Monday, September 14, 2015

David Ortiz’s 500 And The Quantity of Joy

By: Ben Johnson

BCNU Photo Courtesy: AP

The Baseball Hall of Fame is not a necessary thing. This goes without saying, probably, but it’s unsaid more often than many other obvious statements because the people most validated by the institution’s existence are the baseball writers who make up its voting constituency. These people will come up with all manner of acrobatic ways to say that Mike Trout is good at baseball. They will tell you that the Dodgers sure do spend a lot of money on baseball players. But they do not often say, out loud, “who cares?” when confronted with the Hall of Fame question, because their business is entertainingly heaping a florid mix of hosannas and scorn on a mind-numbingly repetitive series of activities, and not the business of having the proper perspective on things.

David Ortiz just hit his 500th career home run in the majors, which is an arbitrary but very high number of very difficult things to do, and an accomplishment shared by only 27 people who have ever lived. We don’t need to have a Baseball Hall of Fame, but since we have one, both an actual one and a conceptual one, it seems fair to say that David Ortiz belongs in it. Probably he did before hitting his 500th home run, but definitely now.

One of the challenges of contextualizing sports, especially a numerically heavy game like baseball, is this sense that joy can and must somehow be quantified, that there be a knowable greatest and second greatest and third greatest of all time at this or that subcategory. These assertions come down to who created the most joy. 500 home runs is a lot of joy, and it’s joy of a measurable sort. That’s 500 times doing something sufficiently impressive as to cause strangers to high five each other.

David Ortiz in particular is responsible for an outsized amount of joy. He’s batted .455 with 14 walks in 59 total World Series plate appearances. He’s the first hitter to ever have two walk-off home runs in the same postseason. A good number of David Ortiz’s measurable joy-creating events have been of the hug a stranger variety. And also, crucially, the man himself is a joy. He seems, invariably, gracious and genuine, and gives off an overwhelming and soothing sense that here is a man who is comfortable in his own skin.

Ortiz is also a designated hitter, and failed a supposedly confidential test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, before such drugs were outlawed by Major League policy. These things of course do not matter to anyone anywhere, but they are the exact kind of not-mattering things that members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who vote on Hall of Fame inductees have traditionally ranted about from whatever grandstand they can find. They may or may not be enough to keep David Ortiz’s likeness out of the Hall of Fame, but in the case of a figure as beloved as Big Papi, whose career Raw Joy and Joy Per Joy numbers are as high as anybody who has ever played the game, they seem especially beside the point.

Of the 27 men who have hit 500 or more home runs, five eligible guys aren’t in the Hall of Fame, and all of them, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Raphael Palmeiro, and Gary Sheffield, have been linked to steroids. But that’s not all they have in common. These five also can be said to have caused, by the arbitrary and unquantifiable measures ascribed to them (liar, cheat, phony, prima donna, jerk, Jose Canseco with better PR: take your pick) as much bitterness and resentment as they’ve caused joy. This cannot, and likely will not, be said of David Ortiz, steroid suspicions or not, designated hitter or not. And his 500th home run is as good an occasion as any to question the mechanisms by which joy is qualified and quantified and compared to its opposite.

You know which way the ball is coming from, right?

We tend to discount the kind of “joy” which came from seeing Gary Sheffield instantly transmogrify his exaggerated and lazy-looking bat waggle into that ridiculously fast and powerful swing, a feat which seemed as impossible as it actually is every time it worked. That particular brand of joy, the astonishment of just how good these men actually are at playing baseball, is on evident display for even the worst player on a major league roster. It’s there every time anybody steps into a major league batter’s box or fields a major league ground ball without soiling themselves. That Gary Sheffield can, and did, immediately turn his bat from a silly Chinese yo-yo into a baseball-destroying weapon 509 times somehow doesn’t seem like that monumental of an achievement when stacked up against whatever prejudices might lead one to conclude that Gary Sheffield is also an asshole.

The kind of joy we tend to demand is a joy of goodness, as subject to ingrained Machiavellian morality and unfair hierarchy as any socially-defined good/bad value binary. In baseball, the joy we love most is the kind where a favorite player, one we actually like and care for because of his perceived goodness, pounds off the batter’s donut and steps to the plate in a big moment, and the people in the stands mutter to each other about his imminent success, even while knowing that baseball, like life itself, can be brutally difficult, and then when he does come through, everybody is especially happy because their love for what they know of the man allows the joy he creates to extend boundlessly in all directions; it is in fact a sort of self-reinforcing righteous joy, not just joy at a big hit for the home team or a public success for an admired figure, but a simultaneous confirmation of our own correctness and of joy’s utility and necessity in our own lives. David Ortiz has supplied us with a greater amount of this varietal, by far, than whatever nagging sour-graped “well actually” might serve to denigrate his essential goodness.

But let’s not kid ourselves: this kind of joy is a very tall order. It’s rare and precious, and we shouldn’t treat it like some default setting we are entitled to. Regular how’d-they-do-that joy is still joy. Barry Bonds on steroids being better at baseball than is actually humanly possible, breaking the baseball meter and showing us what that would look like and even why it might be bad; “bad” as in “bad motherfucker” joy is still joy. Joy is good. Joy itself is righteous. You are allowed to feel as much of it as you want, and you don’t have to listen to anybody who would tell you not to feel it just because Sammy Sosa is some slick, cheating, corny weirdo trying to look like Perry Como, or Livan Hernandez is technically, in a baseball sense, not worthy of the Hall of Fame. Joy need not be quantified. You’re allowed as much of it as you can get. You don’t need an association of baseball writers or a building with plaques in it to help you with that.

I wouldn’t know this, but I’d assume it is very difficult, even loaded to the gills on steroids, to hit 500 home runs. It is an accomplishment that means something similar in degree if not in kind for both David Ortiz and Raphael Palmeiro. That Ortiz has along the way provided us with a joy that seems markedly different from the “less” or “less purely” joyous men who have also hit 500 homers and also been linked to PEDs shouldn’t make Ortiz any greater or those others any less. It should only make us question ourselves, and our demands, and the needless ways we qualify and quantify that small but vitally important amount of joy which we are all allotted. At the very least, we should chafe at the sort of pettiness that would throw up traffic cones and charts in order to profitably claim responsibility for joy’s proper apportionment. Enjoying David Ortiz, which we all should, means an examination of how and why we routinely exclude other people from our enjoyment. That’s one of the best and most good things about him. That and all the home runs.

And if we absolutely positively have to have a Hall of Fame and have to take it seriously and have to give a shit about every little steroid hint, then let’s put Fred McGriff and Tim Raines in there. I mean, Holy Crap, guys. Let’s do one thing right.