I try to never start a piece with the word “I.” I’m not the story, I tell myself. Who cares about me? Readers want to read about the subject not the author. So I try to keep myself out of of it. But how do I keep myself out of this? David Ortiz isn’t just a baseball player, his career is a part of me. Not because I did or even could hit a home run in the World Series. I sure as hell can’t do that. No, it’s because Ortiz has been here so long and seen so much, and so have I.
Ortiz joined the Red Sox in 2003. He hit 31 homers that year for a team with five other guys who hit 25-plus home runs. That team was going to win the World Series. The offense was unstoppable and the bullpen rounded into form at just the right time. We (forgive me for this, I’m in too deep now) had Pedro, the best pitcher on the planet, Manny Ramirez, and now David Ortiz. We were going to win! Then we ran into the Yankees. We ran into history. We ran into Red Sox history. Again. Man did that hurt.
We all know the 2004 story and if we don’t we deserve to have our superhuman efforts to avoid it rewarded so I won’t go through the whole thing again, except to say this: they don’t win if David Ortiz doesn’t do his thing in Game Four of the ALCS in the 14th inning. They don’t win if David Ortiz doesn’t do his thing in Game Five of the ALCS in the 10th inning. They don’t win if David Ortiz doesn’t homer in the first inning with two outs after Johnny Damon was thrown out at home plate to keep the game scoreless.
Like you, probably, I saw them win Game Seven. I saw it in my apartment in Philadelphia with the windows open and my shirt off. I don’t remember why or how I acquired that particular superstition but I did and it worked and I wasn’t changing it. As the Red Sox celebrated on the Yankee Stadium infield I jumped around to ward off the cold as much as out of excitement. Okay, that’s a lie. It was mostly out of excitement. Didn’t close the windows that whole night either.
That week I took the GRE and did better than I thought I would. To celebrate I bought a train ticket and went to Boston for the World Series parade. It rained. It was cold. I didn’t care. Nobody cared. I kept my shirt on though. I saw Ortiz going down Boylston Street on a duck boat with a million other friends. I ran from there to the Harvard Bridge to see the boats go chugging around the Charles. It kept drizzling. It stayed cold. Nobody cared. It was wonderful.
In 2005 I took my then girlfriend and now wife to a Sox game at Yankee Stadium. We sat in the second deck behind home plate. A little boy, probably seven or eight, heckled me from one row behind me until about the seventh inning when he and his mom mercifully left. They left because the Red Sox were up 14-0. They won 17-1. Ortiz went 2-for-4 with two walks and scored three runs. I still have a picture of my wife and I smiling with the Yankee Stadium field (and the scoreboard) in the background.
In 2006 I was in grad school and came up to Boston for Johnny Damon’s return as a Yankee. I still have the paper signs WEEI handed out before the game with unflattering things aimed at the former Red Sox fan favorite. Ortiz homered in the eighth inning of that game, a three-run shot that turned a 4-3 lead into a 7-3 lead for Boston. I took video of it on… my phone? Or maybe I brought a video camera with me? I honestly don’t remember. I definitely took video though because I posted it on YouTube and somehow it’s still up there. It’s an awful video. You can barely see Ortiz from my seat way behind the Pesky Pole and you can’t see the ball at all but boy can you hear the crowd when Ortiz hits it. And that ain’t nothing compared to when that ball goes out. Like most of the times I was there when David Ortiz hit a homer, I’ll never forget it.
Throughout the intervening years I’ve seen Ortiz play in Miami while I was interning down in Florida for grad school, in Washington DC with my parents, in Baltimore with friends, in Seattle after I moved out to the Pacific Northwest, and in Boston whenever I could. When Ortiz signed with the Red Sox in 2003 I was 27, single, and living in Philadelphia. Now, 14 baseball seasons later, I’m married, own a home, have two amazing seven-year-old boys and live on the other side of the country. That’s a lot of change, but Ortiz was there for all of it, sprinkling in amazing moments and the occasional World Series championship as well.
After Ortiz announced that this summer would be his last I made a point to get back to Boston one more time. This time though I brought my boys. It was their first time at Fenway Park. I love Fenway. It drips of childhood and times gone by, and I was ecstatic to take the boys there, but truth be told, we might have put it off if not for Ortiz. He is why we flew across the country. We came to see Ortiz. I wanted my boys to be able to say they’d seen David Ortiz hit. So in the first inning against the Rangers, Ortiz homered. Of course.
Last night as the Red Sox tried to rally against Cleveland in a desperate attempt to keep their season alive, Ortiz came to the plate. This was the eighth inning and the team was desperate, having not hit since before the series started. I’m not sure if Cody Allen wasn’t able to find the strike zone or just didn’t want to, but he walked Ortiz on four pitches. The fourth pitch was definitely inside, but not egregiously so. Still, the umpire called ball four, as he should have done. These things are codified in the rulebook after all. And yet Ortiz lingered at the plate, so much so the TV announcers began to question if the pitch was called a strike after all. It took a moment to dawn on me, but then it did: that was it. That was the last pitch David Ortiz would ever see as a baseball player. An inside fastball for ball four. And he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready for it to be over. So he lingered and looked back at the umpire as if, for the first time in his career, asking him to reconsider his call of ball in favor of strike.
As I saw Ortiz stand there at the plate hoping that just this once it would take five balls for a walk, it all hit me. The sheer tonnage of what this man had done for the Red Sox, for Boston, and for me. How he’d marked the time, from a young dumb 20-something with little direction and a love of the Boston Red Sox, to a married middle-aged father of two young Red Sox fans. Ortiz was there for all of that, and a lot more as well. But now he was asking for one more chance, one more strike, one more pitch. To me, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images