What’s in a milestone? That’s the question with which those of us paid to objectively consider such matters must spoil the party in observation of David Ortiz joining the 500-home run club.

Full disclosure: I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, the last decades when that magic number meant it was all over but the Cooperstown coronation, and when your persona or intangibles had no discernible impact upon whether one received such an honor.

Those days are ancient history on par with New Coke and the Commodore 64, and we all know why. Performance-enhancing drugs rendered the statistic relatively meaningless. The 24-hour news cycle suddenly made your appeal to fans and relationship with sports writers and broadcasters matter.

And so Saturday, probably while Ortiz was still rounding the bases after his 428-foot clout into the artificial atmosphere at the Trop, I had friends and social media followers asking, “Papi? C’mon. Hall of Fame lock. Right?” The answer was delivered with furrowed brow and bitten tongue, accentuating the three words most of us no longer have the courage to say: “I don’t know.”

Because I don’t. Nor do you, and frankly our opinions are founded upon details that shouldn’t be relevant to such a discussion: rooting interest and perception.

We love Ortiz because he wears the same uniform as Ted, Yaz and Rice before him and is the undisputed face and voice of the franchise. We venerate him because he led the charge to three rings after our grandparents went to their graves without being able to grasp one. We doggone-nearly worship him because five days after the most cowardly, despicable act in New England’s history, he reminded us whose bleeping city it was.

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Let’s face it. Ortiz has been entrenched in our intellectual hall of fame for a decade, long before he had the chronological and numerical success to make a case for residence in the real one. Whether or not the latter standards are enough to build his shrine are an entirely different discussion.

Ortiz is strongly associated, intensely as we Sox sympathizers try to gloss it over, with the use of PEDs. Not on a Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or Roger Clemens level, but to more than a born-at-the-wrong-time degree. He was outed in 2003 as having failed a voluntary screening, when use of the substances was not explicitly illegal, at least in the eyes of Major League Baseball. So were about 100 others, it should be noted, most of whom got off scot-free in the court of public opinion.

The end of that preceding paragraph, of course, exhibits a skill unique to devotees of Boston’s professional sports franchises. We’re good at pointing out that everybody cheats, to a degree. We’re deft at describing how something is not technically a violation of the rules. We’ve honed that talent (some of us admittedly while plugging our noses) by having to so frequently explain the Patriots’ inventive finagling.

In this case, we have a point. Ortiz presumably has turned the lid on a gazillion clean tests since the spirit of the law became the letter of the law in 2004. That covers all but one of his glory years. He has belted 442 of his home runs in Boston, and 411 of those after MLB acquiesced to the rest of the world’s crazy compulsion that turning a blind eye while its stars turned into Michelin Men probably sent a lousy message to kids.

But just as gambling has sealed the fate of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose in an official capacity, association with steroids has proven a scarlet letter that no amount of time can soap away. Merely being part of the same generation is a stigma seemingly too difficult to overcome, save for pitchers, Yankees captains and scrappy guys who stick around long enough to get 3,000 hits.

Power hitters are screwed. Of the other men in the 500-plus club who are either active, recently retired or Hall-eligible, only Frank Thomas (521) is in and only Ken Griffey Jr. (630) and Albert Pujols (555 and climbing) appear to have a prayer of getting there.

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No chance and/or already denied: Barry Bonds (762), Alex Rodriguez (685 and counting), Sammy Sosa (609), Mark McGwire (583), Rafael Palmeiro (569), Gary Sheffield (509). Highly unlikely: Jim Thome (612), Manny Ramirez (555).

What of Ortiz, who would seem an unlikely candidate to reach 600, given his impending membership in that other infamous club known as 40-something? It doesn’t help that of the other seven players to hit as many home runs in a single season after age 37, two are Bonds and Palmeiro and another is their contemporary, Steve Finley (yeah, I’ll just let that speak for itself).

I believe Ortiz has played the majority of his career without ingesting or injecting anything that might give him an unfair advantage. There are too many qualifiers in that sentence to make me comfortable that he will be granted a place among baseball’s immortals.

Nor am I wholly convinced that he belongs. The jewelry helps. The status as an ambassador of the game doesn’t hurt.

But in a game that has forever placed such an emphasis on raw numbers, under circumstances that make those numbers almost impossible to read, I’m afraid it’s a long shot.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72 and like his fan page at www.facebook.com/kalleoakes.sj.


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