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With another walk-off, Big Papi trots through Cooperstown

The David Ortiz Bridge, on Brookline Ave., over the Mass Pike, connects the Fenway Park neighborhood to Kenmore Square in Boston. From there, it’s about four hours to Cooperstown, NY, soon to be home to another enduring marker of Ortiz’s oversized legacy.

Ortiz, whose hitting and swagger helped the Boston Red Sox become the most successful franchise of the new century, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday. In his first year on the ballot, Ortiz was the only candidate to cross the 75% threshold needed for election, garnering 77.9% of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America vote.

The election was the 10th and final verdict from writers on the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, longtime superstars whose records have been marred by links to performance-enhancing drugs. Bonds, whose 762 home runs are the most in Major League Baseball history, got 66% of the vote, while Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards, got 65.2.

Two other prominent names also dropped out of the ballot: Curt Schilling, who had more than 3,000 strikeouts, and Sammy Sosa, who hit more than 600 home runs. Schilling, who joked online about lynching journalists, garnered 58.6% of the vote, and Sosa, who has strong ties to steroid use, got just 18.5%. Like Bonds and Clemens, they could still be elected in years to come by small committees.

Ortiz will be honored at a ceremony in Cooperstown in late July along with Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, who were chosen by committees in December. Four others were also elected then and will be inducted posthumously: Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil.

Ortiz received 307 of 405 writers’ votes to become the second Red Sox Hall of Famer to break the curse. He joins Pedro Martinez, also from the Dominican Republic, who was inducted in 2015. Their 2004 team won the franchise’s first title in more than eight decades – a cosmic penalty, perhaps, for the infamous sale from Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

As a powerful, affable, southpaw hitter, Ortiz cut a Ruthian figure, with a similar appetite for big moments. In three World Series — all wins — he hit .455 with a 1.372 on-base hitting percentage, both records among batters with at least 50 plate appearances. Ortiz was named the World Series Most Valuable Player in 2013, when he went 11 for 16 with two home runs and eight walks against St. Louis.

In electing Ortiz on the first try, most voters chose not to penalize him for his connection to the steroid era: a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, which was first reported by the Times in 2009. The positive test came when baseball conducted investigative tests (without penalties) meant to remain anonymous.

In 2016, just before Ortiz’s retirement, Commissioner Rob Manfred cited “legitimate scientific questions as to whether they were really positive or not,” and Ortiz maintained that he never knowingly cheated.

Either way, Ortiz achieved almost all of his success during the Test era, which began with penalties in 2004. Traded by Seattle as a minor leaguer in 1996 and released by Minnesota six years later, Ortiz has found stardom in Boston, making 10 All-Star Teams and winning seven Silver Slugger Awards as a designated hitter. He had 541 career homers, 1,768 RBI and a .286 batting average, with a .380 on-base percentage and .552 hitting percentage.

Manny Ramirez, who teamed up with Ortiz in the middle of Boston’s roster for much of the 2000s, had better overall stats but has yet to make it to Cooperstown. In his sixth appearance on the ballot, Ramirez garnered just 28.9% of the vote, reflecting many writers’ stance on players serving suspensions for steroid use.

The Hall of Fame has never given specific advice on how to assess the so-called era of steroids, but the institution asks the authors to take into account not only the records of players on the field, but also their “integrity, character and sportsmanship”. It’s up to individual voters to interpret what that means, and some have distinguished between drug use before and after testing. (The New York Times does not allow writers to vote.)

Ramirez has been suspended twice and Alex Rodriguez once. Rodriguez, who has hit 696 career home runs, has achieved a surprising public comeback, becoming ubiquitous on television and social media. But he didn’t persuade writers to ignore his misdeeds and won 34.3% of the vote when he first appeared on the ballot.

As a Yankee in 2009, Rodriguez admitted to using steroids in the past and asked people to “judge me from this day forward” at a press conference. But he soon returned to banned drugs, admitting to investigators that he used performance-enhancing substances from 2010 to 2012, resulting in a suspension for the 2014 season.

Among the other candidates on the ballot, Scott Rolen, a third baseman, continued to gain ground in view of a possible election. Rolen, who has spent most of his career in Philadelphia and St. Louis, won 63.2% of the vote, down from 52.9% last year and 35.3% in 2020. There is no only 17 Hall of Fame third basemen — the fewest for any position — and Rolen has won eight Golden Gloves.

Todd Helton is on a similar trajectory, hitting 52%, down from 44.9 last year and 29.2 in 2020. While Helton has played his home games in Colorado’s batting paradise, his .316 average, his .414 on-base percentage and his .539 slugging percentage was extraordinary; the only players to top triple digits (with at least 3,000 board appearances) are Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

Schilling tended to get elected, garnering 71.1% of the vote last year, more than any other candidate. Known for being one of baseball’s top performers in October, Schilling has since amped up his rhetoric on social media and asked the Hall of Fame to remove his name from the ballot because he didn’t respect writers. Hall denied the request, but another equally raced finisher did it for him.