Splendid setting and radiant sunshine notwithstanding, Boston Red Sox fans could feel a bit robbed. The first game of an early-August series versus the New York Yankees was supposed to include a David Ortiz bobblehead giveaway until, hours before the contest, the promotion was aborted. Ostensibly, this was because the Red Sox worried the figurine was more racist caricature than lovable, exaggerated likeness. Then, even closer to first pitch, the faithful are forced to watch a long-time nemesis exhibit grace. Just days earlier, Alex Rodriguez announced his time in pinstripes would soon end. Though not in tonight’s lineup, A-Rod is on the field and helps grounds workers move wheelbarrows away from the stands so he can sign autographs. The universe snaps back into place when, on the first-base side of the diamond, Ortiz ascends the dugout steps. In an instant, promotional snafus and supervillains lose all significance. Just a glimpse of No. 34 stretching his creaky legs offers the comfort of that first hot dog bite. He’s here. He’s not gone yet. And devotees who witnessed Ortiz reorder their baseball world will use the next nine innings—and about the same number of weeks—to say thanks.
When Ortiz completes his 19th and final MLB season, he’ll be missed for a host of reasons in more than one locale. His gregarious personality–you don’t get a nickname like “Big Papi” without one–has endeared him to fans, media and fellow players well beyond the boundaries of New England. Even performance-enhancing-drug accusations have failed to bury him, perhaps because they didn’t seem entirely congruous with Ortiz’s portly frame and affable aura. But it took more than a gravitational grin to make him one of Boston’s all-time, unassailable sports legends. Ortiz’s body of work sets him firmly at the core of a Red Sox renaissance that enabled a heavy pall to lift like morning fog from the Charles. He was also a fierce contributor in the rally to recover from the Boston Marathon bombings, an attack on a Massachusetts institution just as beloved as the local nine. Ortiz won’t walk away from baseball so much as strut toward the sunset, and the warmth will be unmistakable.
Described by John Updike as a “lyric little bandbox” almost 60 years ago in the New Yorker, Fenway Park retains a modern version of that charm. Before each game, the house announcer welcomes fans to “America’s favourite ballpark.” The place knows how alluring it is, age be damned. For an outsider, the endearing tone is set even before passing through the gates, as local vendors pitch discounted water bottles: “Dolla fifty cheaper than inside; you’ll be saw-ree!” This wonderfully peculiar structure opened the same week in 1912 that the Titanic hit ice, and became home to Ortiz 90 years later when he was signed as a free agent, leaving the Minnesota Twins after a 20-homer season in 2002.
A grandstand seat on the left-field line offers a quality view of home plate and the Red Sox dugout just beyond it. Between those two is the on-deck circle, which, practically speaking, exists so batters have one last chance to limber up before trying to do something at which the best of them routinely fail. More cinematically, it’s where the threat of impending danger comes to life. Some guys never quite fill out the spot; when Ortiz saunters toward the circular dirt patch, it looks like a birdcage trying to house a lion. On his first trip there against the Yankees this evening, Ortiz watches the man who will succeed him as the face of the team, Dustin Pedroia, hit a long fly out to the deepest part of right field. A collective groan swirls around Fenway as the ball is caught, though it dissipates quickly when Ortiz strolls to the plate. Every home at-bat this season is a kiss and squeeze goodbye, especially the first one each night. And the affection is more than mere tribute for past achievements. It’s almost certain Ortiz will break former Detroit Tiger Darrell Evans’s 1987 mark of 34 home runs by a player 40 or older this year. Figuring out how to replace a guy who turns 41 not long after the World Series really shouldn’t be this hard.
It’s not unthinkable that the Red Sox could be a participant in this October’s affair. They’ve played in three Fall Classics during Ortiz’s tenure, winning them all. Twelve years after the first one, it’s worth a reminder that this team could once convert even the rosiest of souls to a why-even-bother world view. Reversing nearly 100 years of losing never felt less possible than right at the end of that stretch, when the conclusion was still obscured by decades of failing in ways so painful they took on a horrendous majesty of their own. Ortiz offered a hint his arrival would alter things, smacking a home run in the top of the eighth inning in game seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series in Yankee Stadium. That swat put Boston up 5–2, but in the bottom half the Yankees tied the score after Sox manager Grady Little left starter Pedro Martinez on the mound just long enough to completely wilt. In the 10th, Aaron Boone hit a game-winning dinger that crammed Bronx dirt down Boston’s throat again. Red Sox-Yankees wasn’t so much a rivalry as a mathematical formula. The notion was even reinforced that off-season, when Boston had a deal in place to secure Rodriguez, the recently minted American League MVP, from the Texas Rangers, only to see it nixed by the Major League Baseball Players Association because, in its eyes, Rodriguez had agreed to forfeit too much salary. The ain’t-life-grand Yankees, naturally, had no outside forces intervene when they landed A-Rod two months later.
For the stone to upend the mountain, some foundational element had to change. While many positive things accompanied him—the Sox were, after all, a rich, talented franchise—Ortiz grew to become the swaggering, singular centrepiece. His accomplishments piled up quickly: an extra-inning homer in game four of a 2004 ALCS that would have ended in a sweep at the hands of the Yankees had Boston not won that contest; a 14th-inning walk-off single 24 hours later; another home run in a game-seven romp in Yankee Stadium that capped a comeback from an 0–3 series hole, something no MLB squad had previously done. Ortiz was named series MVP. Seven days and four consecutive wins over the St. Louis Cardinals later, the Sox had their first World Series title in 86 years.
Boston has been drenched in championships since the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002—nine total, at least one in all four major sports—but no title meant more to the town than the one that seemed like emancipation from torment. World Series wins in 2007 and 2013 were, in a sense, spectacular after-parties. Ortiz—who boasts a .455 batting average and .795 slugging percentage in 14 World Series contests—earned MVP honours in the 2013 event, a six-game win over the Cardinals that, unlike the previous two titles, was clinched on Fenway grass.
That triumph carried added significance because it came half a year after a makeshift bomb was detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. In a burg obsessed with sports, harming the marathon was like picking on the youngest member of a big Irish brood—yes, the family was coming after you no matter whom you messed with, but targeting the most vulnerable among them struck a different chord entirely. After a harrowing few days in the city, the baseball squad returned home for its first contest amid the emotional wreckage. As part of a pre-game ceremony addressing the tragedy, Ortiz took the microphone wearing an amended version of the team’s usual home outfit. “This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox,’ it says ‘Boston,'” he said. After offering quick thanks to some politicians and the police department, Ortiz squared up. “This is our f–kin’ city,” he said, triggering raucous approval, “and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”
In that moment, Ortiz—surrounded by people who’ve turned on more than one sports hero—covered the final leg in his journey from adored athlete to civic treasure. Yes, timing was a factor—if the marathon was a late-fall, not early-spring, event, maybe the reassurance would have come at a Patriots game. But could anyone imagine Tom Brady assuming a paternal role with such salty aplomb? Someday, a statue will afford Ortiz a permanent spot on Boston soil, though that immovable standing was really achieved with those loving words.
A person with no interest in visiting a monument to Ortiz might cite the following rationale: Born-again Boston fans have become insufferable under his watch, to say nothing of the fact that Ortiz was part of a 2009 New York Times report that outed roughly 100 players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003 before drug testing was a mandatory part of MLB life. In the immediate aftermath, Ortiz denied steroid use and said he’d been careless with supplements he’d taken. More recently, he took to the Players’ Tribune—founded by one-time Yankees rival Derek Jeter—to say he’d passed more than 80 tests since 2004. Whatever the case, come to the 81-times-a-summer festival that is a game at Fenway and you’ll be surrounded by Ortiz backers. One man tonight is wearing a T-shirt with two familiar thick red stripes on the front that usually sandwich the letters “RUN DMC,” but in this case frame “BIG PAPI.”
Back in the left-field grandstand, an ensemble cast is adding flavour to the experience. A young woman who, based on the sash she’s wearing over her Sox jersey, has Miss Massachusetts Teen USA aspirations, is collaborating with her friends to help two middle-aged women one row in front of them get the perfect ballpark shot on their phone. Before leaving, the older women offer their junior warm encouragement in her pageant pursuits: “Go get ’em, girl!” A fellow in his 20s, glove on one hand, beer in the other, reminisces about dodging some cops in order to join the 2013 World Series party around the grounds when he was still a student in America’s best-known college town. Ortiz is by no means the only spirited person in this place.
The home side falls behind early, but in the bottom of the third, Pedroia cracks an opposite-field double that ties the game 2–2. When “The Fens” erupts, it resembles a stovetop filled with clamouring pots all boiling over simultaneously. It’s ready to blow again when Ortiz steps in next, but for the second time in the game, he grounds out to a right side of the infield overloaded with Yankees. Two innings later, the Sox score another pair to take a 4–2 lead. Yankees starter Luis Severino is lifted in favour of Tommy Layne so New York can go lefty on lefty with Ortiz. Barely a week ago, Layne was with the Red Sox, so Ortiz has a strong grasp of his arsenal. Granted, that seems to happen even without the benefit of frequent looks at a pitcher. Don’t be duped by his lightheartedness—Ortiz’s success traces back to an analytical mind that’s catalogued every tendency he’s ever seen a pitcher display. Watching warm-up pitches, he certainly has the appearance of a man who knows what you’re holding. Jersey unbuttoned below the letters, he leans on his bat like a carefree Sunday golfer might do with his club while he waits for the group ahead to clear the green. With the count at 2-2, Ortiz reaches out for Layne’s fifth pitch and lifts a looping shot off the Green Monster, a double for some, a run-scoring single for the lumbering greybeard. When the applause dies down, the patrons do what you reserve for the people you love most: tease them. “Ortiz ain’t goin’ anywhere!” says a man with strong knowledge of the designated hitter’s base-stealing history.
While the Sox-Yankees feud has cooled in recent seasons, in the waning innings, a few embers from the old fire catch. When Chase Headley is thrown out trying to stretch a double one base too far, Red Sox starter Rick Porcello says something to Headley that eventually prompts benches to clear. The mini-storm passes quickly, however, and Sox fans riding high on a 5–2 lead suddenly remember to mock Rodriguez. “We want A-Rod!” go the chants. He never re-emerges, though the crowd does get its win after a fist-clenching finish. The Yankees, having cut the deficit by one in the ninth, load the bases before the final out is recorded. As the DH, Ortiz is in the dugout while the enemy creeps closer, but nobody beats him to the field once the day is won. First the arms go up, then a leg as the old man hops up and down on one foot before moving out to back-slap with the boys. One for the ages or one of 162, nothing buoys the spirit like a victory. And who else would be in the middle of this celebration?