Teammates and rival players have always sought out David Ortiz, because beyond his big-swing, big-moment stardom, he exudes a warmth and geniality that soften his sometimes blunt messages. The F-bomb that Ortiz dropped into the middle of a speech at Fenway Park in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings inspired a mantra — This is our f—ing city — so perfect that even social media’s profanity mafia, normally easily offended, stood down.
On another noteworthy stage on Tuesday, during a news conference held for the newest Hall of Fame inductee, Ortiz again made himself perfectly clear: “Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are Hall of Famers,” Ortiz told reporters. “They did amazing things for baseball. They both deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Bonds is arguably the greatest position player in baseball history, and Clemens is in the conversation as one of the best pitchers of all time. But on Tuesday, at about the same time that Ortiz got the call that he was voted in, the Hall revealed that Bonds and Clemens were given a thumbs-down by the baseball writers — a third of them, anyway — for the 10th and final year.
Moving forward, Clemens and Bonds can only gain induction through a special committee, and Ortiz’ immediate endorsement could help set the tone for that conversation.
Ortiz is one of the few figures in sports whose honesty, even on controversial topics, might make him even more likable. In a phone conversation on Thursday, one of the only others — an outspoken Hall of Famer in a different sport, Charles Barkley — said that meeting Ortiz is on his bucket list. “I hope people like me as much as Big Papi,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Big Papi.”
And Big Papi is even better positioned to deliver words of perspective now that he has earned Hall of Fame immortality. Ortiz is the youngest of the 75 living Hall of Famers, and his willingness to speak out could be the first sign of an inevitable shift that could lead to Bonds and Clemens gaining induction — perhaps even by year’s end.
When the Today’s Game committee — which assesses the candidacy of those in the sport from 1988 onward — convenes this winter, the possible nominees to the 10-man short list include longtime manager Bruce Bochy, outfielder Kenny Lofton and first baseman Fred McGriff, among others. But many of those passed over by the writers because of links to PEDs are also eligible to be among the finalists. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. Rafael Palmeiro. And yes, Bonds and Clemens.
The final ballot of 10 candidates under consideration will be announced sometime after the World Series, with the voting taking place in early December. At this point, not even the committee members are finalized, but they’ll be composed of some recipe of panelists drawn from three categories: Hall of Famers, executives and media members.
Until we know the makeup of the special committee, it’s hard to know if Bonds and Clemens will be inducted. As older all-time greats have passed on, more and more of the players who sit on the stage at Cooperstown have a fuller understanding of the context of the steroid era. A growing portion of the living Hall of Famers know at least implicitly — or perhaps their knowledge is firsthand — that some players who’ve made speeches in Cooperstown used steroids, or amphetamines. They know that singling out Bonds and Clemens for PEDs in the sport in which there was rampant use is at least unfair, and at worst, a laughable farce.
MLB has never taken the step of attaching any lifetime demerits to players linked to PEDs — Bonds, Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, McGwire, et al, are all members in good standing, free to be employed by any team, in any role. (This distinguishes them from another all-time great kept out of the Hall of Fame, Pete Rose, who is serving a lifetime ban from the sport for gambling.)
Maybe that’s because it already has enough problems with the players’ union. Maybe because Bud Selig and Rob Manfred smartly steered around the corollary questions that would follow any asterisk on, or delegitimization of, any particular feat. For example: If what McGwire and Sosa accomplished wasn’t real, how come the Cubs and the Cardinals (and every other MLB team) kept the money they made on the backs of those two players?
Whatever the reason, MLB punted on the legacy question for players with PED links, and then so did the Hall of Fame. The Hall never placed Rose’s name on a ballot for consideration, but McGwire was on the ballot for 10 years, as were Bonds and Clemens. This passed the buck on the steroid issue to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — and this is how it came to pass that a group of journalists allowed themselves to be deputized as the morality police for the industry, taking on a job that Selig, Manfred and Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark eschewed.
Ortiz’s advocacy could be the first brick of change. If he continues to speak on behalf of Clemens and Bonds, and if other HOFers join in — maybe offering firsthand accounts as a reality check — their words could carry weight with the committee. Perhaps July will be the last time Bonds and Clemens have to sit out a Hall of Fame ceremony, absorbing the punishment for a generation of users, including some who will presumably sit behind Ortiz on the stage this summer. Maybe that will be another moment when Big Papi will look to nudge the Today’s Game committee with an embrace of Bonds and Clemens, as well as his former teammate Ramirez and his friend Rodriguez. Baseball needs to be rescued from this issue — from its obvious inequity.
A superstar dying to meet Ortiz understands why Big Papi said what he said about Bonds and Clemens.
“The way I see it, there were a lot of guys doing the same thing,” Barkley mused, “and only three to five players get penalized for it. I think it’s totally unfair.”