David Ortiz…..Big Papi to everyone in New England, has just played his last regular season game and could very well win his first MVP at age 40.
Let that sink in for a moment.
While other MLB icons have limped to the finish line and have used their status to hawk their post baseball enterprises, David has not so quietly put together the best final season in MLB history. It’s difficult to use a limited space to convey just how much he meant to the sport, Boston and life in general. This is simply a guy that was too large for the sport of baseball. He was the essential showman in a sport that prides itself in blandness.
Big Papi has long been a very large square peg that MLB tried to fit into a round hole. When he first signed a modest free agent deal to join the Red Sox in 2003. He was just a “happy to be here” Ortiz. As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who didn’t speak much English at the time, he resorting to calling people “big papi” or “big mami” when he couldn’t remember their name.
In the early 2000’s MLB basically had about 5-10 great teams any given year: The Atlanta Braves, Saint Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the NL and The Oakland Athletics (in their Moneyball opus years), Minnesota Twins (who had just dropped Ortiz like a hot potato) and the New York Yankees. These teams won their divisions easily and their stars were large than life offensive/defensive players with base-running skills. Guys like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols were easy stars to love or hate and their greatness was self-evident. The Red Sox had a team full of almost great players led by Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek. These Red Sox were the Betty to the New York Yankees Veronica (If you don’t know about Archie comics, you better ask somebody). They existed above the other teams in the AL East but the Yankees never took the Red Sox seriously. Their relationship was simple at the time – Yankees win the division, Red Sox win the Wild Card and then lose to the Yankees in the postseason. For the most part, Red Sox players and fans knew this was the status quo. The lovable losers against the Yankees’ “Evil Empire.” There was never any pressure on the Red Sox when they failed to win the World Series, yet again, because losing to the Yankees was their modus operandi.
The 2003 MLB season was no different and while Ortiz had his first complete season (.288BA, 31Hrs, 101 RBI’s), he couldn’t prevent nor was tasked with beating the Yankees in the ALCS. Papi hit home-runs in both Game 1 and 7 but ultimately had to watch Aaron Boone snatch victory for the Yankees in the 11th inning. Boone, a role player at this point in his career, had entered into Yankees/ Red Sox folklore with his clutchness and added another layer to their invincible aura. It’s one thing to lose to the Yankees stars, it’s another to lose to their 15th best hitter.
At the start of the 2004 season, David Ortiz had become the great regular season player he would remain for the next 5-6 years. No other MLB player was like him nor would they ever be another like him. He had this unorthodox swing where he drops his left shoulder but also kept his bat high to generate last minute torque. This enabled him to pull any ball regardless of where it was over the plate and it’s height. Even if he was jammed, Ortiz still generated tremendous opposite field power but with the Green Monster and his lack of speed, most of these hits ended up as singles. To counteract this, the MLB adopted full time use of the “shift” where most of the fielders occupy the right side of the field to provided extra coverage while essentially daring Ortiz to hit. The shift was a situational gimmick at the time but it became synonymous with Ortiz. Curiously enough, the shift never seemed to work as he hit 41 HR’s with 139 RBI’s while playing mainly DH. This iteration of David Ortiz was a two trick pony, a guy who can hit for power and average but still paled in comparison to other players due to his inability to field and run the bases. David Ortiz’ fielding ability was/is comical at best. There were contentious debates about how valuable he was as a player since he was an easy out on the base paths and was prone to errors while fielding first base. If they ever made the World Series, would he play in the games without a designated hitter tag? That concern was theoretical at the time.
The 2004 Red Sox were enjoying unusual regular season success primarily to contributions of future Yankee Johnny Damon in the lead-off spot and Manny Ramirez and Ortiz accumulating RBI’s with ease. Since their top three hitters were below average, the Red Sox wisely decided to shore up the rest of the defense by trading away the face of the franchise, Nomar Garciaparra, and got two Gold Glovers back in return (Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz). The serious Red Sox were gone and replaced by the “Idiots”
It was at this point David Ortiz transformed into Big Papi. He was given the freedom to show the world his oversized personality that fit perfectly with this group of lovable but flawed sports buffoons. Every Red Sox game was high theater. You never knew what to expect from their key players, there was a lot of bad fielding, horrendous base-running and lapses in concentration but there were more home-runs and game winning RBI’s and the Red Sox went on to win 98 games. Those 98 games might have been their 3rd highest win total of all time but it still was 3 less than the Yankees who won the division with 101 games.
A poorly thought turn of phrase might have set the precedent for David Ortiz to become Big Papi: The Yankee killer. After losing once again to the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALCS, Pedro Martinez essentially threw up the white flag. Game 2 was a tightly knot contest and Pedro should not have been upset about giving up 3 runs in 6 innings. Nevertheless, the mood had been set and the Yankees walloped the Red Sox 19-8 the following game to take a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series. Big Papi was almost a one man wrecking crew up to that point with 6 hits, 1 walk but with only 2 RBI’s. He added 4 more RBI’s in the next game and sealed their first victory with a walk off home-run in the 12th inning. In the next game he hit another home-run in the 8th inning and the winning walk off RBI in the 14th inning. After going 0-4 in Game 6 (he’s human, who knew?), he ensured the Red Sox were never behind again in Game 7 with a two run home-run in the first inning. The result of that game was never in question.
The Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit and then won their first World Series in almost a 100 years. Most importantly the Evil Empire was defeated and decades of misfortune had been erased. Martinez might have had many step fathers on the Yankees Roster but there was now only one BIG PAPI: the Yankee killer.
Baseball is a sport that celebrates uncertainty. As a sport so obsessed with statistics it’s very easy to use those to gauge a player’s worth. The best hitters in baseball are only expected to succeed 30% of the time. Big Papi had that rare quality of getting rid of that uncertainty. He refined his game even further and hit 101 HR’s in the next two seasons. Many of those home-runs were in “clutch” situations. More importantly, he brought a “swag” to the Red Sox before that was a thing. The Red Sox went as Big Papi went and there was no player in the MLB who wore their emotions of their sleeve as much as him.
You could not intimidate him nor did the Red Sox and he never took anything lightly regardless of the score.
Big Papi and the Red Sox would win two more World Series in 2007 and 2013, thus cementing his legacy as one of the great winners. He can potentially end his career on top with another World Series win this year but there hasn’t always been a perfect relationship between Big Papi, Red Sox and their fans.
In the beginning of the 2009 MLB season, Papi was scuffling. His bat speed was slow, he couldn’t catch up to most fastballs and he couldn’t hit for either power or average. As the Red Sox do, they began to disparage him as soon as they viewed the end of his usefulness. We’ve seen this before in their treatment of Roger Clemens, Garciaparra, Martinez, Ramirez and especially Terry Francona. There were lots of xenophobic rumors being bandied around such as Papi being dependent on steroids and him lying about his age.
Boston’s “greatest” fan Bill Simmons led the city in getting their pitch forks out to skewer Big Papi’s in this classless article where he wrote Papi’s eulogy less than two months into the season, casually dropping assertions that Papi was a druggie who lied about his age and no one rushed to his defence. It was a painful reminder about how fickle the relationship between athletes and everyone else is. Their true feeling comes out once they perceive their usefulness to be gone. Even worse was the fact that he had recently become an American citizen, the year before so there should have been zero controversy nor any reasons to publish such a xenophobic article.
Big Papi was a bigger man than the city of Boston deserved. He dug down and played through that rough season while retooling his game to be more of a contact hitter who swung later in pitch counts. His developed his vision to a point that he rarely swings at pitches that are not in his favor and this allowed him to prolong his career to age 40. He was never resentful of the city and country that was ready to discard him so quickly and continued to handle himself with dignity. It was no surprise that the Red Sox chose him to speak at the first home game after the Boston Bombing attacks.
Big Papi has never said a word he didn’t mean and even the FCC realized that his defiance and strength was what a city needed.
There were still lots of armchair moralists who focused more on that one solitary curse word than the terror the city (the city that I live in) endured that week. Boston is a very small city with a dense population. The bombs went off in front of the library, bars and businesses we all frequented. The older Tsarnaev brother lived down the street from me and the overnight police chases happened right around our neighborhoods while we watched it on the tv and listened to the radio. The entire city was under house arrest and you have to remember my story is not unique but shared with millions of Massachusetts residents.
Papi and the Red Sox have become family over the last 16 years that has been unforgettable and so unlikely. Baseball after all, is America’s pastime and where most parents take their children to learn what it is like to be true sports fans with all of its quirks and eccentricities as a sport (and of course the customs that are special to the Red Sox, for e.g. The Sweet Caroline song at the game). It’s refreshing to see how one man and a team have become one for so many years.
I’ll be at the game tonight hoping that he can drag the Red Sox out of the 0-2 hole that they’re facing one last time.