Yaz says David Ortiz is better than Yaz.
Ortiz hit a bunch of homers in Toronto last week. Big Papi’s first two clouts gave him 453 homers, pushing him ahead of Carl Yastrzemski for 35th place on the all-time list. The random stat spawned considerable debate about Ortiz’s place on the medal platform of Red Sox greats.
Unless you’re a nitwit, Ted Williams is always No. 1 with the Red Sox. Those of us who grew up in the dark days of the 1960s Red Sox generally agree that Yaz wins the silver medal in Sox lore. He patrolled Fenway for 23 seasons, single-handedly won the greatest pennant race of all time in 1967 when he also won the Triple Crown, and received 95 percent of the vote when he became eligible for Cooperstown in 1989. Yaz won seven Gold Gloves. He was clutch in his three postseason series (.369, 1.047 OPS). Yaz wasn’t just the greatest thing since sliced bread. He had his own (Big Yaz) bread.
That’s why it was stunning to hear some folks last week say that Ortiz is a bigger deal than Yaz.
So I went to the source. I went to Yaz, our rarely seen, never-heard “greatest living Red Sox.’’
Me: “Who is the greatest Red Sox player?”
Yaz: “It’s got to be Ted. Without a doubt. To hit like he could hit . . . oh, geez.’’
Me: “Who’s the second-greatest Red Sox hitter of all time?”
Yaz: (laughing) “See you later!’’
Me: “No, seriously. There was a lot of sports radio debate about this when David passed you on the all-time homer list this week. Did you hear any of it?”
Yaz: “I really don’t listen to ’em.’’
Me: “Do you think about your place in Red Sox history?”
Yaz: “Not really. Once I was elected to the Hall of Fame, I never really thought about anything after that.’’
Me: “Where do you put David Ortiz in Red Sox history.”
Yaz: “I would say as a hitter, I would say he’s next to Ted.’’
Me: “Better hitter than you?”
Yaz: “I think so, yeah. I would put him ahead of me. He had more power than I had.’’
Me: “If you were driving your car and somebody flipped on the radio and you heard people debating the merits of Carl Yastrzemski and David Ortiz, regarding their relative contributions to the Red Sox, how would you feel?”
Yaz: “I’d be glad that they would have me in the same class as him.’’
Yastrzemski is being polite. But he is also being realistic. Ortiz can never match Yaz’s 23 seasons, but his long-term, ongoing production, his three World Series championships, and his clutch contributions entitle him a place in this conversation.
The Red Sox have retired the numbers of Williams, Yastrzemski, Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Pesky, and Jim Rice. They also employed Jimmie Foxx, Tris Speaker, Wade Boggs, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez.
Ted is No. 1. The greatest hitter who ever lived. Other than John F. Kennedy, Ted Williams was also the biggest newsmaker in Boston during the 20th century.
Most baby boomer Bostonians have long believed that Yaz deserves the No. 2 spot in Red Sox lore. But the case for Ortiz is very real. It’s hard to argue with three championship vs. no championships (then again, Sam Jones won 10 rings; is he three times better than Larry Bird, who won only three?). It’s hard to dismiss all the big hits, the grand slam against the Tigers, the .688 average in the 2013 World Series, and the emotional lift Papi gave the city in the days after the Marathon bombings.
Like Yaz, Ortiz still has a quick bat in his late 30s. At the age of 39, Yaz was able to pull a home run off lefthander Ron (25-3) Guidry in the 1978 playoff game at Fenway. Ortiz, who looked like he was all done five years ago, still has the quickest bat in baseball at the age of 38.
On the down side, Ortiz has only been here half as long as Yaz. He failed a drug test in 2003. And he has almost exclusively been a designated hitter. He can’t possibly be a greater Red Sox than Yaz, who owned the turf in front of Fenway’s Green Monster for almost two decades. Can he?
Yaz is generous about Ortiz’s DH role.
“DH-ing is very difficult, and he seems to have mastered it,” said Yaz. “It’s not that easy. When I DH’d my last year, I hated it. To go to the plate and get yourself mentally prepared. It’s not easy to do when you’re not in the game. You’re watching the game, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Boom,’ you’ve got to go up there. I give him a lot of credit.’’
Yaz hasn’t been to Fenway this season, but says he watches most Sox games on television. Yaz’s grandson, Mike, is hitting lots of triples and doubles at Double A in the Orioles’ system. We see Yaz in Fort Myers for a couple of weeks every spring, but he doesn’t interact much with the major league hitters. Yaz barely knows Big Papi.
“I didn’t really notice him when they first got him because I spend all my time with the minor league hitters,’’ said Yaz. “But I watch him take batting practice down there. I really haven’t talked hitting with him, but he’s a hard worker and he’s got tremendous power to all fields. He’s got great balance and he’s got a great followthrough. Pitchers try to nip at the corners, but he’s very patient. When they make a mistake, he jumps on it. The bat speed? I think it just comes through hard work. A lot of it has to be natural. He’s earned everything . . . ”
Including the endorsement of Carl Yastrzemski.