Commentary

Ortiz the home run champ in Boston

Updated: July 11, 2011, 2:45 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: In celebration of Monday night's Home Run Derby (8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN3), each of the ESPN local sites is selecting its city's top 10 sluggers and crowning its all-time home run king.

BOSTON -- It borders on sacrilege to argue that anyone but Ted Williams was the greatest home run hitter in Red Sox history. When Williams finished his career with 521 home runs in 1960, only two players had ever hit more, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx, and five years away at war kept him from passing Foxx and drawing even closer to the Babe.

Even now, only Ruth has a higher career slugging percentage than Williams' .634, a number that has withstood the assaults of all the pumped-up sluggers of the steroid era.

There is only one seat in Fenway Park that is painted red. It's in the right-field bleachers, Seat 21, Row 37, Section 42, marking the spot where Williams hit what is regarded as the longest home run in Sox history, the one that sheared through a fan's straw hat and traveled, by Red Sox estimates, 502 feet, although more sophisticated analysis places the distance closer to 527 feet.

Williams averaged one home run per 14.79 at-bats, the best ratio in team history and 12th all-time. Only one other player has hit as many as 400 home runs in a Sox uniform. That was Carl Yastrzemski, with 452. Jim Rice is next at 382, Dwight Evans fourth at 379, and David Ortiz comes next, with 310.

Williams announced himself as a 20-year-old rookie in 1939 when he hit a ball over the right-field grandstand roof in Detroit. He walked off the stage with a home run in his last at-bat, at age 42.

So, why have we chosen to celebrate Ortiz as the best pure home run hitter in team history? The linchpin of our argument is the 54 home runs Ortiz hit in 2006, shattering Jimmie Foxx's single-season club record of 50 set in 1938. Ortiz hit 32 home runs on the road that season, matching an American League record set by Ruth in 1927.

The most home runs Williams hit in a single season was 43, the only time he hit at least 40 and one of just four seasons in which he hit 35 or more.

Then there is the timing of Ortiz's home runs. He has ended regular-season games 10 times with long balls, the most walk-off home runs in club history and just two behind the all-time record of 12.

And from a statistical standpoint, the greatest separation between Williams and Ortiz can be found in October. Williams played before there were playoffs, appeared in just one World Series, and playing with a bad elbow, managed just five hits, all singles, in Boston's seven-game loss to St. Louis in 1946.

Ortiz, meanwhile, strode across the postseason stage like a Dominican colossus. A dozen home runs hit in the playoffs, including walk-offs to eliminate the Angels from the division series in 2004, another to keep Sox hopes alive against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in 2004, two other home runs against the Bombers in that series and a three-run home run off Woody Williams of the Cardinals in his first World Series at-bat.

A year later, Sox owners held their own referendum on Ortiz's place in history. Inspired by a walk-off home run in Fenway Park against the Angels that traveled 457 feet, John W. Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner presented Ortiz with a plaque that read: ''David Ortiz #34 The Greatest Clutch Hitter in the History of the Boston Red Sox."

"The truth of it was apparent,'' Henry explained later, "a while back.

''David is the best hitter I've ever seen when the game is on the line. He's also probably one of the nicest guys that has ever been in that clubhouse."

And perhaps, in the end, Ortiz is our pick because we belong to an age that celebrates style at least as much as substance. One of the great images of Williams that endures is his colt-like prancing down the baseline after he hit a home run off Claude Passeau to win the 1941 All-Star Game, a young man's uninhibited expression of joy.

But most of the time, Williams responded to his home runs the way he did after his last one, an expressionless sprint more than a jog around the bases, head down all the way, a perfunctory handshake at the plate with the next hitter, then disappearing into the dugout.

It may be true, as John Updike wrote in his immortal essay about that moment ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"), that "Gods don't answer letters.''

"He ran," Updike wrote, "… as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted 'We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back.''

But maybe there are lesser deities, like Ortiz, the son of a humble man, Enrique Ortiz, who sold auto parts in Santo Domingo, who never lose sight of their humanity, or that of those who are watching. Who are so delighted by the rare gifts with which they have been endowed that they elect to rain down their joy on anyone eager to feel, even vicariously, what it means to be Big Papi, launching a baseball unimagined distances.

The ritual is one we all know by heart. The big man, in the on-deck circle, spitting into his gloved hands, bringing them together thunderously, then repeating the same routine as he steps in and out of the batter's box. And then, after he has connected, strolling around the bases at a pace best measured by an hourglass rather than a stopwatch, and upon touching home plate, gently kissing his fingertips and pointing them skyward, a moment given to the memory of his mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who died in a car accident and whose visage graces one of Ortiz's massive biceps. Then, fist bumps and bear hugs and a smile at the wonder of it all.

Ted Williams inspired awe. David Ortiz inspires love.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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