It’s funny that I’m staying up late past my bedtime to write this. I have school in the morning, and should have been in bed hours ago, which is stunningly appropriate for the night I write my farewell tribute to David Ortiz. Twelve years ago, I was a nine-year-old begging my parents to stay up and watch Big Papi make postseason magic.
On the little league diamond, I wanted to be Little Papi. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Pedro, Manny, Trot, Varitek, and all those guys. But David Ortiz was just like me. He was a big, lefty, first-baseman. He was the rock-solid anchor of what was routinely one of the top offenses in baseball. In short, he was the man.
Becoming David Ortiz
In 1992, known as “David Arias”, Ortiz came to America at the age of 17 after being signed by the Seattle Mariners. Four years later he was traded to the Minnesota Twins and eventually worked his way up to the big leagues before being released in 2002. They gave up on him. They didn’t think he was worth the time.
Fortunately, the Red Sox did. They saw past the fact that he had just 58 home runs in his first six big-league seasons and took a gamble on him. They brought him along as a bench player. Remember Jeremy Giambi? Jason Giambi’s little brother who was a career .263 hitter with just 52 home runs? David Ortiz was brought in to be that guy’s backup.
Who knows why it didn’t work out in Minnesota? The talent was there, but the production was not. That all changed when Ortiz came to Boston. Papi went from being cut to being a top-5 MVP candidate in a matter of months. Before we knew it Ortiz and the Red Sox were standing toe-to-toe with the hated Yankees, six outs away from the 2003 World Series before Grady Little infamously let Pedro Martinez come back on for the eighth-inning and blow a three-run Game 7 lead.
The Papi Effect
When Aaron Boone slammed a fat Tim Wakefield knuckleball into the left-field bleachers in the tenth-inning of that game, I was crushed. The image was seared into my mind forever. People had lived entire lives and died without seeing the Red Sox winning the World Series. The Curse of the Bambino felt real. Ridiculous, but painfully real.
The Pre-Ortiz Red Sox were always good enough to be right there. Good enough to suck you in and make you interested, but never good enough to get that elusive ring. We would always find the most ridiculous ways to lose. Doyle got gunned down at the plate, Buckner let a grounder roll through his legs, and Grady Little inexplicably refused to use his bullpen in the biggest game of his career, blowing a decisive game 7 that he should’ve had in the bag.
Red Sox Nation thirsted for just one ring. We wanted to know what winning was like. We wanted to see what a championship parade would look like rolling down the Back Bay and spilling out into the Charles River. The Ortiz-era Red Sox gave us that scene not once, but three times.
Ortiz came up big over and over again. It didn’t matter how dead the Sox looked, they always had a shot with Big Papi. The Yankees took a decisive 3-0 lead in the 2004 ALCS with a 19-8 shellacking at Fenway Park. It was one of the worst playoff beat downs I’ve ever seen. The Yankees didn’t just defeat Red Sox, they snatched their collective soul like T.I. snatched the chain off New New in ATL.
And what happened in Game 4? Ortiz blasted a walk-off homer to keep Boston alive. In Game 5 he does it again with a walk off single. Suddenly the Red Sox had a puncher’s chance at pulling off the greatest upset in sports history. Cue up Johnny Damon, who landed the Game 7 knockout Grand Slam to seal the deal.
That’s the Papi effect. When the chips are down and things are looking grim, you know that one swing of the bat can flip the script your way. It elevates everyone around you. It takes the Mark Bellhorns and Shane Victorinos of the world and makes them postseason heroes.
It also elevated the city. In 2013 terrorists attacked the city’s biggest sporting event, on Patriots Day, no less, and Bostonians turned to the Red Sox to provide a brief escape from bloody reality. Five days after the city shutdown the MBTA (public transit) and went on a full-fledged manhunt to track down the killers, Ortiz found himself with a microphone, an audience over over 35,000 people, and a statement to make.
“This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox. It says Boston,” bellowed Ortiz before thanking the late mayor Thomas M. Menino, former governor Deval Patrick and the city’s law enforcement officials.
“This is our f___ing city, and nobody’s gonna dictate our freedom.”
It was bold, it was controversial, and it was straight-up magical. One of the few places on earth that you can see all kinds of people hanging out and rallying together behind one thing is a sports stadium. One of the unfortunate consequences of that moment was that a bunch of kids had to hear their favorite superstar drop an F-bomb. But, if there was ever time for an F-bomb, that was the time and the place. People were scared, the city was rattled. We had to let the world know that we run this, not the ones who try to make us afraid.
Like he had done so many times before with his bat, Ortiz sized up the moment and swung for the fences. His message connected big time. That moment will live on forever in Boston.
Ortiz means so much more to the city of Boston than just baseball. He is a superstar who loves his fans as much as they love him. You can see it in the faces of the sick kids he visits at Children’s Hospital. I felt it when I met Ortiz at an autograph signing. We aren’t ready for Papi to go, he’s a living legend.
The Magnificent Farewell
The crazy thing is Ortiz is still playing baseball at an extremely high level. You could argue that his farewell run this past season was his best year since 2007. He played in 151 games. He hit .315 with 37 homers and 127 RBIs. Those are MVP caliber stats. Papi isn’t being forced out of the game, he’s choosing not to put his 40 year-old body through the grind of another 162 game season.
And I can’t blame him. He won three rings with what used to be known as the most cursed franchise in all of sports. There is nothing left to prove. It just feels like he’s Michael Phelps-ing his career by cutting his story a bit short. Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that we won’t have to see him struggle through his twilight years like Kobe did.
I can’t believe it’s really over. My Ortiz jersey, the only baseball jersey I have ever owned, is about to hit throwback status. Pretty soon I’ll be telling people “yeah so-and-so is pretty good, but you didn’t see Ortiz.” He’s on that level. He’s the greatest designated hitter to ever step foot on a baseball diamond.
The past 15 years have been, and will be known as the Golden Age of Boston sports. We went from underdog to top dog in a flash. We owe a lot of that to David Ortiz. We owe Brady, Pierce, and KG too, but Ortiz’s heroics brought home the big one; the 04′ championship that broke the 86 year-old curse. For that reason, Ortiz will forever be revered as a Boston legend. There will never be another Red Sox #34.
When Pedro Martinez was enshrined this year, I couldn’t believe that it came so quickly. I missed his ceremony. I’ve never been to the Baseball Hall-of-Fame. Hopefully, I’ll make it out to Cooperstown for Ortiz five years from now. I’m speaking it into existence.