On the eve of retirement, Red Sox super-slugger, dedicated philanthropist, and passionate Bostonian David Ortiz looks back on more than two decades of defining what it means to be a winner—on and off the field.
“I don’t think anybody knew what he was, or what it was going to be,” says Boston sports radio host Tony Massarotti of David Ortiz’s arrival in town almost 14 years ago. What followed were incredible new records, three World Championships, and a restored city-wide mojo.
Look at him now. Larger than life, the mayor of every room he enters. Everything about him—the swagger, that booming voice, the cars, diamonds, and endorsement deals—lets you know that David Ortiz is no ordinary man. Seeing him now, it’s difficult to believe where he came from, even knowing every detail of his journey—how a skinny Dominican kid named David Arias became a future Hall of Famer known the world over as Big Papi.
Like many success stories, this one could have easily never happened. Growing up in Santo Domingo, the son of a baseball player and the eldest of four children, Ortiz was imbued with a love of sport from an early age. But in a place like the Dominican Republic, he was hardly alone. He managed to stand out from the thousands of Dominican teens who got a look from Major League Baseball scouts in the ’90s by possessing an alluring blend of size, power, and athleticism. It was enough to convince the Seattle Mariners that they had found a gem. Ortiz signed with the Mariners just days after his 17th birthday, in 1992.
He experienced his ups and downs as a low-level minor leaguer, but in September 1996 he learned that he had been selected by the Minnesota Twins as the “player to be named later” in a trade that had been completed weeks earlier. He got a taste of the big leagues from 1997 to ’99 and was a part-time player for the three years that followed. But in 2002, instead of re-signing him for a meager $1 million, the Twins released Ortiz, leaving him on baseball’s scrap heap at 27. It seemed that his brief, relatively anonymous career was over.
Ortiz recalls his mind-set after getting dumped by the Twins. “Just don’t give up on your dreams,” he says. “You’re always going to face problems on the road that are going to try to tell you not to go. And it’s up to you if you want to let that happen.” Fortunately, Ortiz had the best pitchman possible on his side. Fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez owned the city of Boston as the ace starting pitcher for the Red Sox, and as someone who had known Ortiz for years and believed in his untapped ability as a ballplayer, he persuaded Boston’s front office that Ortiz was worthy of a contract. So the Red Sox took a flyer on him. It was soon clear why.
The champion: Ortiz poses with his three World Series rings and 2013 World Series MVP ring prior to a game at Fenway Park.
October of 2003, Game 4 of the American League Division Series: Ortiz delivered a goahead double and sent a tense Fenway Park into a state of glorious delirium. It continued in 2004, when he delivered two walk-off hits on consecutive nights against the Yankees to spark the greatest comeback in sports history—the first a violent clobbering of a baseball in the wee hours of the morning, the next a less majestic but equally uplifting single delivered later that same calendar day. With those hits, he accomplished what few Boston baseball players have ever been able to: He made the fans believe.
Put simply, Ortiz had a knack for coming through when needed the most. “I don’t think anybody knew what he was when he arrived, or what it was going to be,” says Tony Massarotti, the sports radio host and former baseball writer who co-wrote Ortiz’s 2007 book, Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits. “There’s no way anybody could have possibly understood what was coming.” Anybody, that is, except Ortiz. “I knew I could do it. I just didn’t know how it was going to be,” he says. “I mean, I knew I had the talent to play the game.”
As Red Sox Nation discovered in 2004, number 34 also had the ability to deliver what was once thought an impossibility: a World Series title in Boston. Three years later, another one. And then, on October 13, 2013, Ortiz cemented his status as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history. His team was an inch away from falling behind two games to none in the American League Championship Series—a deficit that would have put their World Series dreams on life support. With the bases loaded and his team trailing by four in the eighth inning, Ortiz stepped up to the plate. First pitch: grand slam. Pandemonium at Fenway Park. The radio call from broadcaster Dave O’Brien said it all: “David Ortiz! David Ortiz! David Ortiz!”
Even at the age of 40, even in the midst of a begrudging farewell tour, the triumphant story continues for Ortiz, who has registered perhaps the single greatest season ever for a player of his age. With still a week and a half left to play in the season, he launched his 36th home run of the year—more than any player in MLB history has ever hit in his final season. He also owns the record for most homers by a player aged 40 or older. In turning back the clock, he’s put forth his best all-around season since 2007, when he was 31 years old.
One with the city (clockwise from top left): Ortiz and his wife, Tiffany, attend the Boston Celtics’ 2012 home opener; hugging teammate Jackie Bradley, Jr. after his 500th career MLB home run in 2015; flashing the Red Sox’s latest World Series trophy at a victory parade in November 2013; posing with Make-A-Wish recipients in 2015; visiting a little Bostonian at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2014 with his eponymous Children’s Fund; delivering a galvanizing speech to 35,000 fans following the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013.
He’s the eldest player on the Red Sox roster, 11 years older than the average MLB player, but he still carries the most important bat in Boston’s explosive lineup. “To see a guy hit like he’s hit at 39 and 40 is just insane. You just don’t see it,” Massarotti says. “What you’re seeing is ridiculous. To say that it’s rare doesn’t do it justice.” This type of production at age 40 is significant on its own, but it has also created something never before thought possible: It’s brought about comparisons to Ted Williams. This may be Ortiz’s grandest accomplishment.
Forget the actual debate; the mere suggestion is a remarkable feat. For 60 years, most of the baseball world has considered Williams to be The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. Yet here is Ortiz, not long ago Jeremy Giambi’s backup at first base, vying to steal the crown. “There have been players who have been the face of their team,” says Larry Lucchino, the former Red Sox president and CEO, who played a major role in signing Ortiz back in January 2003. “But there’s been no one with the combination of presence and personality and performance, and just the powerful impact that David Ortiz is leaving behind.”
Tiffany and David Ortiz embracing after the 2007 World Series.
His impact, however, is not restricted to the Red Sox. As Ortiz has aged, he has become the sport’s greatest ambassador, taking time before, during, and after games to embrace teammates and opponents alike. He is ensuring that the wisdom he has gained in 20-plus years of professional baseball will live on in the next generation. He has become, essentially, the resident dad in Major League Baseball.
After all these years, he has grown into his nickname. “He’s got the biggest heart in baseball,” Lucchino says. “When you make somebody feel better about himself and you can be somebody who has advice [on how] to do things better and you can make a difference in somebody else’s life, I think that’s what to me matters the most,” Ortiz says. “I’m a friendly guy. I’m a person who wants everybody to be fine. So, really, I feel like that’s one of the things that I worry the most about. Because anybody can have an oh-for-four, anybody can have a bad season, anybody can have a slump. But making a difference in somebody else’s life, not everybody’s capable of. And that is important to me.”
While Ortiz has spent the majority of 2016 tearing the covers off baseballs, this will be his final year. Sure, the sport thrived in Boston long before Ortiz arrived, and the Red Sox train will chug along for many years to come. But the Ortiz era—we’re unlikely to see anything like it again soon. The transformation of the franchise from perennial heartbreakers to regular champions cannot be overstated, and Ortiz was the central figure in all three World Series victories. “He just became this, dare I say, this Ruthian figure that was undaunted and undeterred by anything,” Massarotti says. “The guy was fearless, and downright bloodless in pressure situations. The Red Sox are not who they are today without this guy.”
Superstar status: At Fenway Park, Ortiz hits a walk-off home run in extra innings to win the 2004 ALDS for Boston against the Anaheim Angels. The Red Sox would go on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series title since 1918.
While his clutch hits in October of 2004 would have been enough to put Ortiz on track to one day get a statue outside Fenway Park, it was only the beginning of the city’s love affair with him. He won another World Series three years later; he celebrated becoming an American citizen; he established the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, helping kids receive medical treatment both in Boston and his native Dominican Republic; he broke a 68-year-old single-season franchise record for home runs; he provided a historically dominant performance in leading the Red Sox to a third title, in 2013; and he has delivered the finest swan song in the long and storied history of baseball.
But in April 2013, Ortiz offered what will undoubtedly be remembered as his most profound contribution to Boston. It was on a baseball diamond, yes, but it had nothing to do with baseball. Five days prior, the finish line of the Boston Marathon had been bombed. The city had been shut down for a frightful manhunt for one of the culprits, forcing the Red Sox to postpone their first home game since the attack. Shaken, 35,000 people filed into Fenway on a Saturday afternoon, but it didn’t feel right to move on to something as trivial as sports. Certainly nobody knew what to say. Ortiz stepped onto the field and raised his fist.
“This is our fucking city!” he roared. “Nobody’s gonna dictate our freedom!” The crowd roared back. David Ortiz, as always, came through in the clutch. Ortiz’s only regret about the speech is that children heard him cursing. (“I was not aware that he was going to drop an F-bomb,” Lucchino laughs, “but it didn’t bother me when he did, because it seemed so completely sincere and appropriate.”)
Swan song: Ortiz hits a home run against the Houston Astros earlier this year. “To see a guy hit like he’s hit at his age is just insane. To say that it’s rare doesn’t do it justice,” says sports radio host Tony Massarotti.
Beyond that, the moment remains a point of pride for the man whom Boston relied on in a time of need. “When you get angry and you get mad, that’s the first thing that you think of,” Ortiz explains. “And I was angry. I was mad. I was very emotional because of everything that was going down, as a citizen in Boston. The Marathon is part of what we are. Even if you’re not from Boston or you don’t live in Boston, the Marathon makes you a part of it.” “And then something like that goes down, you just—you feel it deeply,” he adds, taking a beat to step back out of that moment. “So [the speech] went down that way, and I’m happy and proud the way it went down, because it motivated a lot of people to get back together and go back to what we used to be before that.”
Now, with the finishing touches placed on his final season and the farewell gifts handed out, Boston must prepare itself for life without him. Surely, life will go on, and so will baseball. But there will never be another David Ortiz. The man, like his journey and his lasting impact, is truly one of a kind.
PhotograPhy by Matthew J. Lee/The BosTon GloBe via getty iMages (tiffany ortiz); brian bLanco/getty iMages (bradLey, Jr.); MichaeL ivins/boston
red sox/getty iMages (worLd series troPhy, sPeech); MichaeL bLanchard (Make-a-wish, tiffany and david embracing); courtesy of david ortiz chiLdren’s fund (hosPitaL visit); COURTESY OF THE WISCONSIN TIMBER RATTLERS (1996);
BY AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES (2004); MICHAEL IVINS/BOSTON RED SOX/GETTY IMAGES (2013, 2016); PHOTOGRAPHY BY KERRY BRETT (portrait)