This column was originally published Aug. 2, 2006.
Four years ago, back when David Ortiz was just The Fat Guy on the Twins, I tackled "Pacino or DeNiro?" and called it the most important mailbag question in Sports Guy history. Now I'm wondering if that question has been surpassed by "Big Papi or Larry Legend?", which could have kept me awake for the rest of the summer if I didn't take a swipe at it.
Is there even an answer to the question? Would it be like asking "Who would win a fight between Batman and Superman?" or "Who would you rather see topless, Scarlett Johansson or Lindsay Lohan?" Should I even WANT to answer it? Am I committing basketball blasphemy for even trying?
Aw, what the hell. Call it a special edition mailbag: One question, one topic, and hopefully not one ticket straight to hell.
Q. Unbelievable. David Ortiz just hammered a fastball into the center-field seats at Fenway, winning another comebacker for the Sox, 9-8. I bet my buddy $5 that Papi would homer, and I felt absolutely confident he would deliver. There was no doubt in anyone's mind ... the people in the stands even saw it coming; you could tell. Absolutely! Was Bird even this clutch??
--Rusty Bowman, Charlotte, N.C.
SG: The crazy thing is that I wasn't even remotely offended that you played the Larry Legend card with Big Papi. And you know what that means?
(Ducking lightning bolt.)
That's right, it's time. We need to break this baby down, Dr. Jack-style ...
Nickname: Bird had "The Hick From French Lick," "Larry Legend" and the "Basketball Jesus," all of which worked well enough. But Ortiz has become Big Papi -- he could almost drop his real name like a rapper and go with his nickname at this point. And as much as I love the simplicity behind "Larry Legend," the Big Papi gimmick is slightly more unique, especially when you consider that "Papi" is a Latino phrase of endearment that women use for their husbands or lovers and has, umm, romantic connotations. EDGE: BIG PAPI.
MVP Awards: Bird won three in row (1984, '85 and '86) and should have won in '81 and '82 as well. Big Papi should have won last season (even the Yankee fans agree now) and seems to be in the running this year, although you never know with Jeter having a career year and Justin Morneau inexplicably turning into Lou Gehrig circa 1927. The DH thing will hurt Ortiz in any voting, which doesn't quite make sense -- so if he played 90 games at first base and gave you a C-plus there, that would make him more valuable? I don't get it. Bonds won the MVP in 2003 and 2004 moving around in left field like Redd Foxx. That gave him more credibility than Ortiz as a DH? Crazy. BIG EDGE: BIRD.
Rings: Larry, 3 to 1, although Papi's one ring was infinitely more significant. EDGE: BIRD.
Defining Video Game: Big Papi made the cover of "MLB '06: The Show" this spring ... and if you think that even remotely compares to the old "Larry Bird vs. Doctor J" computer game in the early '80s, you're kidding yourself. EDGE: BIRD.
|Birth of a Legend|
For most of the country, Larry Bird remains the athlete who defines clutch when it comes to Boston-area sports, but a SportsNation poll finds a plurality of folks in the heart of Red Sox Nation kicking Larry Legend to the curb.|
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Best YouTube Clip: For Bird, it's probably the video from the "NBA Superstars" in the '80s when they showed a Bird montage along with John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town." Between the song, clips, datedness and overall cheesiness, I give that video a 25 out of 10. But it can't compare to the Blair Witch-like footage of Papi belting the game-winning hit in Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS. I make a point to watch this once a week. You know, just because. EDGE: BIG PAPI.
Breakthrough Performance: Bird carried an undefeated Indiana State team to the 1979 NCAA title game his senior year. Considering that (A) this was during the era when everyone stayed in college for three or four years, and (B) there was only other guy on that ISU team who even sniffed the NBA (Carl Nicks played 156 games), that had to go down as one of the most memorable individual seasons in NCAA hoops history. Meanwhile, Big Papi rose from obscurity by hitting 27 homers during the last three months of the 2003 season and carrying the Sox within one Grady Little boner of the World Series. Impressive ... but not on the level of Bird's pulling a Jimmy Chitwood at ISU. EDGE: BIRD.
Sidekick: Bird had Kevin McHale, one of the top-five greatest power forwards of all-time (before he eventually evolved into "Kevin McHale, Atrocious GM"). Ortiz has Manny Ramirez, who's going down as one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time before everything's said and done (whether you like it or not). McHale and Manny were surprisingly similar, actually -- both were characters, both were funny in their own ways, both lacked the will to dominate on a daily basis, both were surprisingly spotty in clutch situations, and both were technically superior (Manny's swing, McHale's footwork in the low post). So that's probably a wash. But here's the catch: Bird and McHale weren't friends, didn't have anything in common and had a competitive big brother/little brother edge to their relationship. Manny and Papi are like Kornheiser and Wilbon, Crockett and Tubbs, Landers and Rockwell, Fuji and Saito they're a legitimate tag-team in every respect. EDGE: BIG PAPI.
Best 12-Month Statistical Stretch: Bird averaged a 26-9-8 in the '86 playoffs, won the Finals MVP and cemented a summer of "Greatest Player Ever" features, then followed that up with a career year in '87 (28 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 53 percent field-goal shooting, 91 percent from the line, 40 percent from 3s, his second straight title in the 3-point shooting contest). Meanwhile, Big Papi just completed the following 12-month stretch (starting on Aug. 1, 2005 and ending July 31, 2006): batted .294 with a .399 on-base and .604 slugging percentages, 59 homers, 165 RBIs and at least 20-25 humongous hits in the clutch. Sorry, those are Roy Hobbs numbers. SLIGHT EDGE: BIG PAPI.
Rivals: Bird had Doctor J and Magic, Big Papi has nobody. Unless you want to count A-Rod before his recent Section 8. Didn't think so. MAJOR EDGE: BIRD.
Defensive Shortcomings: Neither was/is nearly as bad as you would think. Bird made second-team All-Defense in 1982; nobody was better at breaking up three-on-ones or drifting over to help out someone else's man on the weak side. And Papi isn't as bad as people think -- every time he plays first base, the Sox are fine (he's certainly no Mo Vaughn, that's for sure). The difference: Bird actually had to guard people and expend energy on the defensive end, whereas Papi gets to sit in the dugout, kick back, watch videotape, give hot foots and fart on Gabe Kapler while he gets psyched for his next at-bat. EDGE: BIRD.
Defining Quote: For Bird, it's a tie between "They forgot about one thing. They forgot about Larry Bird!" (from Danny Ainge) and "There will never, ever, EVER be another Larry Bird" (from Magic). There hasn't been a memorable Ortiz quote yet. We're still waiting. EDGE: BIRD.
Value as a Teammate: Bird led by example and became notoriously salty when teammates let him down -- personified by his "We played like a bunch of women" rant after Game 3 of the '84 Finals -- whereas Big Papi's the most beloved clubhouse leader in baseball (and maybe in any sport). On the flip side, Bird's passing was so creative that his unselfishness spread to everyone on the team, culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime '86 Celtics season that remains the standard for unselfish NBA play; baseball doesn't allow one player to affect his teammates like that. And both were almost supernaturally clutch, giving everyone else on their team that "If we can just keep it close, Papi/Larry will win it for us" confidence. I can't pick a winner here. EDGE: EVEN.
Success of Goofy Facial Hair: Bird pretty much patented the wispy '80s mustache; Ortiz has that weird mini-beard that looks like a tight line drawn around his face. Anyone could shave their beard like that. Not anyone could carry off a mustache that had only 20 hairs. EDGE: BIRD.
Defining Performance: For Bird, you have to go with the '87 playoffs when he singlehandedly carried a crippled Celtics team through two Game 7s (against the dangerous Bucks and a positively terrifying Pistons team) and into the Finals (where they finally fell to a Pantheon-level Lakers team). And this was after three straight MVP seasons and a slew of buzzer-beaters, so by the time he made his famous steal against Detroit that spring, everyone in New England was convinced that Bird was some sort of a higher form of being. As long as he could walk, we had a chance.
For Big Papi, it's the 2004 playoffs: The homer off Jarrod Washburn to win Game 3 of the ALDS, followed by the homer to avoid the sweep against the Yanks in the Dave Roberts Game, followed by the homer off Flash to pull them within one in Game 5, and then the walk-off single in the 14th inning. Much like with Bird in '87, somewhere along the line it reached the point where we started EXPECTING him to come through every time. And now he's reached full-fledged Bird status -- as Theo Epstein pointed out after Monday's game, Ortiz's ongoing brilliance made him think of "Bird hitting all those buzzer-beaters and when he missed one, people would say, 'What?'"
One more note here: Up until 2004, out of any game I ever watched in person, Bird's Steal was the single most exciting moment ... but Big Papi's game-winner in Game 4 ranks fourth (right behind Vinatieri's kick against the Rams) and the game-winning single in Game 5 ranks first. Of course, if Bird doesn't miss that game-ending 3 against the Lakers in Game 4 by 1/100th of an inch, the list might look a little different. EDGE: BIG PAPI.
Frequency in the "I'm Keith Hernandez" Zone: Bird owns this category ... in fact, he probably had more Hernandez moments than any athlete in any team sport (peaking with some of his shot attempts in the famous 60-point game). There was one stretch during the '86 season when he was actually bored by how good he was, so he started using his left hand more (during one game, he took only left-handed shots in the first half), then Bird and Walton started trying to see how many times they could run the back door play in one game, then he went through a stage when he was backing guys down on the low post just to see how many different ways he could create a basket. ... I mean, Larry Bird freaking experimented during games. When will we ever see something like that again? MAJOR EDGE: BIRD.
Pioneering Moment: Bird is mistakenly credited with inventing the Blonde Permed Afro Mullet that would ultimately be embraced by Randy West, Ian Ziering and others. Actually, Jack Sikma had that thing going first. But here's something Bird did pioneer: He was the first NBA star to embrace the 3-pointer as an end-of-the-game dagger. Of course, Papi was the first baseball star to dramatically flip off his baseball helmet rounding third base after a walk-off homer, then take the flying leap into his teammates. That's a draw if I ever saw one. EDGE: EVEN.
Reliance on Performance-Enhancing Drugs: Bird went the opposite direction and never won an MVP until he stopped drinking beer before the '84 season. As for Big Papi, he's playing in a sport where every power hitter always comes under suspicion; his head is the size of an overpacked suitcase; his power stats keep getting better and better; and everyone seems content to attribute his home run jump to the fact that Tom Kelly was a moron for telling him to hit to all fields in Minnesota. He also has chance to become the first AL batter ever to hit 62 homers. Personally, I don't think there's a chance in hell that he's using anything. But you never know. And I would have been a complete homer if I didn't bring it up. Don't blame me, blame baseball, a sport that didn't care that players were compromising the game until it was too late. Now everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Good times. EDGE: BIRD.
Popularity in Boston: I never thought anyone could be more popular with Boston males than Bird in the mid-'80s ... but the lovable, larger-than-life Ortiz manages to hit the kids/females/old ladies demo as well. Seriously, if NESN started running "Big Papi" cartoons on Saturday mornings, would you even be surprised? SLIGHT EDGE: ORTIZ.
Charisma/Duende: You can't get the full charisma picture until you see a great player near the end of his career, when he's running on fumes and getting the job done on memory and character alone. Just watch the famous Pacers playoff game in '91 when Bird bangs his head on the floor and makes his Willis Reed-like return in the second half, then remember that he had been in traction in the hospital the night before and you'll know what I mean. Anyway, sometime during the '85 season, Bird started reacting to clutch spots like Eastwood gunning down everyone at the end of "Unforgiven" (in other words, he barely blinked -- and that lasted for the rest of his career, even when he was completely crippled near the end). Now Ortiz is acting like that and you barely see him raise an arm after walk-off homers anymore. That's a good place to be. EDGE: EVEN.
Multi-media Presence: Bird had two famous ads -- the McDonald's ad with MJ (when they were playing H-O-R-S-E) and the Converse ad with Magic (when Magic rolled out of the limo for a game of one-on-one and Bird hissed, "Show me what you got!"). Ortiz hasn't been in a good ad yet. And while we're here, Bird also had an Oscar-level cameo in "Blue Chips" (compared to no memorable cameos from Big Papi), wrote two autobiographies and even has his own SportsCentury and double-DVD ("Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend," which often gets mistaken with "The Passion of the Christ." MAJOR, MAJOR EDGE: BIRD.
Reverence From Teammates and Opponents: The best moments of the Bird Era were how other players reacted to him: Like the Hawks high-fiving on the bench during his 60-point game, or Walton skipping into the clubhouse and happily singing "Larry Bird! Larry Bird!" after Bird's four 3s to complete the Bucks sweep in 1986, or McHale shaking his head in disbelief at the tail end of the Bird-'Nique shootout in '88 and smiling like a little kid, or even a wide-eyed Xavier McDaniel telling the story about Bird telling the X-Man during the end of a Celts-Sonics game, "I'm making the game-winner, and I'm shooting it from THAT spot right there," then doing exactly that.
But you know what? For the first time, I'm starting to sense similar awe from Ortiz's teammates and competitors -- like the dugout shot of Monday's walk-off homer, when they showed Mike Lowell doing a 180 in complete shock, making the Thomas Hill Memorial "I Can't Believe What Just Happened" Face, whipping his helmet in delight and gleefully sprinting to home plate. I just can't imagine anyone else in sports making his teammates look like little kids on a regular basis. Bird still has the edge, but it's getting tighter and tighter. EDGE: BIRD.
Clutchness: Here's where this becomes just about impossible. Bird, Jerry West and Michael Jordan are the three greatest clutch players of all-time by any calculation, unless you want to get crazy and throw Big Shot Rob in there as well. But Bird probably made 30-35 game-winners and buzzer-beaters during his career, along with dozens of game-clinching free throws (I can remember him bricking big free throws only twice in that entire decade, which is saying something). Plus, he came up with the most famous clutch steal of the past 40 years (the Isiah game), was indispensable in deciding games and made the two biggest shots of the '81 and '84 playoffs (the banker against the '81 Sixers in Game 7; the turnaround over Magic in Game 4 of the '84 Finals). Just recently, ESPN Classic ran some random Celts-Blazers game from 1986 when Bird sent the game into OT with a jumper with six seconds left, then made the game-winner in OT in the final five seconds. I mean, he did this ROUTINELY.
Then you have Big Papi, the best clutch hitter of his generation. The Elias Sports Bureau was nice enough to send these numbers along: If Ortiz has one more walk-off hit in 2006, he'll be the first baseball hitter to have six in a single season since the division era began in 1969. ... Since the start of 2005, he's come up 13 times with the chance for a game-ending plate appearance and made an out only once (and he ended up winning that game in the 12th inning). ... He has the most walk-off hits in any four-year span (12, and that doesn't include the three in the 2004 playoffs, which made him the only player in history with three game-ending postseason hits). ... Since he joined the Red Sox in 2003, he has 15 walk-off hits and the rest of the team has 19 total. ... Since Aug. 1, 2004, Ortiz has hit 21 home runs in 138 at-bats in Late-Inning Pressure Situations (no other player has more than 13). ... Dusty Baker has the most career walk-off hits (25, including the playoffs), but Ortiz is 10 behind. And just for the record, none of those stats include all the times when he tied a game or gave the Red Sox the lead in the seventh or eighth inning.
Basketball stars have a 45-50 percent chance of coming through in the clutch. In Bird's case, he was a 50 percent shooter and a 90 percent free-throw shooter, so even if he was being double-teamed, 60/40 odds seem reasonable, especially if someone raises his game in those situations. But a star slugger gets on base 40 percent of the time, only Ortiz dials it up to the 60-70 percent range in big moments (as the stats back up). I can't believe I'm saying this, but Big Papi's current three-year stretch tops anything Bird came up with simply because the odds against Ortiz were greater.
And then there's this: Way back in the spring of 2005, when Ortiz homered off B.J. Ryan to win a day game at Fenway, I officially entered the "We always have a chance to win if we can just get Ortiz up to the plate in the ninth" zone. (I even remember calling my buddy Hench from Rite-Aid after the game and having the obligatory, "All right, Ortiz has to be the greatest Boston clutch hitter of our lifetime, right?" conversation.) And that was about 14-15 gigantic hits ago. During Monday night's game against Cleveland, Red Sox down by two in the ninth, ESPN showed the three upcoming batters for Boston ...
... and like every other Red Sox fan, I found myself smiling and thinking, "All right, if we can just get one guy on, Papi ties this game."
As it turned out, we got two guys on and he won it. The point is, it's not surprising anymore. We EXPECT him to come through. Bird was the same way, but the degree of difficulty is higher in baseball making Ortiz's last three seasons slightly more remarkable. Emphasis on the word "slightly." MINISCULE EDGE: BIG PAPI.
Ultimate Ceiling: Bird was one of the five greatest players in the history of basketball, along with Russell, Wilt, Jordan and Magic. Ortiz isn't even one of the top five baseball players of the past 25 years. But five years from now? You never know.
Final Verdict: Remember, this is Big Papi's third season doubling as a borderline superhero. Bird won his first MVP in 1984 when he was 28 (the same age as Ortiz in the 2004 World Series) and peaked as a clutch superduperstar over the next five years (hitting his absolute ceiling in 1986 when he was 30, the same age as Big Papi right now). So the parallels are pretty creepy. But he could never pass Bird. As my buddy Bug pointed out on the phone last night, great athletes reach a level where they can't be passed, they can only be joined. It's like climbing Mount Everest -- you can't climb Mount Everest higher than someone else; the important thing is that you climbed it at all.
Well, Larry Bird is sitting up there already. David Ortiz is getting damn close. Two more MVP-caliber years and another 25 clutch hits and he makes it. For now, the Legend gets the edge. To be continued.