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The reality of David Ortiz

7/29/2014

Tampa Bay pitcher Chris Archer's criticism of how Boston star David Ortiz "pimped" around the basepaths Sunday after hitting a go-ahead home run came at the end of an interesting weekend in baseball that begs to be tied together. Because the conversation Archer ignited links into how Ortiz seems on his way to becoming a brand-new creature in baseball that many doubted we'd ever see.

Just a day before Archer made his remarks about 38-year-old Ortiz's showboating -- then refused to back down Monday, adding, "I never saw Hank Aaron flip his bat" -- Boston legend Carl Yastrzemski had anointed Ortiz the Red Sox franchise's second-best hitter ever, trailing only Ted Williams.

Forget for the moment that plenty of fans would differ with Yaz. What also made it significant was Yastrzemski threw Ortiz that bouquet against the backdrop of Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, amid the renewed talk about steroid era sluggers pulling in minuscule vote totals that prompted two of this year's inductees, Tony La Russa and White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, to give their polar-opposite takes.

Let PED users in, argued La Russa, a longtime protector of his former star Mark McGwire, if not Jose Canseco, although both juiced.

I'm proud I did things clean, Thomas countered during his speech.

Ortiz, remember, was among the 104 players on the list of failed 2003 performance-enhancing drug tests that came out via a New York Times report in 2009. He still says he has no idea how he flunked the test, and the details have never been publicly explained.

Archer's complaints about Ortiz thinking he's "bigger than the game" -- a charge that Rays ace David Price first made in May, after drilling Ortiz the first time he faced him this season as a supposed payback for admiring the second homer he hit off Price in Game 2 of last season's ALCS -- should set off a bigger-picture thought:

Ortiz is shaping up to be the first slugger from his era to make the Hall of Fame.

You realize that, right?

Ortiz seems on an inexorable path to becoming something none of his contemporaries has so far: the steroid era's first Teflon slugger.

"He's a Hall of Famer in my eyes," Red Sox teammate Mike Napoli said Monday.

But how is it that Ortiz seems poised to pull off what McGwire (11 percent of this year's vote), Barry Bonds (34.7), Roger Clemens (35.4) and Canseco (off the ballot after drawing just 1.1 percent) could not? Bonds, for example, dwarfed Ortiz's home run total, 762 to 456.

Why does Ortiz alone seem poised to vault lightly over the steroid suspicions that were, in his case, admittedly incomplete when, say, Mike Piazza, another Hall of Fame shutout so far, could point out he has never failed an MLB-administered drug test, period?

It's especially worth pondering if you're part of the Baseball Unwritten Rules tribe, because Ortiz does plenty to be irked about. As Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com pointed out, according to a website called "Tater Trot Tracker" that has been timing home run trots since the start of the 2010 season, Ortiz is by far baseball's most egregious repeat offender when it comes to rubbing in his home runs.

In addition to being the first big leaguer by the site's calculations to crack the 30-second barrier, Ortiz had seven of the 10 slowest trots last season, and he had six of the slowest 10 trots this season as of Sunday, including the slowest in four years. So Ortiz doesn't merely pimp. He's a virtuoso showoff/bat flipper/agitator. The trot that drove Archer to chirp took 29.3 seconds -- long by mortal standards but hardly Papi's paint-drying best.

"I don't know what to tell you about it," Ortiz said, laughing off Archer's criticism. "I've been doing this for years. If you don't like it, stay away. You're not going to stop me doing what I do. … It is what it is."

When Rays manager Joe Maddon was asked about Ortiz's shtick after having a night to sleep on it, Maddon said: "The simple answer is, what if it had happened in the '60s when [Bob] Gibson was pitching or [Don] Drysdale was pitching? That answers the question."

But therein lies the other stinging reality to non-Ortiz fans: He typifies how there's a rapidly eroding consensus about whether some of the unwritten and written rules of baseball are worth hewing to anymore or justify clinging to some vigilante code of justice.

Lately, there's been a lot of louder talk within the game about upping the entertainment value, shortening the boredom and the lag time between pitches. And Ortiz -- like controversial Dodgers sensation Yasiel Puig -- is an antidote to all that head-down stoicism and drudgery. He's charismatic because he laughs, he smiles and preens, he slaps friends and foes alike on the back during batting practice, then he looks serious as a heart attack once he steps in the batter's box, spits on his hands like a lumberjack getting ready to go to work and clouts the ball out of the park -- sometimes just as he predicted he would.

Although he was in a 1-for-15 slump at the plate back a little over a week ago, Ortiz told reporters he was commencing to get "hotter than Jamaica in the middle of August" -- then went 8-for-28 with five homers and two doubles on Boston's 2-5 trip. The man called his shot.

Shows of personality like that, as well as his clutch hitting as Boston won three World Series in the past 10 years, have absolutely earned Ortiz a reprieve from his other "crimes" against baseball. Such as bitching enough about reversing official scorer's decisions (with some success) to finally earn a public rebuke from MLB enforcement guru Joe Torre. Such as talking about his own numbers even when the Sox are losing. Such as routinely arguing balls and strikes, a supposedly ejectable offense.

For years, Yankees observers have groused how the Yanks never even brushed back Ortiz even when he was raking against them and/or when the Sox threw at Derek Jeter. But really, hardly anybody throws at Ortiz. He's been hit only 35 times in his 15-plus seasons; Jason Giambi, the active career leader, has been plunked 180 times. Prince Fielder was hit 21 times in 2010 alone.

This is quite a sleight of hand Ortiz is pulling off.

Remember, Ortiz seemed in danger of being released by the Sox five years ago before undergoing a back-from-the-brink revival that saw him hit .309 with 30 homers and 103 RBIs last season with a .959 OPS, and he won the World Series MVP award by hitting .688 -- all at the age of 37. And yet, instead of fanning renewed suspicions that he must be still juicing, it has been used as proof that he's just damn good, thanks, and that bad stretch -- that was the aberration.

"That's what happens when you're good," Ortiz, who already has 25 homers this year, told reporters Monday.

We may never know the truth about Ortiz's flagged PED test. As with his other antics, many people seem to have decided it really doesn't matter. Folks still dig the long ball. And in this supposedly cleaner era of baseball, Ortiz still reliably provides that kind of drama. He's damn fun to watch. So what if he flips the bat?

When told 25-year-old Archer had ripped him Sunday, Ortiz laughed and told The Tampa Tribune, "Whatever, dude. There's always going to be comments out there. He's not the right guy to be saying that, I think. He's got two days in the league, and to be [whining] and complaining about stuff like that?"

That Ortiz pushed back wasn't a surprise. But it must've been a bit disorienting for young Archer and Price, a former Cy Young winner, to be told pipe down, crybabies, after they claimed to have earned a lot of respect for telling it like it is about Ortiz.

The blowback was if you don't like Big Papi's home run after-parties, quit throwing him cream puff pitches he can send to Yawkey Way.

He's the Teflon slugger.

Next stop: Cooperstown.

It kind of makes you rethink everything, the Rays' Maddon admitted Monday.