The Wrenching Problem Of David Ortiz, The Human Slippery Slope


Ethics conflicts force us to choose when multiple ethical principles and values point to diametrically opposed resolutions.  Often, a solution can be found where the unethical aspects of the resolution can be mitigated, but not this one. It is a tale of an ethics conflict without a satisfactory resolution.

I didn’t want to write this post. I considered waiting five years to write it, when the issue will be unavoidable and a decision mandatory. Today, however, is the day on which all of Boston, New England, and most of baseball will be honoring Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who will be playing his finale regular season game after a 20 years career.  His 2016 season is quite possibly the best year any professional baseball player has had as his final one; it is definitely the best season any batter has had at the age of 40 or more. Ortiz is an icon and a hero in Boston, for good reason. Ortiz was instrumental in breaking his team’s infamous 86-year long “curse” that saw it come close to winning the World Series again and again, only to fail in various dramatic or humiliating ways. He was a leader and an offensive centerpiece of three World Champion teams in 2004, 2007, and 2013. Most notably, his record as a clutch hitter, both in the regular season and the post season is unmatched. You can bring yourself up to speed on Ortiz’s career and his importance to the Red Sox, which means his importance to the city and its culture, for nowhere in America takes baseball as seriously as Beantown, here.

That’s only half the story for Ortiz. Much of his impact on the team, the town and the game has come from his remarkable personality, a unique mixture of intensity, charm, intelligence, generosity, pride and charisma. After the 2013 terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon, which shook the city as much as any event since the Boston Massacre, Ortiz made himself the symbol of Boston’s anger and defiance with an emotional speech at Fenway Park. Then he put an exclamation point on his defiance by leading the Red Sox, a last place team the year before, to another World Series title.

Performance-based arguments against electing Ortiz to baseball’s Hall of Fame are, at this point, untenable. Entering his final game, Ortiz had 541 home runs, (17th all-time), 1,768 RBI, (22nd), and 632 doubles, (10th).  He is only the third player in history to have more than 500 home runs and 600 doubles.  He ranks among the greatest post season hitters in baseball history with 17 home runs, 60 RBI and 21 doubles. His postseason average is .295 with an on base percentage of .409, a slugging percentage of .553 and a .962 OPS (the sum of the two.) Most great players did worse in the post season than during the regular season, for the obvious reason: the competition was better. Ortiz was better, which informs regarding his character and dedication.

The one lingering argument against admitting Ortiz to the ranks of Ruth, Williams, Aaron, Mays, Cobb, Hornsby, Griffey and the rest is that he has spent most of his career as a designated hitter, the American League’s 1973 invention, much reviled by National League fans and baseball traditionalists, designed to allow real batters relive fans from watching pitchers make fools of themselves at the plate. This makes him “half a player,” the argument goes. No designated hitter has ever been elected to the Hall, so that argument has prevailed so far. It was always a weak one—how did being lousy fielders like so many Hall of Fame sluggers make them greater players than one who never hurt his team at all with his glove? Now that a designated hitter has shown himself to be in the elite ranks of all the greatest batters, the argument sounds more like hysterical anti-DH bias than ever.

I should also note, before getting to the main point of this post, that I love Ortiz. I am a lifetime Red Sox fan, Boston born, bred and marinated, and Big Papi is special. He is one of the most interesting and admirable sports figures of my lifetime, and what he has meant to my city and my favorite sport is beyond quantifying. Few great athletes demonstrate persuasively that they are also great and admirable human beings. Ortiz is one of them.

Nonetheless, it is crucial that David Ortiz not be elected to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible five years from now, and that he never be admitted. On the matter of assessing the fitness for baseball honors of those who defiled the game by inflating their statistics, changing the outcome of games and harming players who abided by the rules, David Ortiz is a human slippery slope. Ortiz deserves to be in the Hall based on all admission criteria, including character and sportsmanship, but his admission will open the doors wide for players who are unfit, polluting the Hall of Fame and baseball’s values forever.

It’s not worth the trade off. This is the ethics conflict: one cannot be fair and just to “Big Papi” without doing widespread harm to the sport, and I would argue, the entire culture.

As it stands now, the baseball writers who vote on Hall membership have refused to admit players who used or are widely believed to have used steroids and performance-enhancing substances. Among those blocked are the all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds; one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Roger Clemens; the man who broke Roger Maris’s single season home run record, Mark McGwire, a player with over 500 home runs and 3000 hits, Rafael Palmiero, and soon, Ortiz pal and fellow Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriquez.

I have written so much about why this is correct, and why baseball’s insistence that character and sportsmanship be among the core criteria for its Hall of Fame (while other sports look only to on-the-field achievements: O.J. Simpson is a proud member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) is right for the sport and the country, that I won’t rehash it now. [You can read all about it here, here, here, here, here, and all the posts here (except one).] The conclusion, however, is an ethics no-brainer. Cheaters don’t deserve to be honored among a sports greats, and a sport that does so is an ethics corrupter on a grand scale. Honoring cheaters (and liars, for they all lied) sends the deadly cultural message that cheating can work, and that since “everybody does it,” there’s nothing wrong with you doing it too.

Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez, to name the worst of the worst, don’t lose much sleep over the Hall of Fame: they are multi-millionaires, their records are in the books, nobody has taken away their awards, and not least of all, increasing numbers of sportswriters and ethically-obtuse defenders are chipping away at the cultural agreement that their presence in the Hall would constitute permanent and incurable defilement.

There is always an anomaly that challenges every ethics rule, and Ortiz is it for the principle that steroid use should preclude baseball immortality. In 2003,  as a prelude to determining what its stance would be on a proposed stringent drug-testing program in baseball, the players union asked its members to volunteer for a banned substances test to see how many players would test positive. The participating players were promised complete confidentiality and anonymity. In 2009, someone leaked a report that Ortiz ‘s test had come up positive.

Ortiz maintained that he has never knowingly taken any PEDs, and that he didn’t have a clue what substance it was that triggered the positive result. He insisted that it must have been the result of some supplements he was using at the time; especially in Ortiz’s then home Dominican Republic, supplements were often tainted with unlisted substances that could flag a violation. In an unusual statement, Major League Baseball backed Ortiz, saying that the leaked results could not fairly implicate Ortiz as a steroid cheat, and that the focus on him (a hundred other players had also failed the test,  but their names were never revealed) was unfair.

Ortiz has been vocal in condemning the clouding of his reputation by this incident, saying in 2009 in an interview,

“No one had ever told me I’d failed any test. Now six years later some documents get leaked and they’re saying I’m dirty. I called my agent and asked what was going on. He didn’t have any answers for me. I called the MLB Players’ Association and they didn’t have any answers for me. To this day, nobody has any answers for me. Nobody can tell me what I supposedly tested positive for. They say they legally can’t, because the tests were never supposed to be public. Let me tell you something. Say whatever you want about me — love me, hate me. But I’m no bullshitter. I never knowingly took any steroids. If I tested positive for anything, it was for something in pills I bought at the damn mall. If you think that ruins everything I have done in this game, there is nothing I can say to convince you different.”

The problem for Ortiz is that so many other players who were later proven to be cheaters and liars have made similar statements. Personally, I believe him. I have watched and listened to Ortiz since 2003, and I believe that he is an ethical, honorable and honest man because he behaves like one.  Is it possible that in this instance he violated his own principles and is covering up? Of course it’s possible. I think it’s very unlikely, however. Ortiz, unlike Bonds, Sammy Sosa and McGwire, showed no physical changes that are consistent with PED use. His progression as a hitter was consistent with the development of other great sluggers. Since the 2003 incident, he has been tested extensively, and never failed. As a CBS sportswriter commented last year,

“You never saw a mention of his name in the Biogenesis or any other scandal, either. He’s either clean or he’s the world’s best doper.”

Which doesn’t mean he’s not the world’s best doper, of course. And what happened happened: it is unfair to Ortiz, but the fact remains that no baseball player who failed a drug test had ever been admitted to the Hall of Fame, and Ortiz failed a drug test. When his is admitted, if he is admitted, he will instantly create a justification for unraveling the ethics consensus that the current group of outcasts don’t belong. People are incapable of making subtle ethical distinctions, and this one is especially difficult. Ortiz cannot avoid being a precedent, for both designated hitters and steroid cheats.

I started thinking about this after Ortiz reached 500 home runs last season. Before that, I was confident that he would fall short of the career statistics necessary to crash the first DH into the Hall, so the danger of his admission opening the door for miserable creeps like Bonds, Ramirez and Rodriguez seemed minimal; His amazing performance this season, however, made the threat real. Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy  talked to various sportswriters with voting privileges, and found that most agreed that Ortiz would and should be elected to the Hall…and that once he was, the cheats would come in too.

Then Ortiz has to stay out, that’s all. Everywhere, we see a growing cultural consensus, fueled by ethics corrupters like our two Presidential aspirants, our President and his supporters, popular culture, politics, social activists and the news media, that values and ethics are disposable and irrelevant. A United States that does not represent ethical values is not the United States, for this is the only nation founded to advance ethical values.

I gave a presentation about the significance of the “Seven Samurai” and its adaptations for the Smithsonian yesterday. The story has always been about a group of mercenaries who decide to help  a poor and oppressed village because it is the right thing to do, even though they receive little in compensation, and even though they are likely to die. In the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” however, the “heroes” are not motivated by altruism, but by money, extortion, obligation, and in the case of their leader , a personal vendetta. This isn’t a fluke or an accident. This is this generation’s “Magnificent Seven,” and it should be no surprise that it’s an unethical one.

The cultural consensus that basic ethical values are intrinsically important for their own sake is rapidly falling apart. Millions see nothing significantly objectionable about Hillary Clinton’s dishonest handling of her e-mail, Obama lying outright to get Obamacare passed, Harry Reid lying about Mitt Romney to assist Obama’s re-election, Tom Brady conspiring against the rules to get an edge in a play-off game, journalists rejecting objectivity to elect whom they regard as “the best” candidate, civil rights activists using false narratives to advance their position, women using false statistics to claim workplace bias, colleges assuming the guilt of young men accused of sexual assault without supporting evidence, Congress being unconstitutionally bypassed by Presidential fiat as a solution to partisan stasis, and so much more, including the candidacy of Donald Trump, all applications of “the ends justifies the means.”

Baseball’s capitulation to this deadly mindset will be complete the day Bonds, McGwire, Ramirez or Rodriguez enter the Hall,(I am quite certain that many currently enshrined members will exit the same day. I would), and Ortiz’s election will make the arrival of that day a certainty.

The only conclusion in this ugly ethics conflict is that as unjust as it is, and unfair as it is, and as cruel to David Ortiz as it is, he must stay out of the Hall of Fame to protect and preserve crucial ethical values that are already under assault. This is one slippery slope that must be avoided, not just for baseball’s sake, but for all of us.

Maybe by the time Ortiz is eligible, the younger, more cynical, ethically inert younger writers will have already elected Bonds and the rest, making Ortiz’s election painless and automatic. In that case, however, belonging to the Hall of Fame will be no honor.

34 thoughts on “The Wrenching Problem Of David Ortiz, The Human Slippery Slope

  1. The one way this could be a happy ending is if Ortiz himself publicly states he does not want to be in the Hall of Fame precisely to avoid opening the doors to cheaters. I won’t hold it against him if he doesn’t, but if he did I’d put him in the ethics Hall of Fame.

  2. I left this out of the post, but consider: there is no way out of this. If voters did NOT support Ortiz for the Hall, it would be used as proof that of “PED Derangement Syndrome,” with voters being mocked for keeping someone whose PED use is so unproven and minimal out of the hall of Fame he is so qualified enter. The voters are trapped too.

    • Oh crap. The ceremony—his dad, all the old players, Boston naming a bridge after him (for building bridges in the community), Yaz, retiring his number, the President of The Dominican Republic throwing out the first ball, and Ortiz’s speech, going down to one knee at the end to thanks the fans—made me cry.

      We’re screwed for sure.

  3. I agree with Alex. However, this IS a slippery slope. Ortiz wasn’t charged nor was he able to take a look at the test to see what it was that he tested positive for. I am from Boston, yet that doesn’t influence my judgement. I found this disturbing, yet not shocking, from the Boston Globe:

    “The fans understand there’s no flawless institution. It’s the human condition that we all make mistakes,” he said. (Mike Piazza)

    Jack is right. By 2021, it will be forgotten since the alleged incident happened in 2003. I would imagine that Boston would be the biggest fighter to allow Big Papi to enter the HOF. They repainted on the T stops near and around Fenway depicting portraits of Ortiz. He was put into “Hero” status in the eyes of kids years ago. Right now there are a lot of articles about this topic right now in the internet. I doubt that will be the case in 2021. Great article Jack.

  4. I would need more information to make this call. And I certainly think Ortiz needs full access to all records about whatever was tested for, and what he was positive for. As well as how and why confidential information was leaked, but only about him. As it stands now, I couldn’t vote ‘guilty’ in a trial with this sort of evidence. I don’t even think it would meet a ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard. Evidence of other player’s use of PEDs is strong enough to meet both of those standards.
    Fully understanding that the Hall of Fame is an honor, not a right, it is something to which a player can aspire, and fairly earn. To deprive Ortiz of this honor, on the basis of the existing evidence that he used PEDs, seems unfair without a much closer examination of the evidence. If he fairly earned the honor, depriving him of it based on not wanting to amplify the arguments of those who will not receive the honor because of substantial evidence against them, or in some cases an actual admission, seems really wrong.
    I recall at least one case where a player tested positive for testosterone, and we all learned that he was undergoing fertility treatment. Also, some steroid finds have been caused by responsible medical treatment of various conditions. Further straining my memory, during that time period, (circa 2003), several body building supplements and powders were found to contain banned, or about to be banned (by MLB) substances in the U.S.. I imagine this was even more common in the Dominican Republic. I know of cases during this time where eating a poppy seed bagel triggered positive tests for opiates. PED and drug testing has improved since then, fortunately.
    The slippery slope implications of Ortiz’s likely Hall of Fame election can be mitigated by a thorough and careful examination of the facts, and, assuming Ortiz is willing to compromise his privacy, a complete public disclosure of them.

  5. If you asked my personal opinion I would say that I firmly believed that Ortiz took “something.” But personal opinion does not outweigh the fact that this is sketchy at best. Since that time Ortiz has been repeatedly tested with no issues. There is no real substantiated proof. I have to question the veracity of the “list.” Again – sketchy.

    The second issue is the position he plays or does not play. Do you penalize a player simply because he is excluded from playing a position? The evidence is that Ortiz is a fairly respectable first baseman. He has baseball smarts and instincts – just ask Jeff Suppan.

    If you worship fielding metrics Ortiz sits at a UZR/150 of -4.3. This season Eric Hosmer – in my opinion, the best in the league – is -6.7 and dead last among qualified in the AL. I would compare Ortiz to Ryan Howard as far as defense is concerned.

    Excellent write up, Jack.

  6. Question for you: what is the false positive rate for steroid tests? I would argue that a single test by itself should not be sufficient without a followup confirmation test. If no other test throughout their career turns up positive, and there is no other reason to assume they are doping, they should be in the clear.

    Drug tests and the people who administer them are not perfect. Moreover, most people’s intuition about statistics misleads them. Given a 1% actual use rate, and a 1% false positive rate (1 positive out of 100 people who actually don’t use) the odds of a positive result being correct is only 50-50.

    • Of course true. Nevertheless, the players who are regarded as pretty certainly steroid users are a mixed bag. McGwire essentially admitted it by refusing to ay he didn’t under oath before Congress. He never tested positive even once. Clemens never tested positive, but he had a late career resurgence, and his trainer testified under oath that he gave Clemens PEDs. Sosa never tested positive, but he hulked out mid-career and was evasive before Congress. Bonds never tested positive officially (his tests were disputed) and he claimed he was given steroids without his knowledge, which no one believes. Jeff Bagwell hasn’t been voted in just because he LOOKED like he took ‘roids. So where does Ortiz fit in that spectrum?

      • From ESPN today:

        In 2009, Ortiz’s name was leaked to The New York Times as one of the players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003 survey testing, which led to MLB’s current drug-testing policy. Manfred noted there were several results that were scientifically indisputable at the time, but could not say whether Ortiz was among them because MLB agreed to keep results confidential and the results were subsequently destroyed.

        “I do know that he’s never been a positive at any point under our program [implemented in 2004],” said Manfred, who indicated he will meet with Ortiz in the Dominican Republic this winter to discuss a potential role as an ambassador for the league. “I think that the feeling was, at the time that name was leaked, that it was important to make people understand that even if your name was on that list that it was entirely possible that you were not a positive.”

      • Honestly, I’d rank them Ortiz > Bagwell > Sosa> Clemens =McGwire>Bonds. I Think the cutoff woul have to be Bagwell. Bonds had multiple failed tests not just one, McGwire refusing to testify can be considered evidence of guilt and ranks about the same as third party testimony, evasiveness is a little shifty which matters a great deal for avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

        It’s a slope, but I’m not sure how slippery it is. Judging by your last post, it’s not clear that the leaker didn’t make up Ortiz’s positive.

        • Bagwell? He’d have to be at the top of the list of players unfairly assumed to be dopers, even more than Ortiz. Once anyone who tested positive for anything, false positive or not, is admitted, Clemens comes in, because he never tested positive for anything. Once he comes in, Bonds can’t be left out: his supporters will scream racism if he is. Once Bonds is in, I doubt even Manny and A-Rod can be kept out, since Bonds was the worst of them all.

        • And Sosa! Sosa hulked out as much as Bonds. He was caught using a corked bat, which proved he was not above cheating. And his statement before Congress, during which he pretended not to speak English, was laughably deceitful, repeating that he never knowingly took a PED that was illegal in the country he took it in. He’s as bad as McGwire and worse, as McGwire at least looked ashamed.

          • The bat alone should be grounds for not including Sosa. I rank third party testimony higher than 1 positive test that was leaked 6 years later with all documentation gone, so Ortiz does not automatically lead to Clemens being included IMO. OTOH, the general public has level of naive trust in drug testing that might influence things. 😦

  7. A thought: The HOF should open a steroid era wing. Every player from the era should be put in based on their stats. It could be named the “East [German] Wing,” or the “Ken Caminiti Memorial Wing.” Everyone from the era would be eligible. If you were clean and get in, that’s tough. If you were dirty and get in, well, you’re in a separate wing because you played when steroids were rampant. A plaque could be but up outside the Wing explaining when steroids were invented and began to populate all of sports and also the date at which MLB began testing. Then maybe MLB could appoint a truth and reconciliation committee a la South Africa and people could come clean with impunity and the truth would come out but everyone would remain in the Wing because their stats are enhanced.

  8. The number of things that can cause a false positive are numerous. If he passed all the tests since then and there is no other evidence that he used PEDS then I say he is given the benefit of the doubt.

    I didn’t eat a poppy seed bagel for the last 8 years I was in the Marines because of the off chance that I would have a piss test.

    I still don’t want him in the HOF as the designated hitter is a crock and they should eliminate it.

    • TB: A question I’m asking to find the answer, not to provoke an argument. Are amphetamines and other stimulants issued by the military to combat troops to enhance their endurance and alertness?

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