February 22, 2022
We’ve all seen a ton of Big Papi love in the past month, during which we’ve been able to relive so many of the incredible memories that he’s given us. But for me, one hit in particular stands out as the signature David Ortiz moment. The moment when I immediately realized that David Ortiz was on an unstoppable path to Cooperstown.
David Ortiz will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. Was he the only player on the ballot that deserved to be voted in this year? Probably not. But it’s only fitting when you think about it. If anybody deserves his own private induction ceremony, it’s the most important player in the history of one of Major League Baseball’s cornerstone franchises.
The greatest postseason performer of the modern era.
The most lethal Yankee killer of them all.
The Large Father.
The Red Sox were still flailing away at an 86-year championship drought when Big Papi came aboard. The John Henry ownership group had purchased the team in late 2001. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, they saved all of us, including the handful of ungrateful turds that now despise them for being PR conscious and buying other sports franchises, from decades of mediocrity and we almost had ’em moments.
The Henry group obtained Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, and a few other stars in order to seal the deal and finally lock down a Red Sox championship in 2004. But the most impactful transaction; the single move that was most responsible for transforming the Red Sox from lovable losers to dreaded powerhouse; occurred in January 2003 when they inked a middling slugger off waivers to participate in a 3-man 1B/OF/DH platoon with Kevin Millar and Jeremy Giambi.
From the very start, Ortiz had a knack for coming up big in the clutch. His first home run with the Red Sox was a Bennifer-approved, 14th-inning shot to win a late-April game in Anaheim.
Ortiz fared well through June of 2003, hitting .290 with 36 RBI and 22 doubles, but only 4 home runs in 177 at bats. He proved himself to be a disciplined hitter with an intelligent approach that deserved the lion’s share of at-bats among the triad of he, Millar, and Giambi. Once he got those extra plate appearances, the American League was never the same.
Ortiz belted 27 home runs from July through the end of the season, rising up to the fifth spot in the order behind Manny Ramirez to begin the reign of the most lethal batting tandem baseball had seen since Ruth and Gehrig.
He never looked back from there, surging into the prime of a legendary career that would yield 541 home runs, 1,768 RBI, 2,472 hits, an OPS of .931, and a WAR of 55.3.
The championship heroics from 2004 have been fawned over by all of us for nearly 20 years now, and rightfully so. His 54 HR season of 2006 and the second championship in 2007 brought more of the same. The Ruth/Gehrig comparisons drew weekly media references, and the postseason success became downright silly (5-7 with 2 HRs, 6 BBs, and a 2.418 OPS in the 2007 ALDS vs Anaheim). A subpar 2008 and dreadful start to 2009 led to premature talk of his decline, including from yours truly. Speaking of a man who never played the field and, suddenly, could not hit, I famously declared him “the most useless player in baseball” in late May of 2009.
Of course, Big Papi proved me wrong. After all he had shown me during his first six years in Boston, I should’ve known better. No prolonged slump could keep David Ortiz down. He was too good, too focused, and too cocky to go out like that. He regained his form and cranked out seven more elite seasons, cementing his legacy on the short list of the greatest hitters of his generation.
But it was one moment on October 13th, 2013 when it dawned on me that David Ortiz was Hall of Fame bound.
The Red Sox managed one hit in Game One of the 2013 American League Championship Series, and barely scratched out two more off Max Scherzer through the first seven innings of Game Two. Clay Buchholz was Boston’s Game Two starter, so naturally they found themselves in a 5-0 hole before scoring their first run of the series in the sixth inning. By the time Ortiz stepped into the box against Joaquin Benoit with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, the Sox were four outs away from dropping the first two games of the series at home before heading to Detroit, where Justin Verlander awaited them in Game Three.
When Benoit came to the set before delivering the first pitch of the at-bat, I remember chuckling to myself as I thought “the Red Sox are going to lose the series unless Ortiz hits a grand slam.”
It’s not like Benoit was the second coming of Mariano Rivera. After all, he pitched in a bullpen that was assembled by Dave Dombrowski. But I had no confidence that the Red Sox would overcome this situation. Not with two outs. Not after being so dominated by Tigers pitching for the first 17 innings of the series. And not when you needed the big clutch hit from someone who had already delivered so many for so long. Was he the number one guy you wanted at the plate in that situation? Of course. But at some point, the well has to run dry.
I mean, the guy wasn’t Tom Brady. Nobody can be in baseball. Even the best hitters the world has ever seen were retired in 60 – 70% of their at bats. The sheer numbers of it all, combined with the added pressure of playing postseason baseball in Fenway Park, made it so incredibly unlikely that Ortiz would tie the game with one swing of the bat and save yet another season for the Boston Red Sox.
“Maybe a gapper,” I thought, once I came to my senses. “Maybe he can knock one into the triangle and drive in three. Then they can lift him for a pinch runner and Napoli can tie it with a single.”
And then, an instant later, I learned that Santa Claus was real. And the real-life Santa was bigger, nastier, and had a far more meticulously-trimmed beard than the mythical version.
I was surprised enough to see him swing at the first pitch. I was even more surprised to see him smoke a line drive to right. A sense of dread came over me when Torii freaking Hunter (of all outfielders) gave chase and then leapt into and over the wall to attempt the greatest catch ever made.
It wasn’t until that damn cop jumped up with his hands in the air that I realized that it had actually happened. David Ortiz turned the tide of the 2013 season with one swing of the bat. Seven months after telling the world that “This is our f’ing city,” Big Papi resuscitated his team’s dying season and made an entire region believe yet again.
At that moment, I knew. As soon as Torii Hunter went ass-over-tea-kettle into the Red Sox bullpen emptyhanded, I immediately texted John a single sentence:
David Ortiz just got into the Hall of Fame.
He was already a legend before it happened. But from that moment on, he became a Boston folk hero. Paul Revere. John Adams. JFK. Tom Brady. David Ortiz.
That home run was so impactful that hitting .688 (seriously) and earning World Series MVP honors became an afterthought. I mean, why wouldn’t he go 11-16 with a 1.948 OPS in the World Series? He’d already shown that he’s in the business of performing miracles. Call me when he starts turning water into wine. Then, maybe he’ll surprise me again.
He played a bigger role at turning an organization around than arguably any player in baseball history. He came up with countless clutch hits during his 13 years in Boston, both when we expected him to do it and when we were stupid enough to not expect him to do it. He was the main catalyst of the greatest postseason comeback in Major League history. He’s the best offensive World Series performer of all time (1.372 OPS in 59 plate appearances).
He somehow managed to maintain a reputation as a big, cuddly teddy bear despite lighting up his manager about a scorer’s decision during a live press conference, destroying a dugout telephone in the middle of a game, arguing every called strike he ever saw, and continually complaining about his contract status.
He galvanized a city into recovery after a deadly terrorist attack.
And yes, he even survived a gunshot wound to the back.
I’m still waiting to see proof that David Ortiz is a mortal man.
But his defining moment, in my opinion, will always be the grand slam he hit on October 13th, 2013. The Boston Red Sox had their backs against the wall, and David Ortiz threw the haymaker that got them back on the attack. He put the team on his back when they needed him most, as he did continually throughout his career in Boston.
When he is enshrined in Cooperstown this year, a Red Sox cap donning a bronze bust that hopefully at least bears some resemblance to his actual face, his place will be etched almost as firmly in baseball history as it has been in the hearts of Red Sox fans for 17 years.
Our grandparents had Teddy Ballgame. Our parents had Yaz. We had Big Papi. We all want our children to be better off than we were, but in this case, is that in any way realistic?
Eat your heart out, Junior.