Just a Bit Outside: The Legend of Big Papi
A week ago today was Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, a commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and also the annual running of the Boston Marathon. Two years ago, the holiday was marred by a tragic bombing. Five days later, the Boston Red Sox played their first game at Fenway Park after the bombings, trading in their traditional home jerseys with “Red Sox” across the front for ones with “Boston.”
Prior to the game, David Ortiz addressed the crowd, proclaiming, “This is our f---ing city, and no one is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.” Six months later, Ortiz backpacked the Sox to a World Series championship, taking home the Series’ Most Valuable Player award along the way. For most people, this would make a career. For Ortiz, it was just one chapter in an extraordinary career.
Ortiz, a native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, was unable to find a niche in Minnesota playing with the Minnesota Twins over the course of six seasons. When he arrived, confusion over Spanish naming customs led to some concern that they had traded for the wrong guy. Ortiz had previously gone by Arias, his maternal family name, before switching to Ortiz, his paternal family game, prior to his tenure in Minnesota. The Twins cut him in December of 2002 and, thanks to a chance encounter with then-Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez at a restaurant in the Dominican Republic. The Sox picked Ortiz up.
His Boston career got off to a slow start, initially struggling to earn more than the occasional at-bat as a pinch hitter, but by the end of the season, he finished fifth in American League Most Valuable Player voting with 31 home runs and 101 RBI.
In 2004 Ortiz’s play thrust him into Red Sox lore. In the American League Division Series against the Anaheim Angels, Ortiz hit a walk-off, series-ending home run. Then, after trailing 3-0 in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, Ortiz hit a walk-off home run in Game 4 and a walk-off single in Game 5 and added a homer in the decisive Game 7. He followed that up with a three-run homer in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series, a series in which the Sox ended the infamous 86-year Curse of the Bambino. The legend of “Big Papi” was born.
In 2007, Ortiz and the Sox took home another World Series on the strength of another four-game sweep, this time knocking off the upstart Colorado Rockies. Next game, his legendary 2013 performance. Five home runs, 13 RBI, and .353 average, including hitting a whopping .688 in the World Series.
Ortiz and the Sox certainly had some rough patches. In 2009, allegations surfaced that Ortiz had failed a drug test back in 2003, allegations which Ortiz has vehemently denied, and even the MLB has never confirmed. Since their 2013 title, the Sox have finished dead last in the AL East every year. That said, these rough patches do little to diminish what has been an extraordinary career.
Ortiz has spent his best years with an organization known for its history — a history characterized by beloved figures. Ted and Yaz. Pesky and Fisk. But while Ortiz has brought home three rings, none of those men has even one. During Ortiz’s tenure and the team’s renaissance beginning in 2004, there have been other stars. Pedro and Manny. Curt Schilling. But none of them have had Ortiz’s staying power. The fact is Ortiz has been as good as anyone to ever don a Red Sox uniform.
He has been as clutch as anyone during his time in Boston. Whenever the Red Sox need a big hit, it’s Ortiz who comes through. I can remember checking the scores of the 2004 ALCS in the newspaper each morning after a game — my mom having sent me to bed before the games ended — and Ortiz’s ability to keep the Sox alive stunned me. I have little doubt that without Big Papi, the Sox wouldn’t have won championships in 2004 and 2013, and I’m skeptical that they would have been taken home the 2007 title either.
On top of his outstanding on-field performance, any discussion of Ortiz’s legacy would be incomplete without a mention of his tremendous charisma. Whether it’s been “This is SportsCenter” commercials with rival Jorge Posada and the Red Sox mascot or his speech before the Sox return to Fenway after the Marathon Bombings, Ortiz has been consistently endearing and entertaining. I’ve never considered myself a Red Sox fan but always found it impossible to root against their star slugger.
This November, on his 40th birthday, Ortiz announced that 2016 would be his final season, one last ride in a career that began in 1997. If the past is any indicator, Ortiz’s final lap through the MLB gauntlet will be a memorable one.