FORT MYERS, Fla. - If Babe Ruth is the larger-than-life figure responsible for establishing the Yankees’ superiority over the Red Sox, then David Ortiz is the one who deserves credit for reversing the course of that history, for defeating baseball’s Goliath, for undoing the Ruthian curse, as it were.
Dozens of the sport’s most decorated players, occupying plenty of Cooperstown real estate, built this ancient rivalry. But the border war always was a one-sided affair until Big Papi arrived, and it won’t be the same once Ortiz bows out at the end of this season. How could it be?
“The rivalry has been going on for over 100 years, and a lot of great players have disappeared,” Ortiz said before Tuesday night’s game at JetBlue Park. “Jeter left two years ago, and yeah, I sensed that something was missing.”
Of course, Jeter’s role in the passion play between these teams is irreplaceable. But the same goes for Ortiz, despite his modesty, for the sizable dent he put in the Yankees’ armor. While the rivalry has lasted for more than a century, no Boston slugger has hurt the Yankees more than Ortiz has. And when we brought that up, Ortiz had to crack a smile.
“Well,” he said, laughing. “I’ve been able to get some big hits. And with all the respect that I have for Yankees’ fans, it’s just business that you’ve got to take care of, you know what I’m saying?
“People want to be able to come and watch that. They want to buy a ticket to watch a guy getting things done. I was a big part of that. I’ll still be a part of that, and hopefully continue to be once I’m done.”
The Yankees won’t be sad to see him go. As a villain, Ortiz was perfectly cast — brash, bold, with a winning smile and lethal bat. Entering his farewell season, Ortiz has a career slash line of .306/.395/.565 with 47 homers in 224 games against the Yankees. His production gets even better in the Bronx, where Ortiz has a 1.025 OPS, with 16 homers and 35 RBIs in 56 games.
Factor in what Ortiz did to the Yankees to propel the Red Sox back from an 0-3 hole in 2004, and he’s fully aware that his Stadium sendoff probably won’t be as cuddly as the Fenway embrace Jeter received. Last month, Ortiz told the New York Post that he’d love a standing ovation from Yankees fans. But three weeks later, Ortiz laughed it off Tuesday, saying he was “messing around” with the reporter. Maybe he also realized, upon further reflection, that it wasn’t likely to happen.
“I don’t ask for anything,” Ortiz said. “I don’t know how that’s going to go down. I never expect anything from anyone, so whatever happens, I’m cool with it.”
But for those Bronx fans who may have a change of heart, Ortiz did admire what the Fenway faithful did for Jeter. The Red Sox basically turned their ballpark over to the Yankees’ captain, inviting three title-winning Boston champions — Bobby Orr, Troy Brown and Paul Pierce — to celebrate a 19-year enemy of the state.
“It was a memorable day that I’m proud that I was part of, because saying goodbye to a player like DJ is something that not everybody gets the opportunity to do,” Ortiz said. “This is a guy that did everything almost perfect. I wasn’t there when he started, but I was there when he finished. So it was an honor to be a part of it.”
When Ortiz walks away after this season, he’ll take a Papi-sized chunk of this rivalry’s allure along with him. For New Yorkers, who’s left on the Red Sox to despise? Dustin Pedroia has some history, but not Ortiz charisma. The newly acquired David Price has tormented the Yankees from his two previous AL East stops, with the Rays and Blue Jays, but he doesn’t have Ortiz’s everyday presence.
Mookie Betts? Jackie Bradley Jr.? Xander Bogaerts? All talented players with high ceilings, but they’re still a little young.
“It goes in waves, in my opinion,” said Tim Wakefield, a hardened vet from the glory days. “I assume it will be two more years. But it will start to brew again.”
Another Ortiz, however, isn’t walking through that clubhouse door.