David Ortiz is the designated hitter (DH) for the Boston Red Sox. He has been for the past 13 seasons, and this, his 14th with the Red Sox, he says is his last. Since he’s wrapping up his monumental career, I thought it appropriate to put the bow on myself.
So, he’s a DH. This means that, for the vast majority of his career (about 80% of the games he started), he never played a position in the field, so he only had an impact on the outcome of the game for about 50% of his career. He was also on the MLB’s earliest list of athletes who had tested positive for banned substances and were granted clemency (no one knows what substances each individual player failed for). That may sound like a bad place to start to make the case for his induction into the Hall of Fame, but there it is.
Ortiz started as a pretty average player with some power for a few seasons (455 games) on the Minnesota Twins, and then spent the next 1900 games or so with the Boston Red Sox. A lot happened in between, so we can take our time.
When he arrived in Boston, he quickly settled in with the then-dominant Manny Ramirez, and the two of them became the most feared duo in the sport, creating an impossible choice for pitchers and managers alike: Pitch to Ortiz or pitch to Manny. Either way, one of them is probably going to hurt you.
For Red Sox fans everywhere, that 2003 season is as painful a season as there has ever been. Seemingly on the way to erase the 85 year-old curse, they were suddenly faced with the heartbreak that generations of Sox fans before them had felt, as their hated rivals, The New York Yankees, launched a home run into the left field decks at Yankee Stadium.
86 years. Longer than the average American lifespan, and longer, tragically, than many Boston fans were able to endure the drought for including my own grandfather. Living your entire life without seeing your team win once is an agony I will never know, as I have been spoiled by the championships I’ve witnessed Boston area teams win throughout my life. Rather than a drought, I’ve lived through a flood. And it started with a miracle.
The 2004 ALCS has been covered at length in movies, documentaries, in books, on blogs, and beyond. In case you don’t know what happened, the Red Sox, down 3 games to 0 in a best of 7 series went on to win 4 straight games against the Yankees, their sworn enemy, off the bat and back of David Ortiz (as well as a heroic effort from his other teammates, of course). It had never been done before, and hasn’t been done since, in any of the four major sports in North America.
And, oh, yeah, they won the World Series, also by winning 4 games in a row, breaking the curse, and allowing this Red Sox team to establish its own identity and to be the master of its own fate going forward.
Ortiz wasted little time resting on his laurels (*SPOILER ALERT* including the literal one, having been crowned World Series MVP during their third championship campaign in 2013 the first DH to do so), and went on to have his two most productive seasons ever in the next two seasons. He has never won MVP, but he finished in the top 5 four seasons in a row, including ’05 and ’06, wherein he finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively. In those two seasons combined, he hit 101 home runs, 285 RBIs, hit 70 doubles, accrued 340 hits, and was walked 221 times, batting .293. Those numbers don’t make sense, but there they are. Ludicrously high, especially considering he then hit for average, while smashing home runs late in close games under the brightest lights and on the biggest stages the sport has to offer. Word gets around when you’re that good, and soon everyone knew not only who David Ortiz was, but knew his nickname, Big Papi, too.
After those video-game level performances in ’05, ’06, the Sox and Ortiz figured that 86 years was a stupid tradition to try to keep, so they won the Series again in ’07. Ortiz, if you’re curious, contributed with a career high in hits (182), and an impressive if not superhuman 35 home runs and 117 RBI’s. In the interest of brevity, here’s Ortiz’s 162 game average (his total games, divided into full length seasons, so we can see what his true average output is over a given period) so we can get the gawking out of the way and get back to the fun stuff: 162 games played, 166 hits, 43 doubles, 36 home runs, 119 RBI’s, 89 walks, .286 average. Most players would kill for a single season of output like that, and he did it every year (withstanding the crushing-to-the-average lows at the beginning of his career, where he never got close to that 162 game average even once). When you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, let me know.
At this point, it’s 2013, and the Sox fans are growing restless, having had to wait a whole 5 years between World Series. And then, all of a sudden, no one cared about baseball anymore, because of a tragedy at the Boston Marathon in April of that year. The perpetrators were found, the nation mourned, and the survivors began their brutal road to recovery, while those who were lost and those who suffered loss remained in all of our hearts and minds. But David Ortiz figured we should be a bit more vocal, so he took the mic, and spoke for everyone in Boston and at large: “This is our fucking city, and we’re not going to let anyone dictate our freedom.” So, Ortiz decides to give the people what they want, and they win the ring that year, too.
And Ortiz has, arguably, the greatest World Series stat-line ever (begin lowering your jaw now so that you don’t hurt it again): In 6 games 7 runs, 11 hits, 2 doubles, 2 home runs, 6 RBI’s, 8 walks, 4 intentional walks, and with a .688 AVG, .760 OBP, and a 1.188 OPS., putting him at the top of, or high up on, lists that haven’t been lengthened in nearly a hundred years.
He was 37 then, an old man in pro-sports. But he’s not like everybody else. He adjusts his swing to the shift. He loses weight, and adds to his longevity. The Red Sox are terrible for a few years, and he decides that he’s got one more season in him. And what a season it’s been: 56 games, 71 hits, 16 home runs, 55 RBI’s, a .340 average, a .423 OBP, and a .708 slugging percentage. If we project that out to a full season (which we can, as he’s already over 1/3 through now) those numbers grow to: 162 games, 205 hits, 46 home runs, 159 RBI’s, and the same .340/.423/.708 slash line. That would be among the greatest seasons in baseball history, if not the single greatest when you realize he’ll be almost 41 at the end of that final game. And he might just win another ring on his way out, too. After all, it’s been a few years.
Now that I’ve made my case for his induction and inclusion in the pantheon through statistical and jewelry-related means, I’ll go the sentimental one. David Ortiz is, for anyone under 15 or so in New England, an already-deified being. He is a God among mere mortals. And, if you’re really young, there’s far less hyperbole in that sentence than you might think. Like, if you were a young boy named Maverick, who was suffering from a debilitating disease, and who was robbed of a “normal” childhood, I bet a guy who never lets you down, and who somehow manages to find a way, and who never gives up, who’s nice, and funny, and loves people, who’s strong, and who makes your mom and dad cheer would seem like the be-all, end-all. And, I bet if he then promised you something, like hitting a home run just for you (like Babe Ruth is said to have done), you’d believe him. And, I bet you that he’d hit that home run, just for you. And he did just that, this year, that very night – against the Yankees, to take the lead, in the 8th inning. He told Maverick he’d get better and to keep fighting, too. How do you think Maverick’s doing? You bet.[http://m.mlb.com/news/article/177508812/david-ortiz-reunites-with-maverick-schutte]
The era of Big Papi will end, and we now know the month in which he will retire, but the moments will live forever, because he found a way to be there when he was needed, and never let you down. He was the face of one of the most successful franchises of a generation, and their best player, while singlehandedly winning playoff and World Series games, inspiring a city to heal, mentoring the next generation of great players, and coming through time after time for people, young and old, on and off the field. There is no player whose stepping to the plate provides as much excitement or dread, depending on who you’re rooting for. If that’s not worthy of the Hall, I don’t know what you’ve got to do to get there.
The best myths are the ones you swear are true, and there’s no player who has more mythic notches on his belt. There’s no player like David Ortiz, even though he was sitting in the dugout half the time, and answered to another name half the time, too. I knew you’d come around, and I can’t wait for everyone to tell their favorite David Ortiz story in the comments, or next to his bust in Cooperstown someday.