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In muddied Hall of Fame waters, David Ortiz sails through as Barry Bonds sinks

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Wearing the loudest technicolor shirt after a long day — where time passed so excruciatingly that the whole afternoon felt like the first two minutes back on an exercise bike after a long break — David Ortiz told the virtually assembled members of the Baseball Writers Association of America: “To me, that guy is a Hall of Famer.”

He was talking about Barry Bonds, home run king and perhaps the most impressive all-around offensive player in the sport’s history.

Unfortunately for Bonds, to 34% of the voting members of the BBWAA, he is not.

Ortiz had the opportunity to opine on Bonds’ greatness — “this is a guy who played the game to a whole totally different level” — because the venerable, affable face of the Boston Red Sox dynasty known as Big Papi had just been elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot. He was asked about Bonds — and Roger Clemens, who won as many Cy Young Awards as Bonds did MVPs — because they never would be, not by the writers anyway.

Ortiz’s inaugural 77.9% of the vote reflects an evolving lack of bias against designated hitters and is a testament to his knack for big moments — be it game-changing at-bats or heart-swelling speeches. Cut from the Minnesota Twins when he was 26 years old, Ortiz ended up in Boston, on a Red Sox team still stymied by a century-old championship curse, but rife with talented teammates and mentors.

He’d spend 14 seasons there, becoming synonymous with their ascent to dominance and relevance.

“If I were born again,” he said, “I would like to get the opportunity to play for them again.”

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 09: David Ortiz looks on before the Red Sox home opening game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park on April 09, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
David Ortiz thanked Boston and the Red Sox after being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

But even as he thanked Boston for helping turn around his career and the fans there who made him their favorite, Ortiz, who will be just the fourth Dominican-born player enshrined, credited his first home for his love of the game.

“I know it is a very big deal everywhere, but here we have a way to celebrate baseball because it's in our blood,” he said. “Doesn't matter where you come from, here in the Dominican — baseball, we live through it.”

In a 20-year career that ended with a retirement tour in a season when he still led the sport in OPS, Ortiz made 10 All-Star teams and hit 541 career homers. His 1.372 OPS in the World Series is a record among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances. He also labored under some suspicion that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.

And yet, he was not as good as Barry Bonds (I mean, really, it’s kind of insane), the consummate and all-but-MLB-anointed villain of the steroid era.

One will be inducted this summer and the other will see his enshrinement shunted off to the Today’s Game committee. The distinction is a matter of an arbitrary threshold (66% of voters think Bonds is a Hall of Famer, he needed 75% for election), a micro-era (unchecked PED use peaked during and, in part, because of Bonds’ career), parsing the level of suspicion to ascribe to various contemporary evidence (the BALCO scandal for Bonds, a failed survey test that was supposed to be anonymous for Ortiz), the value of clear direction from the league itself that is so often lacking from these conversations (Commissioner Rob Manfred said in 2016 that voters shouldn’t ding candidates for the 2003 test that Ortiz failed), and perhaps some small measure of media friendliness.

It’s hard to say whether it reflects a difference in “character.”

None of this is to cast aspersions on Ortiz’s election. He played well into the current era of regular standardized drug testing and, after that survey testing in 2003, “I never failed a test,” as he said. “So what does that tell you?”

In spite of Bonds’ empirical greatness and his endorsement from a worthy electee, you could argue, and enough BBWAA voters did, that there’s a case against him — but it would necessarily be based on personal subjective evaluations of all those factors. Wanting to hold the tip of the iceberg accountable for how cold the water is. Doing so highlights how muddy the whole process has become — is it reflective or punitive?

The point of the Hall is, in part, to compare guys across eras — it’s why we’ve come to value-adjusted metrics like WAR and JAWs. But eras aren’t always roped off in real time like chapters in a Ken Burns documentary. And in one ballot, spanning a single decade, we see how quickly that is upended by visceral reactions to the wrongs that we remember.

Guys who watched their immediate predecessors with awe on the field will be left to answer for their erasure from the pantheon. What they can’t tell us is whether the difference is context, or competition, or character.

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