Glory Days

David Ortiz, Señor Octubre

Once upon a time, Boston could only dream of winning a World Series. A seemingly endless stream of immortals toiled in search of just one championship, one celebration, one ring. Ted Williams. Johnny Pesky. Carl Yastrzemski. All fought with heavy heart and crafted skill, hoping against hope for a change in tide and a Red Sox victory. It never arrived. A new generation carried the fight, scrambling to within striking distance of baseball’s zenith before collapsing under the crippling weight of history. Buckner. Fisk. Clemens. The hex was too obstinate, management too conservative. It just wasn’t meant to be.

The resultant state of helplessness led many to believe that, in order for the Red Sox to win just one World Series, a miracle was needed. At very least, a revolution in thought and character may tip the balance. In 2004, those rare ingredients boiled inexorably in a Fenway pot. A cast of visionaries and believers and geniuses and idiots finally transformed a misshapen Red Sox culture to overcome extraordinary odds and win it all for the first time in 86 years. They did it again just three years later. In 2013, a new cast, with a new swagger, won Boston its third World Series in nine years. The journey from perennial failure to sustained success was complete.

Boston’s meteoric rise is inexplicably linked to that of its central icon. David Ortiz epitomises the worst-to-first hope and determination of these recent Red Sox teams. Once discarded by the Minnesota Twins, Ortiz journeyed to Boston as an underdog, a reclamation project, a bargain basement pick-up. In the ensuing twelve years, he’s morphed into one of baseball’s most feared hitters; he’s embraced leadership to become a fulcrum of power and positivity; he’s become Big Papi, a folkloric figure to millions of adoring fans. David Ortiz is the defining face of this Red Sox revolution; a true immortal excelling against all doubt. Sure, John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner provided fresh intellect and vibrant hope. Yes, Theo Epstein and John Harrington have enacted their supreme vision. Manny, Pedro, Schilling, Youk, Dustin Pedroia and even Dice-K played a part. But nobody in the past decade has been more important to the Boston Red Sox than David Ortiz, the fun-loving, clutch-hitting, behemoth leader. Where legends yearned and failed, Big Papi blasted on through. By sheer force of will, he became the rarest of beasts: a three-time World Series champion Red Sock. Just like Babe Ruth.

However, the tale of David Ortiz is blessed with even greater substance. One must look beyond the walk-off hits, the titanic home runs and the clutch domination to find his true worth in our modern game. Whilst those tremendous feats illuminate a fine career, we must recognise the spirit and character of this gentleman. Big Papi is tough. He has an insatiable desire for victory and immense expectations for his own performance. But, in almost a decade following baseball, I’ve rarely heard, nor seen written, a bad word about the Dominican slugger. In these turbo-charged times of abundant polemic, it’s always refreshing to watch, experience and root for Ortiz at the plate. Why? Well, because you know of his kindness, his generosity, his goodness. Nowadays, it’s difficult to watch millionaires squabbling on the diamond, or fraudsters cheating fans in the pursuit of illegal advantage. By contrast, Papi is a refreshing throwback to a simpler generation. A generation which upheld ideals of respect and solidarity and honour on the field. He knows that baseball is just a game, but acknowledges its inherent obligations. In striking such an equipoise, we see an old school hero who still makes contemporary baseball fun. In a baseball age obsessed with winning and gaining and profiting and beating to a pulp near rivals, we often forget to enjoy what we see. But, when David Ortiz advances to the bat, time stands still and those watching are shifted back to a golden era. It’s impossible not to relax, sit back and be transfixed. He’s just that cool.

As a kid, I would absorb it all. The mannerisms, the attitude, the outcome. David Ortiz would stride to the plate with wide, clumpy steps, a bat tucked under his arm. He seemed to hit only at crucial moments; with runners dancing on base and the ballpark throbbing to a beat of late-inning potential. The fans in attendance, cold at the onset of winter, cheer vigorously. A television audience dotted around the globe sits up, leans forward, studies attentively. It’s Big Papi, it’s October, it’s unmissable. At once, Ortiz is cuddly, grinning wildly on approach to the dish. He spits on those bright red batting gloves, scans the passionate crowd in genuine amazement, and wields the bat like a Samurai warrior. Now, Ortiz is driven. Now, Ortiz is focused. Now, Ortiz is mean. After settling into a cranky stance which looks weirdly comfortable, he peers out towards the mound. As time advances, his stare becomes more intense. I’ve rarely encountered a hitter more prone to rapt fascination at the plate. It’d be creepy if you didn’t know the character behind it. Again, the crowd picks up; a wave of noise, encouragement and belief whirling around venerable old Fenway. Once the pitcher finally summons the bravery to confront such a gargantuan force, Papi flicks the bat behind his head in readiness. The sense of history is axiomatic. Ortiz’ eyes, once void in the recesses of immense concentration, become inflamed as the spheroid approaches. He lets loose in the crude workings of opportunism, kicking and planting anew a hefty right leg before lashing at the ball. It screeches into orbit. Ortiz leans back, head tilted upon the consummation of another mighty swing, and watches it hopefully. He always seems last to know that the ball is long gone; maintaining a snarl whilst cautiously eyeing its progress. Inevitably, said ball lands in a maelstrom of arms and legs and ferocious emotion, out beyond the wall. All around, sheer bedlam ensues, as Big Papi finally acknowledges his latest blast. The grin returns as he bursts into life around the bases, hoisting an index finger to the skies or crashing his hands together with volcanic repercussions. The job done, Ortiz allows his avuncular side to flourish once more, with high-fives and chest-bumps and curtain calls. Thus, we see where this great man triumphs most: in marrying the brutal industry of power-hitting with the fine art of human decency.

Ortiz has been doing so for the best part of seventeen years, with Boston and Minnesota. The very nucleus of a burgeoning Red Sox dynasty, Ortiz is also the pre-eminent designated hitter in baseball history. He elevated that position to a science, a profession, a thing. No DH has more career hits, RBI or home runs than Papi. A nine-time All-Star, Ortiz sits at 431 career round-trippers entering 2014, when he’ll look to hit twenty bombs for a thirteenth straight season. Between 2000-2006, Papi managed to improve his home run output for seven consecutive years, beginning with 10 and ending with 54. Ortiz has averaged 35 homers and 118 RBI per season throughout an illustrious career. . Just last year, he collected his 2,000th hit, smacked 30 long balls and even won World Series MVP honours at the grand old age of 37.

Such an accolade represented a thorough rekindling of postseason heroism, with which Ortiz has been synonymous since that hallowed Red Sox season of ’04. If the Red Sox’ triumph over Babe Ruth’s demonic spirit was a team effort, Big Papi was Chief Ghost-Hunter. In perhaps the most magical month of play ever produced by a baseball player, Ortiz defied convention, pushed the boundaries of probability and opened an uncharted echelon of clutch hitting. It began in Game 3 of the ALDS against Los Angeles; Ortiz dispatching a fat Jarrod Washburn pitch over the Green Monster for a two-run, walk-off, sweep-clinching, series-winning bomb. The Fenway Faithful were in raptures and the scent of poetic hysteria wafted all around.

When the hated New York Yankees bustled and barged into a commanding three-games-to-none lead in the subsequent ALCS, that sense of impending destiny was all but wiped away. Even the most fervent Red Sox fanatic could muster little riposte when faced with the ominous task of competing against a rampant Yankee team which won Game 3 in a 19-8 blowout. No team in the storied history of Major League Baseball had ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven game postseason series. The general probability of a drained Red Sox team doing so was minuscule. Against the expensively-assembled, mystique-drenched, ruthless New York Yankees? They had practically no chance. It seemed like de ja vu all over again.

“Then came Ortiz, a six-foot-four, 260-pound slugger who was a teddy bear off the field and a grizzly in the batters box,” wrote Tony Massarotti in Big Papi, a collaborative biography written with, and telling the life story of, Ortiz. The Dominican, he concludes, was a fearless leader, “who delivered an impossible three consecutive playoff victories on the final pitch thrown, who relished the moment, who remained as warm as the spotlight, and who stayed, through it all, astonishingly unaffected.” Indeed, Big Papi managed to maintain an even-keeled approach whilst bedlam ensued all around. The faith which rattled inside his huge heart radiated throughout Red Sox Nation, calling all to up the powerful weapon of belief.

The Yankees came tantalizingly close to victory, but Ortiz and the Red Sox wouldn’t swallow the terminal pill. In the dying embers of Game 4, the immortal Mariano Rivera, baseball’s finest ever relief pitcher, came on to work a two-inning save and seal Yankee progression to a 40th World Series. At least, that’s how Steinbrenner scripted it. A lead-off, ninth-inning walk to Kevin Millar was uncharacteristic of Rivera, a stellar pitcher with ice water coursing melodically through his veins. Dave Roberts rattled Mariano, stealing second base as a pinch-runner and forcing a Red Sock into scoring position, from where Bill Mueller singled home an unlikely tying run.

Belief turned to hope.

After two-and-a-half extra frames, David Ortiz rumbled to the plate in the bottom of the 12th inning. Manny Ramirez, his lethal partner at the heart of a robust Red Sox offense, was on first following a lead-off single. The clock had long since ticked into a new day. The fans stood, numb with cold and anxiety. The moment was nigh. Ortiz received an 88-mph delivery from Paul Quantrill and, mustering every reserve of determination, strength and guts in the waning hours, sent the ball arching into the Yankee bullpen for another game-clinching bomb. The Red Sox had rebounded from the very brink of defeat with exceptional nerve, to win an epic game in an explosive manner. Retrospect tells us it was a fitting microcosm.

Hope turned to mild relief.

Just sixteen hours later, the multitudes were crammed once more into Fenway for Game 5. The enemies traded blows for fourteen innings, toiling through mental exhaustion and physical agony like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. It was a blood bath of raw human emotion. After nearly six hours of inch-for-inch baseball, the crowning moment again saved itself for Big Papi. The lovable slugger came to bat with two on and two out in the bottom of inning number fourteen. During a marathon at-bat which resembled a cold war between Ortiz and Esteban Loaiza, this game entered the record books as the longest ever in postseason history. It remains one of the most absorbing at-bats in baseball history; an at-bat dominated by Ortiz’ bullet-proof resilience. Finally, on the tenth pitch forced home by the tired Yankee hurler, Ortiz, equally fatigued, muscled a bloop single over the infield. Johnny Damon came racing around the bases with the wining run, igniting Fenway and sending this show of beguiling drama on the road to New York.

Mild relief turned feint expectation.

Ortiz had given Boston hope where once very little remained. At Yankee Stadium for the defining games in a scintillating Series, that new-found spirit was too powerful for even the Yankees to endure. You know the story by know. Every baseball fan does. Schilling pitches with guts and blood seeping from a mangled ankle as the ALCS is tied. Johnny Damon hits two home runs, including an iconic Grand Slam, and collects six RBI as the Red Sox run away with Game 7; a game in which Ortiz drilled yet another home run. Ultimately, Boston did it. Against unprecedented odds and a supposedly insurmountable foe, they completed the greatest comeback in the wide and expansive history of organised team sports. In the subsequent World Series, Boston simply overpowered St Louis, sweeping the Cardinals aside en route to destiny.

The Curse was reversed. Euphoria poured forth from New England.

At the heart of baseball’s greatest ever story was Ortiz, Señor Octubre. It’s a moniker which he has honoured with further postseason greatness, most notably in 2007 – when he hit .714 with 2 homer runs and six walks in a three-game ALDS with Cleveland before leading Boston to another World Series title – and last year – when his performance was just ridiculous! Not only did Papi hit two homers off Rays ace David Price in the ALDS, but he also clubbed a dramatic, game-tying Grand Slam in the 8th inning of Game 2 in subsequent NLCS, propelling the Sox to victory. Then, the absolute crowning glory: in the six-game World Series with St Louis, Ortiz hit .688 against a stable of power-pitching phenoms, launching long balls in the first two games, and driving in six runs. He was a unanimous selection for World Series MVP, and never has an accolade found a more deserving recipient.

When we think about clutch hitting, one player leaps forward in all our minds. Ortiz. Big Papi. The annals of history are slowly reflecting that reputation; Ortiz ranking in the top-10 all-time in postseason at-bats, plate appearances, runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, RBI and walks. No other player has ever hit two walk-off home runs in the same postseason. In combined World Series competition, Ortiz is hitting .455, whilst his remarkable average in last year’s Fall Classic was the second best of all-time; even better than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1928. Essentially, he ranks amongst the historic greats whenever a game is on the line. This appetite for the big moment, coupled with consistently-formidable regular season play, makes David Ortiz a true giant of baseball.

It wasn’t always so easy, however. David Américo Ortiz Arias was born in Santo Domingo, the capital of baseball-crazed Dominican Republic. The son of a promising pitcher who could only dream of playing in the Major Leagues, Ortiz played baseball from an early age, in the busy streets and on nearby dirty diamonds. On the poor sandlots which dot the Dominican, anything remotely spherical could be used as a ball, from socks to dolls heads. Similarly, mop handles and broomsticks would be filched from the cupboard just to keep the game alive. “Sometimes, we didn’t even need a real ball to play,” wrote Ortiz in Big Papi. “As long as it was something we could throw and hit, we could play baseball with it. I remember times where we would use a bottle cap for a ball because it was easy to make it curve or rise, dip or turn.”

Such a raw introduction to baseball must do wonders for ones hand-eye coordination.

Ortiz describes baseball as a Dominican “passion.” On the sequestered island, youngsters play ball for enjoyment, to maintain the vibrant beat of society, and in unending hope of making it to the United States. Every young player yearns to be spotted by buscones, who act as de facto street agents for Major League organisations, trawling the dusty fields and mining the sandlots in search of talent. Ortiz enrolled in a buscone-led program as a teenager and, after working hard and developing with guidance from his father, attracted the interest of a Florida Marlins scout in the early 1990s. Whilst the Marlins had yet to begin play in Major League Baseball, the organisation was attempting to accumulate a surplus of talent with which to work. Ortiz was a promising prospect, but an elbow injury led to his eventual release; a decision which the Dominican slugger still struggles to understand. Nonetheless, the hulking first baseman piqued the interest of Hector Alvarez, a local buscone who had watched Ortiz work-out with the Marlins and who disapproved of their decision to send him home. Eventually, Alvarez welcomed Ortiz into his Santo Dominican program and, in 1992, used his connections within the Seattle Mariners franchise to present Big Papi with the opportunity he so craved.

Admittedly, Seattle had little to lose in signing a talented Dominican kid for £7,500 outside the Draft, but Ortiz was determined to make the most of his chance. He produced some very big seasons in the Dominican Summer League and low minor leagues, but was eminently dispensable. When the big club needed an offensive upgrade in the closing stages of 1996, Ortiz was the Player To Be Named Later in a deal for Twins third baseman Dave Hollins. Oh, how history could have been different!

Ortiz spent six frustrating seasons within a rebuilding Minnesota Twins organisation. During this era, Twins GM Terry Ryan had a finite budget; his an operation in cost-effective roster construction which left little room for sentiment or affection. If a player’s stock rose above a certain level, the Twins had little alternative but to cut their cloth accordingly. Therefore, management sought to keep their players living on the edge, fearful of demotion and yearning for appreciation, so as to squeeze every drop of baseball talent from an imperfect roster. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen, would have been an appropriate slogan for a Twins organisation cast in the shadow of Bud Selig’s looming contraction axe.

The austere philosophy didn’t sit well with many players, Ortiz chief amongst them. “I felt like they spent more time tearing us down than building us up,” wrote Ortiz, who was mishandled by taciturn manager Tom Kelly. “The Twins weren’t teaching us the right way. They wanted us to give up power to get a single to the opposite field, especially with two strikes, and that didn’t make much sense to a guy like me. I’d hit home runs all my life, dude. I’m a big man. I want to get my arms extended and swing from my ass, but the Twins didn’t want me to do that.”

The emphasis on small-ball, fundamentals and intricate nuances was perhaps in the Twins best interests. They had neither the financial flexibility nor the manager to accommodate long ball hitters. This led to confusion, frustration and stagnation in the career of David Ortiz. Effectively, the Twins treated him like a Quadruple-A player: occasionally impressive at the Major League level, yet never more than a phone call away from another tour down on the farm at Salt Lake, where he was exceedingly productive. Ortiz felt uncomfortable, insecure, and unwanted. He struggled to translate his minor league potency to big league consistency; in large part because the expectations of what he should be as a hitter were polar opposites at different levels. “I started changing my swing and my approach,” Ortiz recalls ruefully. “I had trouble being the same hitter I was in the minors.”

Nonetheless, the slugger maintained respectability, even if the Twins did nullify his inner slugger by urging him to “hit like a little bitch.” In parts of six Major League seasons with some pretty dreary Minnesota teams, Ortiz played in 455 games, hit .266, with 58 homers and 238 RBI. Ultimately, his gradual progression mirrored that of the organisation, who threw off the shackles under the aegis of Ron Gardenhire to reach the American League Championship Series in 2002. It was perhaps Ortiz’ most productive season in Minnesota; his 20 home runs and 75 RBI helping a Twins team which won 94 games. However, just as with other Minnesota players who outgrew their modest surroundings, Ortiz was released as a cost-saving measure. The first baseman was eligible for salary arbitration during the winter, with his annual wage projected to reach $2 million. Such a figure was prohibitive for a penny-pinching Twins organisation which figured it could easily replace Ortiz’ production for much cheaper through free agency or, in Doug Mientkiewicz and Justin Morneau, their own system. Again, Ortiz was expendable, and the Twins didn’t wait around.

In Boston, young starlet GM Theo Epstein was inculcating a similar ethos of fiscal responsibility, but in a much grander context. Boston was swilling in money, but Epstein’s baseline philosophy must have been strikingly familiar to Terry Ryan: maximise production from a blend of undervalued players. In new ownership, Boston had the security to elect that path of their own volition, and also had the financial muscle to sign almost any player befitting the vision, but the core principles were transferable. Theo just had a much bigger crumple zone with which to work.

In early 2003, Epstein began searching for ways to add cheap offensive power at first base and designated hitter. As Seth Mnookin recounts in his exceptional Feeding the Monster, “the team had compiled a list of about 15 first basemen and designated hitters who might be available for a discount. They’d gotten Jeremy Giambi and still hoped to get [Kevin] Millar. As a backup, they had pursued options like free agents Brad Fulmer, Greg Colbrunn and Travis Lee. Another name on the list belonged to a burly 27-year old Dominican left-handed hitter: David Ortiz.”

Epstein, a revolutionary blessed with daring iconoclasm, attempted to re-write the paradigm of roster creation during his early years in Boston. Whilst seeking new analytic advantages with the help of guru Bill James, Theo attempted to mesh the human opinions of long-time scouts into his decision-making process. In the case of Ortiz, all indicator came back positive. The coaches liked his loose personality around a clubhouse; scouts loved his compact swing; statisticians were intrigued by flow charts which suggested Ortiz would benefit immensely from Fenway’s cozy dimensions. Ultimately, Epstein took an informed gamble. At $1.25 million for one year, the stakes were minimal, but the eventual gain transformed the course of Red Sox history.

Once injuries forced an early reconfiguration to the Millar-Ortiz-Giambi platoon, Big Papi finally got his chance to play everyday. During the 2003 season, he mashed 31 home runs, drove in 101 runs and solidified his place at the heart of a Red Sox revival. In subsequent years, a galaxy of stars would rotate around Ortiz, helping to alter the path of Boston sporting heritage. Manny, Pedro, Johnny Damon, Schilling. All played a major part in helping the Sox rise from the ashes of despair, in enacting the prosperous vision of youthful front office technicians, in finally winning a World Series with the Olde Towne Team. But Papi is the defining face of this renaissance; his a journey from castoff to champion just like Boston itself. It’s his heroics which we all remember. He represents the very essence of Red Sox baseball.

It was a real treat to watch David Ortiz in his prime. I have many fond memories of his exploits at the plate. Big Papi was just the greatest hero any young kid could wish to have. I collected his cards, action figures and jerseys; I replicated his clutch domination in the fields of my imagination; I raced to the computer every morning to check the boxscore from the previous night, especially to see whether Manny or Ortiz, my two favourite players, had gone deep. A lot of times, he did. In 2004, Papi crashed 41 dingers; that number rose to 47 in ’05. No Red Sox player has hit more home runs in a single season than the 54 he produced in 2006. Not Williams. Not Foxx. Not Yastrzemski. I lived through those halcyon years, when pure baseball magic would pour relentlessly from ones television on a near-nightly basis. David Ortiz was a major part of that.

One particular occasion sticks in my mind. When Channel Five showed live baseball on terrestrial TV here in Britain, the broadcast wasn’t aloud to run past 6 am, thus maintaining the sanctity of breakfast news programming. However, such a deadline can be difficult, given the time difference. On rare occasions, the show would end before a game – perhaps delayed by rain or slow play – reached its natural conclusion, leaving diehards stranded in searing loneliness at dawn. I vividly recall this one time, when I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, whereby a pulsating Red Sox-Yankees encounter was taken off-air at the most crucial juncture. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but the two teams must have been sparring through another of their titanic extra-inning confrontations. Again, the exact count and inning eludes me, but Ortiz drove in what must have been the tying run, igniting pandemonium at Fenway and putting the winning run in scoring position. As ever, I was caught-up in the roaring cauldron of high-octane baseball, entirely oblivious to morning’s encroachment at my bedroom window. All nerves, tension and cutting-edge anxiety was released like air from a balloon when Channel Five pulled the plug. The last image before vibrant kids programs exploded onto our screens: David Ortiz striking his hands together in a display of encouragement towards Manny at the plate. Of all the cliffhanging conclusions in the world, you chose this? I was apoplectic!

Of course, with time, such memories become coated with aching nostalgia.

When David Ortiz retires, he will have so many souvenirs to cherish, so many achievements about which to reminisce, and so many recollections of baseball’s golden age. What, I wonder, will be his absolute defining moment; the moment which encapsulates his heart, his skill and his significance; the moment which will be replayed repeatedly to new generations watching his Hall of Fame induction? Will it be his postseason heroics in ’04, ’07 and ’13? The home run he hit in 2011 to join Williams, Yastrzemski, Rice and Evans as only the fifth Red Sock to hit 300 home runs? What about that time Papi finished third in the Boston Mayoral race after garnering hundreds of write-in votes?

Whatever the defining motif of this gentleman, his legacy is assured. From the dusty Dominican streets, David Ortiz ascended to the very peak of baseball’s highest mountain. Along the way, he suffered many setbacks; he was a Player to Be Named Later, a released free agent, a bargain basement pick-up. However, once Terry Francona plugged him into that Red Sox lineup with increased regularity, both parties never looked back. Ortiz became a break-out performer, a megastar hero, an indispensable immortal. The Red Sox won three World Series in nine years after managing just four in the preceding century.

Boston and Big Papi. They were made for one another.

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