You really have to stop for a moment and understand that what you’re seeing from David Ortiz at the end of his career isn’t just special. It’s downright historic.
Ortiz is just over a month away from turning 41 and his numbers are mind-boggling. He entered Saturday with a .316 average, 38 home runs, 48 doubles, 127 RBIs, a .625 slugging percentage, a 1.027 OPS. Those are prime-of-career figures, the likes of which we’ve never seen from a player at this age. Were it not for his throbbing feet, Ortiz could certainly play on but he’s made it clear this is it.
The Boston Red Sox are saying their official farewells this weekend, with the iconic image of Big Papi pointing to the sky mowed into the center field grass at Fenway Park (major thumbs up, grounds crew). They’re hoping for one last great October from him.
The Red Sox are simply not going to be the Red Sox without Big Papi. Sure, they can fill the lineup with someone else next season (step up to the contract and the plate, Edwin Encarnacion). But they have been Ortiz’s team for so long that you almost forget about the barrage of Curse of the Bambino tales you heard until things finally turned around 12 years ago this month.
One night in Toronto a few years back, Ortiz burned the Blue Jays with a late-inning home run to win a game just like he did Friday in Fenway. He was on one of his patented hot streaks, where every at-bat seemed to be a key one and most of the time he delivered. It seems like he thrived on the pressure, preferred being in those spots. There were only a few reporters left at his locker when I asked why he thought he performed so well in the late innings, a time when lesser players often shrink away at that pressure.
Ortiz stopped and stared at me for a second as if no one had ever really asked him the question before.
“It’s not that I like it. To me, I’ve got no choice,” he said. “I just see the situations over and over and over. I have to do something. That’s the difference. It’s not as easy as it looks, man. It’s not. I tell you what: I don’t get the job done when I’m supposed to, I’m angry.”
More often than not, Ortiz has been able to put away his anger because he’s produced. Think about it: The Sox went 86 years without winning a World Series and Ortiz then led them to three in a 10-year stretch. And by the end of this month, his final one at Fenway, he could add a fourth to his resume.
Who knows what we might be in store for? You think back to 2013, when Ortiz rallied the city after the marathon bombings with his famous “this is our bleeping city” speech prior to the emotional April game when the Sox returned to Fenway. How his eighth-inning grand slam tied Game Two of the ALCS against the Tigers and got the Sox rolling again.
And how he dominated the World Series victory over the Cardinals, by going 11 for 16 and posting a .688 batting average while the rest of his team hit just .169. He reached base 19 times in 25 plate appearances, with a record .760 on-base percentage, and struck out just once. Amazing numbers for a power hitter.
Probably his biggest contribution came in the dugout in the middle of Game Four, with the Sox gasping for air at the plate and in a 2-1 hole in the series. During a break between innings, he gathered the entire team around him in the dugout and told them to wake up, to enjoy the moment because it might not happen again. Jonny Gomes homered to break a tie a couple innings later and the Sox didn’t lose again.
“I saw a lot of faces looking in the wrong direction,” Ortiz said the next day. “I know we’re a better offensive team than we’ve showed. You put pressure on yourself and try to overdo things, it doesn’t work that way. You think you’re going to come to the World Series every year, you’re wrong. Especially playing in the AL East. You know how many people we beat up to get to this stage? A lot of good teams. And that doesn’t happen every year.”
The Sox listened to every word and reacted. Said Gomes: “If this guy wants to rally us together for a pep talk, it was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher. He got everyone’s attention and we looked him right in the eyes.”
What was Ortiz’s motivation? Ortiz smiled when asked that one the next day: “I like the ring, man.”
When it was over, and the Sox had wrapped up a title on the Fenway grass for the first time since 1918, the microphone was given to Ortiz again. By now the media was on the field and I was maybe 20 yards away from him as he howled “This is for you, Boston” and the crowd roared.
He said a few more things and closed by screaming, “This is our woooooooooooooooo city!”. The place went nuts.
The cheers really went crazy way back in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, when Dave Roberts stole the base and Bill Mueller tied the game off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning − and Ortiz finally won it with a home run in the 12th.
“That’s the one at-bat I never forget about,” Ortiz told reporters Friday. “I think about that at-bat like it was yesterday.”
Ortiz, remember, then collected the game-winning single in the 14th the next night. That led to Game Six and Game Seven in the Bronx. And to the sweep of the Cardinals and the end of curses in Beantown.
After Game Four, it was nearly 2 a.m. when the final question was posed to Ortiz in an interview room. Longtime MLB vice president and postseason moderator Phyllis Merhige thanked Ortiz for his answers at that late hour and Ortiz rose from the table but then leaned into the mic to tease the bleary-eyed media who still had plenty of work left to do.
“All right, guys,’’ Ortiz said. “It’s over. You can go home.’’
The same can be just about said for Big Papi’s career. It’s the final month. It’s almost over. It would be a remarkable finish if he got to go home with one more ring.
Ortiz was one of so many around baseball shattered by the untimely death of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, whom he befriended in July at the All-Star Game in San Diego. The scenes of grief and celebration of life coming out of Miami the last few days have been remarkable and I’ve been struck by four quotes to summarize them all:
1). Fernandez’s eerie tweet from Sept, 1, 2015 has been given wide circulation in recent days. It read simply, “If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?”
2). Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria at Thursday’s funeral service: “His magnetic smile could light up a ballpark. He set the standard for making baseball fun. I prefer not to think of this tragedy as the end of his life but rather as the beginning of the legend.”
3). Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, when asked in PNC Park about the loss of someone so young: “Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day when there won’t be another day.”
4). Marlins leadoff man Dee Gordon on his storybook home run in his first at-bat Monday: “I told the boys, ‘If y’all don’t believe in God, you might as well start.’ I ain’t ever hit a ball that far. Even in BP. For that to happen today, we had some help.”
Red Sox and Rangers: They’re the two best teams in the American League by a lot at this point. It would be a juicy subplot if the Rangers got a division series grudge match with the Blue Jays, although Toronto’s 11-16 September meltdown really put the Blue Jays’ hopes in jeopardy.
Indians: Injuries to Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber have the rotation in tatters, so much so that veteran Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Paul Hoynes wrote their season ended when Carrasco was felled for the season by a line drive to the hand. Hoynes, a good friend of this space who has covered the team since 1983, was vilified on social media and lambasted on Twitter by players such as Jason Kipnis and Trevor Bauer. Sorry, folks. Hoynes is one of the best. And he’s right. The Tribe are toast.
Nationals: Their injury situation is almost as bad as the Tribe’s, now including the torn ACL of catcher Wilson Ramos. Once the clear top challenger to the Cubs, it’s getting hard to see them advancing past the Dodgers in the division series.
Dodgers: Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Roberts is going to get all kinds of Manager of the Year votes for the job he’s done and now it will be very interesting to see him match wits with Dusty Baker in the first round and potentially Joe Maddon in the NLCS.
Cubs: This is called saving the best for last. If the World Series is ever going to return to Wrigley Field for the first time since 1945, this has to be the year. Provided the billy goats and Steve Bartman are kept out of The Friendly Confines, of course. You do wonder how stale they’re getting having little to play for over the final two weeks, and a division series against the Mets or Giants will certainly be a test.
A reminder that every game in the big leagues on Sunday starts between 3:05 and 3:15 Eastern time, regardless of time zone (so Vin Scully’s finale in San Francisco is going shortly after noon, Pacific time). That’s a change put on the schedule last season so teams were forced to play out their last game and not get an advantage of pulling players or pitchers knowing their postseason fate is decided by what’s going on elsewhere. Love it.