Ottavino vs. the Bambino: Hubris or Hilarious?

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 12, 2018

LAS VEGAS -- We're not really sure why Adam Ottavino got on the subject of his hypothetical domination of Babe Ruth, but that doesn't mean we can't be thrilled that he did. For one, it's a beautiful testament to our endless quest to entertain ourselves to death, and it caused otherwise lucid humans to dive into the respective statistics of the two men in an attempt to provide a solution to a problem nobody knew existed.

For another, it is further proof that we will argue about literally anything.

But mostly, there's this: "I'm not trying to disrespect him, you know, rest in peace, you know, shout-out to Babe Ruth."

The soaring poetry of the moment is eclipsed only by the pointlessness of the argument. Ottavino went on's "Statcast Podcast" -- Ruth, of course, was a frequent guest -- and said he told a Triple-A coach he would "strike out Ruth every time." And while this is no doubt hyperbolic -- Ruth would be closing in on his 124th birthday, so he'd probably get hit by a pitch or two -- it's not too far off.

Seriously, how bored and empty would a person have to be to even entertain this argument?

So here goes:

Baseball is so wedded to its own twisted nostalgia that it remains the only sport in which Ottavino's claim could be considered even mildly controversial. If Javale McGee decided to tell the world that George Mikan's sweet drop step would never work on him, it wouldn't merit a headline. ("Yankee Bullpen Target Ottavino Sure Sounds Cocky," declared the New York Post.) A Todd Gurley claim that he is stronger, bigger, faster and more elusive than Red Grange would just be weird.

Ottavino is one of the more desirable free-agent relievers this offseason, and his ability to handle Ruth will probably play no role in the amount and length of his next contract. He had a 0.99 WHIP last season with the Colorado Rockies, and he struck out 13 per nine. He is 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds and throws with a violent cross-body motion, one that would undoubtedly be foreign to Ruth, who faced guys who threw baseballs for a living because the railroad wasn't hiring and their uncles ran the family dairy into the ground. Ottavino is a one-inning guy, which means he can come at Ruth with his best stuff and not worry about facing him four times or throwing 32 complete games like George Uhle did for the Indians in 1926.

Rockies manager Bud Black, who may or may not be running for some political office, chose to issue a scouting report rather than taking a side. "You know, Babe was pretty good on breaking balls down and in," Black said, with all the seriousness the moment deserved. "Babe was a pretty good hitter. The numbers speak for themselves."

Ruth was hitting 60 homers in a season before people really understood what a home run was, so there's that. He is an enduring icon, bigger than life and the symbol of baseball during a time when the game was less than inclusive when it came to its participants. Japanese fighter pilots allegedly cursed his name, using it as a stand-in for the entire United States, as they dropped bombs in World War II. It's unlikely that any future wars will include epithets that end with Ottavino, so shout-out to the Babe for that.

But to be fair to all the grainy footage, Ruth wasn't even aware of such things as launch angle and exit velocity, so how good could he really be? He also lunged at just about everything, which leads me to conclude that most pitchers threw every pitch the same speed or The Babe needed a little kick-start to accelerate that 36-inch, 40-ounce bat.

All of this is predicated on Ottavino as he exists now facing Ruth as he existed then. Because, you know, no disrespect and RIP, but the Babe didn't have the training advantages of the present day. Who knows, maybe in 2018 he would opt for the organic hot dogs and that low-carb beer that's advertised as the thing to drink at that cool bar after you spend all day doing yoga and undergoing spa treatments. Maybe he would get more sleep if he was traveling in a team plane and not chasing women down the aisle of a train.

But the greatest thing about ridiculous arguments is that they exist at all. Ottavino v. Ruth, unexpected as it might be, is nothing short of a glorious gift.

We can't wait for the next round, when The Babe comes back to go on some podcast or another to rightfully proclaim to the world that 1927 Babe Ruth would absolutely own 1927 Adam Ottavino.