BOSTON - BOSTON
The Red Sox monuments, just outside Fenway, don’t have their own park, as those immortalized at Yankee Stadium do. Instead, the statues stand watch at Gate B, at the juncture of Ips wich and Van Ness streets, a heavily trafficked area on game day.
Ted Williams places a Sox cap on a small boy’s head. Carl Yastrzemski, the base simply inscribed, “YAZ,” doffs his hat to passers by. A third, labeled “Teammates,” has Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky linked together for eternity. There will be a fourth.
In a few more weeks, maybe lasting into November, David Ortiz’s 20-year baseball career will be over. And based on what he has done for the city of Boston, for the six-state New England region, for the entire Red Sox Nation, it’s a wonder they haven’t erected a Big Papi statue already. It’s not a matter of if. Only when.
“How can they not?” said Gordon Edes, the official historian for the Red Sox. “But I think you’re going to find a number of ways that David’s going to be remembered here permanently. I haven’t had this discussion with anyone in the organization, but it would not shock me if David remains a very visible part of the scene here even after he plays.”
Ortiz was canonized with the Red Sox a while ago, from the time he almost single-handedly willed them back from that 0-3 deficit to the Yankees during the 2004 ALCS. Two walk-off hits to win Games 4 and 5 in the most shocking upset in postseason history. That October gave Ortiz his foothold to legend status — to approaching the rarefied air of a Russell, Bird, Orr or Brady. And it helps when you have a personality the size of the Prudential Building.
Even now, when Ortiz was asked what enables him to be such a clutch performer, to succeed when others might wilt under the pressure, especially in a town notorious for gobbling up its heroes, he responds with that Papi laugh. “Some people got it,” Ortiz said. “Some people don’t.”
What Ortiz also has, and this can be rare for New England — a place with a rocky shell surrounding its warm heart — is the unconditional love of the population. And that, it seems, helps power Big Papi. For everything Ortiz gives, the home runs, the hand-slaps, the infectious laughter, the Red Sox slugger gets it right back each time his name is heard over the Fenway PA system.
In this era, with players chasing dollars and jumping teams, the Ortiz level of adoration is rare, like the Bronx affection for Derek Jeter or Mike Piazza’s emotional imprint on Flushing. For these iconic stars, home became far more than where they hung their uniforms, and their Cooperstown-worthy performance often reflected that.
Ortiz’s .310 career batting average at Fenway is 41 points higher than away from here. His .995 OPS is 64 points greater than his career OPS. The Green Monster doesn’t hurt, but it’s not as if Ortiz has been shooting at Yankee Stadium’s short porch for half of his 20 seasons.
Along with the cold data, there is an undeniable human component to all this, and when it comes to Papi’s connection with Fenway, maybe more than what we’ve seen in other places.
“Don’t we all want to be loved?” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “When you wake up every day and feel loved, you feel good, whether it’s at home or it’s at the workplace. So I’m sure it does give him energy.”
Being Big Papi, at age 40, in his final season, can be a draining experience, too. During the first two games of this weekend series with the Yankees, Ortiz never made it out for batting practice, opting instead for additional treatment on his aching legs. But there were other obligations as well. Ortiz frequently meets with a number of charitable groups, and did so again before Friday night’s game, talking with kids, posing for photos.
The crowds of people wearing Ortiz’s No. 34 jersey seem endless, and they all have a story involving him, why they feel linked to Papi for one reason or another. In a tiny place like Fenway and a compact town like Boston, Ortiz’s double-XL character stands out even more, and it draws people in, as if the giant gold chain around his broad neck were magnetized.
HUGGING A TEDDY BEAR
“I think it goes beyond the titles,” Edes said. “I think you’re also talking about the personality. Obviously, Ted Williams had a larger-than-life persona, too. But David puts off a different affect. Everybody wants to hug David. Have you ever seen another player get the conga line of opposing players, wherever the Red Sox go, that are waiting to see David and hug him and stuff? When we were kids, if you saw a big guy, you might be a little intimidated. Kids aren’t intimidated when they see David. He’s the teddy bear.”
Ortiz also appears to welcome those exchanges. The other day, in a curtained-off area in front of the Red Sox clubhouse, Ortiz met a number of groups, dressed in baggy American flag shorts and a T-shirt with the Citgo-sign triangle, but below it read “STRONG,” a testament to the Boston Strong movement that grew out of the terrorist bombing of the 2013 marathon.
“Our fans, man, have been so great through the years, and wonderful, and very supportive,” Ortiz said. “They don’t give in. So when you have fans like that, you got to try to bring the best every day. It’s a long season. It’s a little tiring, but that motivation is the one thing that every player appreciates.”
New Englanders also love Ortiz for taking the microphone that day at Fenway, the first game back for the Red Sox after the Marathon tragedy, and uttering those famous words: “This is our [expletive] city. And nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
In some ways, to so many people, that may be remembered more than anything Ortiz did with a bat in his hands. It was just another example of Ortiz transcending his DH identity with the Red Sox — and one his Bronx rivals took notice of.
“When I look at David Ortiz, I think of someone who — obviously who is a great player, and is a clutch player. Everyone sees that,” Girardi said. “But I think he’s a man that has embraced this city and the city has embraced him. He carries the heartbeat of Boston around with him. And is a guy who will stand up during difficult times and say, ‘Let me help.’
“And I think that’s probably why this city has embraced him so much. I think he really cares about the people here, and they really care about him.”
This weekend marks the final time the Yankees will face Ortiz at Fenway Park, and they undoubtedly are relieved to be closing out the Boston half of this relationship. In Thursday’s series opener, Ortiz hit career home run No. 537 to pass Mickey Mantle on the all-time list and also delivered an RBI single off Dellin Betances as the Red Sox rallied for five runs in the ninth inning and a 7-5 win. The next night, Ortiz had two more hits and an RBI in a 7-4 victory for the Sox. He’s still tormenting the Yankees, right to the end.
“I don’t want to say I’m glad anybody’s retiring,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “He has been a thorn in our side, no doubt about it, and I say that with great respect. An extremely talented competitor. But I wouldn’t want to say I’m glad someone’s leaving the game, because that seems disrespectful to say. But let’s just say he has served this community extremely well.”
Both Cashman and Girardi added that Ortiz is deserving of his Sept. 29 day in the Bronx, as irritating as that idea may be for some Yankees fans, because of how much he’s admired throughout the game. Like Jeter before him, Ortiz has been honored at every ballpark this season, but the Yankee Stadium send-off probably will be the most meaningful — outside of his beloved Fenway, of course.
“You don’t get to be respected just because,” Ortiz said. “You’ve got to earn that, you know what I’m saying? Just like Jeter did. Just like Mariano did. I really appreciate the time they are taking to do this.”
After that, it probably won’t be long before Big Papi takes his place beside Yaz and Teddy Ballgame. Forever a part of Fenway Park, just where Boston wants him to be.
Big Papi vs. Yanks
(Through Friday’s games)