The Quotable David Ortiz: The DH fires back at PED accusations

Jim Rogash

David Ortiz's response to Dan Shaughnessy goes on the short but powerful list of to-the-point statements by Big Papi.

Sometimes it seems as if all the best baseball quotes belong to yesteryear, maybe because the process of professionalization has steamed out most of the odd situations that give players a chance to reveal character. It seems like an odd thing to mourn, but we'll never have another Joe Jackson saying, when asked when why he went along with the 1919 World Series fix, "The Swede is a hard guy." This reference to the team's shortstop, Charles August "Swede" Risberg was so evocative, so full of pathos, that it had White Sox fan and A Walk on the Wild Side author Nelson Algren marveling for the rest of his life, and writing bitter verses like

Do not be remembering the most natural man ever to wear
spiked shoes.
The canniest fielder and the longest hitter,
Who squatted on his heels
In a uniform muddied at the knees,
Till the bleacher shadows grew long behind him.
Who went along with Chick and Buck and Happy
Because they treated him so friendly-like,
Hardly like Yankees at all.
With Williams because Lefty was from the South too.
And with Risberg because the Swede was such a hard
guy.

You don't get this kind of anguish out of a Pete Rose reality show. Still, David Ortiz had a line that, while it isn't going to make anyone's list of top-100 epigrams, is still a wonderfully blunt response by a player trapped in a situation that is simultaneously impossibly stupid and highly annoying. Hold on to that thought, because for the line to have full impact, we have to set the scene: Ortiz began his professional career in the Mariners organization, but he had the misfortune to be dealt to the Twins after his first season in A-ball. The Twins have long had an odd way of doing things; I don't think it's unfair to say that they have spent a good chunk of the present millennium avoiding power hitters and, since they heyday of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano ended, strikeout pitchers. The policy seems foolish to the point of perversity, but you can't say that the Twins weren't successful with it until recently: from 2002 through 2010 they won the AL Central six times.

Still, they presently rank 14th in the American League in isolated power (slugging percentage - on-base percentage), a position they have held five other times since 2000 -- their highest ranking this century has been sixth; they have never been more than .005 above the league average. As such, they didn't quite know what to make of Ortiz, a dead-pull power hitter. His first year in the Twins system, he hit .317/.372/.568 with 38 doubles and 31 home runs as he rose all the way from High-A Fort Myers to the major leagues. He began the 1998 season as the Twins' starting first baseman and raked early in the season, hitting .306/.375/.531 through his first 34 games. At that moment, he broke his wrist and vanished for two months. His power was gone, temporarily as we now know, and he hit only .261/.369/.400 the rest of the way.

Somehow that was enough for the Twins to give up on Ortiz, though it took a while for him to get free of them. In 1999, they gave the first base job to rookie Doug Mientkiewicz. The designated hitter position initially was given to Marty Cordova, but in the second half he spent more time in the field and several players were rotated through the position. But for four games, Ortiz wasn't one of them -- he spent nearly the entire season with the Salt Lake Buzz of the Pacific Coast League, hitting .315/.412/.590 with 30 home runs in 130 games. Despite losing 97 games that year, the Twins apparently couldn't use a hitter with that kind of ability. Returning to the team in September, he went 0-for-20 in 10 games.

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Ortiz, now 24, finally got a chance to play somewhat regularly in the majors in 2000, though he had to hit his way out from behind Ron Coomer and Butch Huskey to do so. Please, read that sentence again, dwelling, in the full light of retrospective knowledge, on an eight-time all-star being trapped behind those two players. Now forget about bending over backwards to be fair and consider what the Twins knew at the time:

1. Doug Mientkiewicz hadn't hit and had pointedly not enjoyed his time with manager Tom Kelly, so he was getting the Salt Lake treatment -- a full year of exile.

2. Coomer was 33, a career .281/.314/.436 hitter (90 OPS+) who had posted an on-base percentage of .301 over the previous two seasons. He could hit left-handers well, but was mediocre at best against same-side pitching; he would finish his career hitting .259/.296/.381 against them.

3. Huskey was 28 and was a career .268/.313/.447 hitter to that point (OPS+ 98). In fairness to the Twins, it should be noted that those rates included some early-career struggles. In the four years preceding 2000, he'd hit .276/.319/.462. Of course, those years were 1996-1999, so that works out to an OPS+ of 103. Like Coomer, Huskey's main ability was hitting left-handed pitching; he hit .301/.362/.487 lifetime against southpaws, but only .252/.298/.422 against right-handers. Unlike Coomer, who as a transplanted third baseman was a little bit more limber than your average first sacker, Huskey had had his glove confiscated by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Defense.

4. They had Ortiz, who was not particularly well-conditioned and not very good on defense, but had absolutely creamed the ball in both the high minors and the one healthy period of full-time play the Twins had given him.

That the Twins made the decision they did given the available evidence helps explain why the period from 1993-2000 was such a wasteland for them -- not that Ortiz made them eat their words. He hit only .282/.364/.446 with 10 home runs in 478 plate appearances. Here's where the quote comes in. As Ortiz recalled one he got to Boston, "Something in my swing was not right in Minnesota. I could never hit for power. Whenever I took a big swing, they'd say to me, ‘Hey, hey, what are you doing?' So I said, ‘You want me to hit like a little bitch, then I will.'"

"So you want me to hit like a little bitch?" No wonder Tom Kelly sent Ortiz into exile; Ortiz was both rebellious and mocking all at once, calling the Twins on their counterproductive strategies in a way they couldn't answer. To paraphrase Jim Croce, you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit in the wind, you don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don't ask Big Papi to hit singles to the opposite field. When the Twins simply released Ortiz after the 2002 season, perhaps it was their all-too-typical parsimony towards an arbitration-eligible player, perhaps a reflection of how many candidates they had to DH at the time, but (and this is an inference, but it seems to me a reasonably fair one) that if Ortiz had not been resistant, if he had not spoken truth to power, the Twins would not have cut him loose so easily.

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That stood as Ortiz's best line until recently. First, his response to the Boston Marathon bombers should not go unremarked: "This is our f***ing city. Nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong." That remark will go down as part of the aftermath of that terrible event in the same way that the return of baseball to New York City after 9/11 became part of the recovery from that event. Having said that, and despite having spent about a thousand words grounding the "little bitch" comment in its context, I have a new nominee for the best-thing-David-Ortiz-ever-said award: Virtually everything he said in response to Dan Shaughnessy's Boston Globe column, which suggested that Ortiz's hot start could be due to PED usage because, "You [Ortiz] fit all the models. You are from the Dominican Republic. You are an older player. Older players don't get better. You've had injuries consistent with steroid use. You showed up on the list from 2003. You fit all the formulas."

There is a logical fallacy, a failure of deductive reasoning where you construct an argument something like

Fish can swim.
Michael Phelps can swim.
Therefore, Michael Phelps must be a fish.

Here we have a kind of racial profiling where Shaugnessy says

Some Dominicans have been caught using PEDs.
David Ortiz is Dominican.
Therefore, David Ortiz is using PEDs.

There are a lot of other problems with the argument as well, starting with the fact that almost any player can have a strong (now) 73 plate appearances. Baseball is filled with small-sample heroes who have all the breaks go their way for a while. You also have the opposite, players who have inexplicable slumps. If we go into the game logs for, say, Ted Williams' best seasons, we would almost certainly find stretches where he hit .600 (The Splinter was juicing!) and a few where he hit .200 (the Splinter was tanking it!). That's why we call them batting averages. Indeed, as Ortiz pointed out, he's been caught in this same trap:

"I've had a couple of bad Aprils and they have tried to bring me to the point of suicide, but the seasons have continued, and I got better and finished with good numbers, but they have continued talking about the bad Aprils. Now I'm having a good April and they attack me anyhow," Ortiz told the radio show.

Ortiz could also have called out "you are an older player" -- his career progression has been unconventional from the outset because of the way the Twins handled him, as well as injuries that interrupted his progress in 2001 and 2002. More appropriately, though, he focused on the easy generalizations made about his nationality:

"Yesterday, the guy came to see me and asked some questions about steroids, and when you see the writing, it basically focuses on the fact that I'm Dominican and that many Dominicans have been caught using steroids. And what about the Americans?" Ortiz said.

"If you're from the Middle East, because there are some people there who put bombs and terrorize civilians, I have to see you like that, as well? If you are a white American, I have to call you a racist because white Americans were in the Ku Klux Klan?

Given the parameters of the discussion as established by Shaughnessy, the players can't win. Every successful catch by the testing program shows that players are getting away with cheating because, "the cheaters are always ahead of the testers." Except when they're not. If you get caught, you're a cheater. If you don't get caught, you have a secret formula that's allowing you to pass, or you fooled the testers in some other way. Maybe that's what the game deserves given the lax attitude it took towards PEDs. It took Babe Ruth and willful amnesia for baseball to get past the Black Sox -- there were rumors of subsequent World Series games being fixed, but no one cared, not because those rumors weren't credible, but because they had simply decided not to pay them any attention. Home runs were fun -- that's all that mattered.

The same "home runs are fun" mania accounts for our ability to believe that even mediocre ballplayers could hit balls over buildings. With no equivalent distraction, some of us seem to be going through a never-ending period of remorse, where every swing in performance will be viewed as evidence of secret chemists in basement labs, concocting super-slugger serums alongside the crystal meth. Maybe it's naïve to think that isn't happening -- it almost certainly is, because as long as there is the possibility of an advantage in anything, someone will try to take it. Still, you can't live like this without eventually succumbing to total paranoia.

Paranoia is the enemy of logic. It causes you to make inferences that aren't necessarily supported by the evidence while shutting out exculpatory information, in this case chiefly that (1) swings in player performance are not unusual, (2) David Ortiz is and has been unusual in other regards, (3) while Dominican players have been caught using PEDs, that is not a reason to (a) tar the entire population of Dominican ballplayers, the vast, vast majority of whom are guilty of nothing more than wanting to earn their way out of poverty by playing the game, and (b) most of whom do not resemble David Ortiz but rather are fringe players looking to gain an advantage.

In short, David Ortiz doesn't deserve this, but as he pointed out, he's screwed either way: the great irony is that Shaugnessy would feel more comfortable if the 37-year-old DH was hitting like a little bitch.

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