing to do with it.

I’m sure his 2016 season has nothing to do with them, either.

This author isn’t going to try to argue that David Ortiz is not one of the best hitters of his generation, steroids or not. You could take that part of the saga out completely and we’d still be dealing with a highly unlikeable guy. In what universe is a Hall of Fame-caliber player concerned with the meaninglessness of a single here or there, or of berating official scorers on numerous occasions for insignificant hits?

I think the answer to my quarrels is much simpler. Tim Kurkjian, who is a longtime national baseball writer for ESPN, had this to say in a video that may or may not still be available by the time you click on this link:

Well he’s a rock star, I’m telling you, Neil. Before the game he is the life of the party. Batting practice he’s hitting the ball all over the place. Palling around with guys, on both sides. Game starts, he’s the best hitter on the field, as he has been almost every time this year.

Then when the game’s over, he’s always the guy that addresses the media if we need a comment from a veteran guy on the team. He’s always accountable, he always shows up, and I’m telling you we haven’t had a guy have a year like this at age-40 in a really long time.

Some of my biggest issues with sports in general, but particularly baseball since it’s my favorite sport, is the narrative spin the media puts on everything. It’s usually a complete 180-degree U-turn from what’s actually happening in reality.

Generally they don’t project the spin as hard as Kurkjian does here, basically saying the reason David Ortiz is so beloved is because of how much access he gives to them (the media). That explains virtually this entire article.

My favorite baseball player of all-time is Ian Kinsler, someone who despised talking to the media. Which is largely the reason he was so unpopular amongst most of the Texas Rangers fan base while he played there, because the media was so focused on slurping up Michael Young’s quotes — a guy inferior in talent to Kinsler, who was and remains vastly more popular.

The media gives free passes to the players who are more willing to talk to them, who give them something to write about. If they were actual journalists, and not shills, they would call bullshit on David Ortiz whenever he acted like a fucking five year-old. But if they did so, he wouldn’t give them any more quotes. So they aren’t going to do that.

Ortiz isn’t my least favorite baseball player — I don’t think, at least — but I’d have a hard time coming up with two or three other names that rank in his particular bracket of shittiness. He’s plays for one of, if not the most popular franchise(s). He’s been part of three World Series teams, has an iconic speech following the Boston Marathon bombings. For the casual fan, there isn’t a reason to have disdain for this person.

This is more sports-fan-hate than anything else, especially taking into account his outrageous prowess of doing bad things to baseballs.

I don’t hate the guy personally, I just assume if I did know him I wouldn’t like him very much.

 

Edit (10/11/16): Since writing this I have learned that the Mitchell Report, of which I was only 13 when it came out, means very little. I believe Joe Sheehan called it a “PR stunt.” Like I say in the post, I don’t really care about players who used PEDs, because there was a hefty percentage who used and we’ll never know exactly who. My use of the Mitchell Report was only to illuminate the fact that, while other players of his era were vilified, David Ortiz was essentially given a free pass. 

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