In 1973, the first Outstanding Designated Hitter Award was presented. Orlando Cepeda won. In 1979, Willie Horton became the first player to ever win the award twice. In 1982, Hal McRae won his third. Paul Molitor took home the honor in 1993, and again in 1996. Some years later, Molitor was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He joined the aforementioned Cepeda along with fellow Outstanding Designated Hitter Award winners Jim Rice and Dave Winfield in Cooperstown.
A year after Molitor's first award, there was no winner. The players had gone on strike. The next year, 1995, Edgar Martinez earned the title. He hit .356 that season and led the American League. In 2004, the final season of Edgar's career, the city of Seattle decided to name a street after him, and baseball decided to rename the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award. These days, they mainly just call it the Edgar Martinez award, an abbreviation that leaves only a name, the description presumed to be self-evident. A man and his position and his craft inextricable. In 2001, Martinez received the distinction for his fifth and final time. It was the most any DH had been recognized up until that point. A decade later, that mark was bested when David Ortiz won the award named after Edgar Martinez for his sixth time.
I offer this history and context mostly to remind myself. I'm terrible with baseball trivia. I forget names and dates and statistics at the same rate as I learn them. I watch hundreds of hours of baseball over the course of a season and soon thereafter forget who made the playoffs, or who won the World Series. The Internet saves me in that way. I can search around and remember things, put names and numbers and careers and accomplishments in perspective. See history with fresh eyes.
I am capable of remembering the most recent baseball postseason. The Red Sox won the World Series, their third in ten years. There was a time when the Red Sox could never win the World Series, and it started to feel like they never would again. But then they did, in rather miraculous fashion, and David Ortiz was there. He's been there since, the whole time, and every time the Red Sox make the playoffs, every time they reach the World Series, he never seems to make an out. He just walks and hits like crazy. Teams shift to make things more difficult for him, and he crushes line drives past the extra fielder, so teams throw him four balls intentionally. Other times, he thrashes doubles off the Green Monster, or hits game altering, season saving home runs. Grand slams, even. He's unstoppable, incredible—so incredible that people get excited, really excited, even people that know a thing or two, and they start to say things. Excitable things. Things like David Ortiz is a Hall of Famer. Things like David Ortiz is the Greatest Designated Hitter of All Time. I don't have so much of a problem with the first thing. It's the second that I cannot abide.
The clumsy and asymmetrical tables above feature career statistics. The Base Running and WAR metrics are from FanGraphs. It's a shame in these cases that praise bestowed on one player usually comes at the expense of another, so I think it's worth emphasizing that David Ortiz is an amazing baseball player. An all-time player, even. He acquits himself quite well in the above comparison, and depending on how much gospel you do or do no ascribe to certain measures, he may manage even better than that. But no matter Ortiz's impressive resume, it's hard for anyone aware of the value of on-base percentage and the magnitude of park effects and replacement level to look at these numbers and conclude he's a superior offensive performer than Edgar Martinez. You can even give Ortiz extra credit for his playoff accomplishments if you like. He's played in 82 postseason games, which is a lot, and he's performed very well in them. Just about right in line with his career norms. So bump his numbers up a half a season, or even a bit more if you're taken by leverage and playoff wins and World Series titles. Any sort of reasonable bonus still leaves plenty of room between the two hitters. Probably less than my sepia-and-teal-tinged mind may have assumed before starting this post, but enough that they probably won't be renaming the Designated Hitter award anytime soon. Nor should they.
Once started, the David Ortiz is the Greatest Designated Hitter of All Time and David Ortiz is a Hall of Famer conversations seemed to be happening at the same time. One beget the other. This sort of baseball cause and effect isn't uncommon, nor is it particularly unfair, especially when we're discussing what is to some a bastardized and impure specialization of the game. The Designated Hitter has hurdles to navigate that other baseball positions do not, so it only makes sense to start at the top and then work our way down. The only problem is that when we talk about David Ortiz: Designated Hitter, we're not quite yet at the summit. We have to work a little harder and climb a bit farther to reach Edgar Martinez, but he's there. I don't know if Ortiz will make the Hall of Fame before Martinez, or if his future candidacy will shed some light on Edgar's thus far overlooked virtues, or if it will ever even matter at all. I know there really isn't a lot of room for style points when it comes to Cooperstown induction. You're either in or you're out. When and in what order starts to matter a lot less the more time passes. But right now, from where I'm standing, it matters some to me. It probably matters to a lot of champions of justice and Seattle Mariners fans as well.
This October, David Ortiz the hitter was on another level. In the context of the postseason, wearing that uniform, stepping in against those pitchers, when it felt like the game could be decided on any single pitch, he made you feel like you were witnessing something remarkable, that you were witnessing history. It was all so exciting and palpable and tangible and undeniably happening, that it became easy to get seduced by the moment, caught up in the rush of the recency, and start to forget things.