BOSTON — Do the Yankees owe a debt of gratitude to David Ortiz, the same feared Big Papi who tormented them all those years while wearing the uniform of their bitter rival?
Maybe not a playoff share, or a World Series ring. We’ll keep things in proper perspective. But if the Yankees end up as champs this season, Ortiz certainly deserves a tip of the cap for his behind-the-scenes encouragement of Gary Sanchez, who revealed Big Papi’s role in his revival before Boston’s 6-1 win in Friday night’s series opener at Fenway Park.
Sanchez visited Ortiz at his suburban Boston home during Thursday’s break in the schedule, the first chance he had to see him since Big Papi suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound on June 9 in the Dominican Republic. Edwin Encarnacion, a lifelong friend of Ortiz, brought along Sanchez at Papi’s request.
Sanchez, 26, played against Ortiz only briefly, but he described getting text messages from him during his startling regression last season, when he batted .186 with a .406 slugging percentage. Making matters worse was his horrible stint behind the plate, as Sanchez led all catchers with 18 passed balls.
“He has always given me very good advice,” Sanchez said through his interpreter. “Even going back to last year, when I was struggling. I had a rough season last season. There were some spots where he gave me really good advice. That’s the way he’s always been.”
We’ve already heard the stories of Alex Rodriguez’s lunchtime pep talks with Sanchez. But to think that Ortiz -- who remains a special adviser for the Red Sox -- would coach up the Yankees’ two-time All-Star sheds some light on the otherwise invisible ties between the two clubs.
Or how Papi’s stature extends beyond those typical boundaries. And his words obviously left a big impression on Sanchez, a fellow Dominican who felt it was important to post a photo with Ortiz on Instagram, coupled with the caption: “Wishing you a long life so you can continue to help and inspire future generations.”
For Sanchez, those text messages apparently worked to some degree. He’s tightened things up behind the plate and hit 34 home runs with a .543 slugging percentage. Maybe it was just knowing that his idol took a special interest in his career.
“He talked about defense,” Sanchez said. “He told me to really focus on defense, because he understood and saw I had the ability to hit.”
But Thursday’s visit wasn’t about Sanchez. The catcher was relieved that Ortiz has made a near-miraculous comeback from three surgeries to save him, the first in the Dominican Republic immediately after he was shot at a Santo Domingo nightclub and two others at Massachusetts General, where he spent six weeks recovering. According to The Boston Globe, Ortiz suffered damage to his liver, intestines and gall bladder, which had to be removed.
“It was really nice to see him healthy,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been watching David since I was a little kid. Him and Manny [Ramirez] and Pedro [Martinez]. You paid attention to what those guys were doing at the time. Not only was he an inspiration for me, but for my generation.”
Ortiz’s impact on Sanchez was profound. For Encarnacion, however, Thursday’s reunion was more personal, as the two grew up about a 90-minute drive from each other in the Dominican Republic. Big Papi even publicly recruited Encarnacion -- at the time a member of the Blue Jays -- during his farewell season in 2016 to be to be his eventual replacement on the Red Sox.
Things didn’t turn out that way, and it’s ironic now that Encarnacion is the DH for the Sox’s bitter rival. But the bond between them goes well beyond baseball.
“He’s walking around, everything is normal, he’s eating normal,” said Encarnacion, who also stopped by on a trip to Boston earlier this season. “It was better to see him the second time. He looks better, stronger.”
Sanchez appreciated Thursday’s chance to pay his respects, and it sounds as if this relationship could continue to be a beneficial one. That’s just the effect the larger-than-life Ortiz has on people, and going forward, the Yankees can thank him for his lasting impact on their All-Star catcher.
“It’s someone obviously that Gary looks up to a lot and David carries a lot of respect -- he’s a giant in our sport,” Aaron Boone said. “I think there’s all kinds of stories about words of wisdom that always get passed down, so if Big Papi’s helped him out a little bit, I’m grateful for that.”
A Yankees manager thanking Ortiz. That’s a first, and probably no higher compliment for a respected player bigger than the rivalry.