When I bought a ticket to Game 3 of the ALDS, it never occurred to me that I might be going to David Ortiz’s last game.
Call it hubris or optimism or willful ignorance. I am not shocked that the Tribe beat the Red Sox, though I admit I’m surprised the Sox were swept. But it wasn’t about the opponent. It was about Ortiz, one of the best goodbye seasons ever, and the burning desire for one more storybook moment, one more dramatic finish to turn a legend into a god.
What I’ll miss most is the feeling Ortiz gave us that the impossible was possible, that no deficit was too great. I’ll miss thinking “just get to David” every game in which the Red Sox trail, as I have for the past 13 years, doing the mental math every time the game was late and close. Just let one runner reach base, or just stay out of the double play, or if the next x runs score, Ortiz will get a shot.
Ortiz got a shot last night. He walked, on four pitches. It was a comically, horrifically anti-climactic moment. Ortiz himself couldn’t believe it, lingering in the box, almost willing the umpire to call ball four a strike, to give him another chance. And that is why baseball is great and terrible, and why Ortiz is great and human. Baseball makes you fail so, so often. And here Ortiz didn’t fail, yet he did, because anything short of a shot into the bullpen would leave us wanting more. David Ortiz reached base against one of the best relievers in the game, and all I felt was heart-crushing disappointment. Baseball can be uniquely cruel.
I feel many things now, 24 hours after the game, and so you’ll have to excuse how scattered this post is. I’m not wasting time on transitions. I’m not going to analyze anything. I’m not going to make anyone edit this. I’m just going to write how I feel, because David Ortiz makes me feel a lot.
The most incredible David Ortiz moment I saw in person was his 2013 ALCS homer off Joaquin Benoit. I was about 20 rows back and two sections over from the bullpen where Torii Hunter fell. It remains the greatest in-person sports moment of my life.
Last night I got to be a part of something less happy but equally special; the 20 minutes (it seemed) between the end of the game and Ortiz’s curtain call. We all stood there (even Fenway betrayed me last night — a pole obstructed my view of the plate from my grandstand seat, so I went standing room only for a better view) as Indians fans and a few Red Sox fans left the park after the final out was recorded. But there were still 20,000, maybe 25,000 people left in Fenway, and we were there for one reason. We didn’t want to say goodbye yet.
So we chanted “let’s go Papi, and “thank you Papi,” and “we want Papi.” No one was paying attention to Cleveland celebrating on the field. We chanted “we’re not leaving” and “Papppppi, Papppppi,” begging him to come out one more time. And he didn’t, but we stayed. And he still didn’t, and we still stayed. And then he did.
And then I, and many other adults around me, cried. No one sobbed, but so many people — little kids in 34 jerseys, burley Boston Men (TM) with their beards and their backwards hats, middle-aged women bundled up in Red Sox jackets, everyone — had a tear or two in their eyes. Because David Ortiz did too, and because now that he came to say goodbye, it was really over.
It is very, very easy to find the worst in Boston. The constant demand for perfection, the lack of graciousness in defeat, the nit-picking and second guessing … it wears you down at times during the season. It’s Boston at its worst. But last night, tens of thousands of people cheering, unified in their adoration of a legend. This was Boston at its best.
Before the game, people kept saying “well, they’ll either win or you’ll be at a historic game.” I didn’t want the consolation of getting to say goodbye in person. But in time I think I’ll be a little happy I got it.
I thought a lot last night about Craig Goldstein’s piece on how writing about baseball and getting older impacts your fandom. Whenever the Red Sox stranded a runner against Josh Tomlin, whenever another scoreless half-inning ticked by, I was filled with dread. I knew that Andrew Miller and Cody Allen loomed, and I knew what that meant for the Red Sox. Lots of people know that Miller and Allen are good, but because of what I do, I have a better point of comparison as to *how* good they are, as to just how daunting the task ahead would be. I wanted to feel hopeful late in the game, but I didn’t. I was playing the odds out in my head, and those odds just wouldn’t let my heart hope for the improbable with all the force I wanted it to.
I wanted to be 14 again, as I was in 2004 when David Ortiz made me believe. I wanted to be 17 in 2007, when I learned what it was like to root for a truly dominant team, and what it was like to have your team hated. I wanted to be 18, when the 2008 Sox crushed me like no team, including the ‘16 iteration, has since 2003.
Hell I would’ve settled for being 23. The 2013 Red Sox carried me through a tough time. My first job out of school made me so miserable I up and quit it without another job. I’d never done anything like that before. I thought I’d have to move back in with my parents just a few months after moving out. I felt like a failure. So I dove into the Red Sox even more than I usually did, desperate for an escape. They gave me one.
I’d never been to a playoff game before my girlfriend got me what remains the best gift of my life, tickets to ALCS Game 2. I had just started writing for Baseball Prospectus in August of 2013, so I had a good idea what the odds were when David Ortiz walked up to face Joaquin Benoit. But I had more hope. He’s gonna do it, you’re gonna be here for it, you’re gonna see it my heart said as my mouth told my friends how good Benoit was.
And then he did it. And I lost it. I’ll never forget that moment, kissing my girlfriend and hugging strangers and lifting my friend on my shoulders, Fenway trembling beneath us. “I’ll tell my kids about this someday,” I thought. I think, in retrospect, that’s the first time I considered those kids might be my girlfriend’s, too; yet another small, personal detail in my life I can connect to David Ortiz. One of dozens, or maybe hundreds.
Perhaps I would remember last night differently if the Red Sox had pulled it off, if Ortiz’s last at-bat ended in a slow trot around all the bases instead of an incredulous trot to first. But something was missing, the last vestiges of my childhood ability to make my brain be quiet and just give way to hope seemed to be gone. I say this at the ripe old age of 26, so commence your eye-rolling, but it scares me a little. I wanted to turn my adult brain off, and I couldn’t.
You know, it’s funny. David Ortiz was never my no. 1 favorite Red Sox. When I started following the team, it was Jason Varitek. When he left, it was Jon Lester. Now, as you might have read, it’s Xander Bogaerts. I’ve owned shirseys for J.D. Drew and Jed Lowrie and Daisuke Matsuzaka. I don’t have a David Ortiz shirsey. I think I wanted to be a hipster among Red Sox fans, steering away from Ortiz and Manny and Pedroia. Too mainstream, man.
But I have cheered for David Ortiz more than the rest combined. He’s probably brought me more joy than anyone else I don’t know personally. He almost single-handedly changed the sports culture in the town I love. But he was never my favorite. What a fool I am.
This team will be back. That is perhaps the shiniest of silver linings. A team with a core of Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, David Price, Rick Porcello, Craig Kimbrel and Jackie Bradley is a team poised to win. Doubly so when you add in high-upside complimentary pieces like Andrew Benintendi, Hanley Ramírez, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Yoan Moncada and Blake Swihart. Every player listed above is under contract through at least 2018, and most are through 2020. The Red Sox are going to be dangerous for a while. The 2017 Red Sox need some finishing touches, but this is the best shape their roster has been in after a season since, what 2010? 2004?
A duller silver lining; the Tribe are a fun team. We lost to Terry Francona and Andrew Miller and Mike Napoli. This wasn’t the ‘03 Yankees or the ‘08 Rays making you feel like you lost to the bad guys. The Red Sox, a good team, lost to Cleveland, a good team. There was no series-defining moment, no Buck Showalter-esque managerial blunder, no Jose Offerman phantom tag to whine about, no Billy Buckner ball through the legs. No one and nothing to scapegoat. They just lost, fair and square. I’m ok with that. You should be too.
This was a really, really fun season, even aside from David Ortiz. We got to see so much growth from Betts and Bradley and Bogaerts. We saw Hanley redeem himself one season after looking like one of the worst players and contracts in the game. Ditto Porcello. Just when it looked like his career was over, Koji Uehara bounced back and was the Koji we all know and love down the stretch. Clay Buchholz pulled off yet another redemptive arc. Eddie looks like Boston’s first good homegrown (sort of) starter in a half decade. Joe Kelly and his Great Stuff successfully (finally) converted to relief. We had our first Benintendi and Moncada sightings. Travis Shaw and Sandy Leon went on all-world streaks.
It doesn’t feel like it right now, but there were so many positives. I guess we’re used to the yo-yoing by now, but remember that this team yet again went worst-to-first. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, the way David Ortiz deserved to have it end, but it was still one hell of a ride.
I don’t know what David Ortiz is going to do next, but I know there’s still a greatness within him that we haven’t fully seen. He’s spoken about helping baseball in the Dominican, and his love for Boston is so evident and so strong that it’s hard to imagine he won’t be around to help with things here, too. Dave Dombrowski said today that Ortiz can do whatever he wants in the organization, and while that’s meant more as a compliment than anything else, there’s probably a ring of truth to it.
Maybe someday, when his kids are grown, Ortiz will be a hitting coach or a manager. Maybe he’ll go the Pedro route and head for TV. Maybe he’ll stick in a high-profile MLB Ambassador role; one imagines him especially thriving if he works in some capacity with children.
Whatever he decides to do, he’ll do it with the full support of an entire city. A city that turns on its sports stars unless they’re perfect. A city that tried to boo him out of town in 2009, then gave him so many write-in votes in its mayoral race that he finished third. A city that let him, no, encouraged him to speak for all of us after tragedy. A city that makes itself very hard to love at times, but that protects the few who do reach legend status with a voracity you won’t find anywhere else.
Every Boston sports team has a host of retired numbers, but Ortiz has reached an even higher level than that honor. I knew the names Larry Bird, Ted Williams and Bobby Orr by the time I was five or six years old. That is the pantheon of players Ortiz joins as he ends his career. Not just the very best of the Red Sox; the very best of Boston. There is already a David Ortiz Bridge and a David Ortiz Way. There will be a David Ortiz statue, and a David Ortiz plaque in Cooperstown. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised at a David Ortiz Hospital or a David Ortiz Community Center someday, too.
There will never be another David Ortiz, but that’s ok, because we’re not done enjoying this one yet anyway, not by a long shot. We just have to do the thing that made Ortiz so successful in the first place, even if it took him a while to do so. We just have to adjust. Like we chanted last night, we’re not leaving.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images