David Ortiz’s career has been a love story to the city of Boston from the very beginning. To understand what I mean by this you first have to understand the history of the city. Next, you have to understand the unlikely story of David Ortiz.
Bostonians love to root for the little guy and the guy with long odds to make it big. We do so because it’s in the nature of everyone who lives in the area. Boston itself has identified as the little guy from the start – from Samuel Adams to Tom Brady, we have worshiped our underdog heroes and relished in their successes as if they were our own. New York has always been our glamorous neighbor, the cosmopolitan center and cultural hub of our nation for as long as anyone can remember. New Yorkers liked nothing more than telling Bostonians what losers they were, pointing to their perfect Yankees with their 27 World Series as proof of their superiority. Boston was the blue collar town that did the dirty work and lost all the big games dating back to 1918. We might not be New York but three World Series wins in 12 years is a good start to closing the gap.
This lack of respect permeated into the cultural fabric of the city’s residents and has led to a collective hero worship of our native-born sons who made it to the big time. Ask any old-time Boston sports fan about Natick’s Doug Flutie and they will tell you he belongs in the Football Hall of Fame. Ask them about Brockton’s Marvin Hagler and they will tell you than on that April 6th evening in 1987, the fix was in for Sugar Ray Leonard, and it was Hagler who deserved to win that fight. Ask them about the “Miracle on Ice” 1980s Olympic hockey team and they will name every Boston-area player and where they played like they are talking about a blood relative.
David Ortiz’s story is every bit as improbable as any that Boston had seen come before him. Ortiz, then known as David Arias, was just another 17-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic, signed by the Seattle Mariners. The young Arias was a big man with good bat speed and a good feel for hitting but, like any young prospect, he lacked polish. Seattle didn’t know what they had in him despite his early success and traded him as a PTBNL in their 1996 trade with the Minnesota Twins to acquire reliever Dave Hollins for the stretch run.
Once Ortiz arrived in Minnesota in 1997 he took to dominating his minor league competition, advancing from High-A all the way to the big leagues by season’s end. After an up-and-down beginning to his career in Minnesota he seemed to figure things out in 2002, hitting 20 homers for the club and causing Pedro Martinez to take notice of him, as one of those bombs came at his expense. The Twins rewarded this season by non-tendering him, causing a furious David Ortiz, who was still grieving from his mother’s passing in a car accident not even a year before, to go toil away in a Dominican winter league without a team.
The slights and lack of respect that Ortiz endured to get to where he fueled him to become a better player, one that approached every at-bat with ferocity and anger like it might be his last.
It was here that Ortiz ran into Martinez, prompting the famous call from Pedro to Larry Lucchino that brough Ortiz on board the Red Sox 2003 team. He signed on January 22 of 2003 but was not given any assurances. He had to battle with the likes of Jeremy Giambi and Kevin Millar for playing time. Ortiz excelled, forcing his way into a full-time role by July after telling ownership to play him or trade him. The slights and lack of respect that Ortiz endured to get to where he was by July had fueled him to become a better player, one that approached every at-bat with ferocity and anger like it might be his last.
For all of us who witnessed what came after this improbable rise, Ortiz became larger than life. With his heroics in 2004 that need no word of mention Ortiz saved Boston from the fate of always and forever being tormented by the Yankees. What Ortiz accomplished during that seven-game series was so monumental that I don’t think it can ever be matched. Ortiz single-handedly transformed my life as a sports fan during that series, because after 2003 and Aaron Boone’s home run I seriously considered giving up watching sports. I started to believe in the curse and wondered if caring so much about a team for 162 games a year was worth it. If my only reward would be pain then why do this? Ortiz changed that forever.
By the end of his career David Ortiz amassed 541 home runs and 632 doubles. On the way he surpassed the home run totals of baseball legends Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, and after each home run he tapped his chest and pointed and looked up to the heavens. David Ortiz never forgot the pain of losing his mother, not for one single home run. Ortiz never forgot the pain of being released by the Twins and forced to play for his job in Boston. He approached every at-bat like a hurricane of pain who was just clawing to prove his worth to everyone who doubted him over the years.
Ortiz never forgot that he was just a kid from Santo Domingo and a PTBNL. He proved his detractors and doubters wrong every step of the way and was fiercely protective of the new players with stories similar to his own. He did everything he could to make sure they felt more welcome that he did. Some in the media declared him selfish every few years when he would “hold the team hostage” looking for a new contract. They missed the mark, though, in thinking it was about money when the whole time it was about respect. Ortiz never wanted long-term security and was paid mostly with short-term, high-money deals like a mercenary. He wanted to earn his keep every single year, and in this way it’s so appropriate that he went out with the most home runs and RBIs in a final season.
By the end of his career, David Ortiz, known now as just “Big Papi,” had carried his teams to three World Series victories and owns the best slash line .455/.576/.795 in World Series history. At his final ceremony at Fenway Park he had both Commissioner Rob Manfred and the President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina, by his side. He seems a lock to join Pedro Martinez and Juan Marichal in the hall of fame as the only Dominican representatives, although many more will and should follow.
With his play on the field Papi took respect. Prying it from all of his doubters, he channeled that pain into marvelous results.
The essence of Papi’s career comes down to two things: taking and giving. With his play on the field Papi took respect. Prying it from all of his doubters, he channeled that pain into marvelous results. He took from the Yankees their air of invincibility and gave them a face to fear in Boston. He gave them their own Aaron Boone moment. On the field he gave a region that had no hope three championships and the knowledge that signs with Babe Ruth’s face or 1918 would no longer be seen when we went to Yankee Stadium. He gave us hits off of David Wells, Paul Quantrill, Estaban Loaiza, and Joaquin Benoit that Bostonians will never forget. The one off Loaiza will forever be my favorite.
Off the field he gave the 91,000-plus Dominican residents of the Boston area reason to come to the ballpark and see a team that previously, under Tom Yawkey, had been, shamefully, the last to integrate. Following the Marathon bombings David Ortiz gave Boston their identity back with his heartfelt speech on April 20 2013 that will live on forever in the city’s history. He gave a new lease on life to the 563 children he helped save with his David Ortiz Children’s Fund. Papi gave this region so much but on October 10th his team could not give him the victory and on the field he had no more to give.
As Ortiz exited the field and the crowd remained, they needed closure for an end that came too soon he obliged them once again. Ortiz came out and gave them a heartfelt goodbye and a salute with tears to match their own. The debate of where Ortiz ranks in our pantheon of great Red Sox players is an interesting one, but in this moment I had no doubt who was most important to the city. The city had embraced him as an adopted native son who was maybe more a part of Boston than any Boston athlete before him. David Ortiz had given us everything and left without leaving a void in us about what could have been. We are all better for having taken part in his career and living with him on and off the field, my only regret is that I can’t do it all over again.
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