Big Love: An Oral History of David Ortiz

Over the course of 14 seasons, he’s thrilled us, inspired us, amused us, embraced us, and brought us three World Series titles. As David Ortiz winds down his storied career with the Sox, an all-star lineup—including Curt Schilling, Alex Rodriguez, Theo Epstein, Jackie MacMullan, Marty Walsh, Tom Werner, and Rob Gronkowski—tells the inside story of how a one-time baseball reject reinvented himself as Big Papi and became a Boston legend.
david ortiz oral history

Photograph by Boston Globe/Getty Images

For all that he has accomplished on the lawn at fabled Fenway Park, the most iconic moment of David Ortiz’s career may have come when he was holding not a baseball bat but a microphone. In the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Ortiz was the face of the Red Sox and the voice of an entire region, the word “Boston” emblazoned on his chest. Ortiz was not merely a player you cheered for. He was a neighbor. He was a father and a husband. He was one of us.

“These jerseys that we’re wearing today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston,’” Ortiz boomed, standing in the middle of Fenway the Saturday after the bombings. “We want to thank you—Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department—for the great job that you did this past week.

“This is our fucking city—and nobody is going to dictate our freedom,” Ortiz continued, his heartfelt words taking a moment to resonate before inducing wild applause. “Stay strong.”

And with that, David Ortiz cemented his place not solely in the history of the Red Sox, but in the history of Boston.

Ted Williams may forever hold the title of best Red Sox player, but over the past 14 years David Ortiz has claimed the title of most clutch—and most beloved. How did it happen? As he winds down his final season, those who’ve had a front-row seat remember the stories and the moments that turned Big Papi into a Boston legend.

Mayor Marty Walsh: You get goose bumps [listening to the marathon speech]. At that point, Mayor Tom Menino was sick and we were all in a state of shock, fear—and Big Papi made a statement about our city. He basically put a stake in the ground, and that helped in the healing process. He was speaking for a lot of people. I don’t advocate that athletes use that language, but he certainly drove his point home.

Tom Manchester, vice president of field marketing for Dunkin’ Donuts: My oldest daughter ran the marathon that year. She finished one minute before the bombs went off. So I think for me personally when he gave that speech, he could have dropped the F-bomb 10 times and it really wouldn’t have mattered to me because I was feeling that way and I think he articulated what all of New England was feeling.

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: No one else can speak for that team like he can. He is the face of that franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put a statue outside of Fenway and have a road named after him. He deserves it. To win three championships and not just be on the roster, but be the main cog that stirs it up; if you’re a Red Sox fan, there’s going to be a huge vacancy when he leaves—a huge hole.

Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe columnist: He made a good representative for today’s city and today’s culture and today’s people. I’m a little prudish about that [language] in public, because, I don’t know, we tell our kids not to do it, why is it okay there? But hey, it was a great moment, a great moment for the city. Epic. Iconic. He’s speaking from the heart. And that’s what we love about David Ortiz. He speaks from the heart.

 

Truth be told, before he became Big Papi, David Ortiz was a two-time loser. Originally signed by the Seattle Mariners as a 17-year-old in November 1992, he played for four long years with the team’s Rookie and Class-A affiliates, the lowest levels of professional baseball, before Seattle finally traded him to the Minnesota Twins. “We had some [scouts] in the Midwest League and we had a couple of people recommend Ortiz,” current Twins general manager Terry Ryan told me several years ago while I was researching the book I co-authored with Ortiz, Big Papi. The Twins sent him to the Instructional League in Florida, where Minnesota coaches first heard the sound that would eventually echo throughout major league ballparks for 20 years: the crack of Papi’s bat.

Six years later, faced with both a roster crunch and a modest payroll, Ryan and the Twins chose to release Ortiz. Looking back, the decision launched a series of events that changed the history of the Red Sox.

Terry Ryan, Twins general manager: The day I released him, well, that wasn’t a good day. Ultimately it was a baseball decision. Obviously, it wasn’t a good decision, and David has gone on to heights no one expected, or I wouldn’t have done what I did. There’s not much I can say. Everyone knows what he’s done for the Red Sox. There’s no secret here and nothing to run from. We made a mistake.

Ortiz was distraught after the Twins released him. That night, in his native Dominican Republic, he dined at an Italian restaurant called Vesuvio, where he ran into fellow countryman and Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez. Hoping his friend could join the Sox, Martinez left voice-mail messages for both Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick and the team’s young general manager, Theo Epstein, urging them to sign Ortiz.

Theo Epstein, former Red Sox general manager: After I was named GM on November 25, 2002, we had a meeting with all the guys in the office to discuss the off-season. We knew we had a top-heavy offense and wanted to acquire a few more quality hitters to deepen our lineup, to make it more relentless. At that meeting, we made a list of the available first base and DH bats out there to try to get them in the right order. We discussed Ortiz because it seemed possible that Minnesota would release him. I liked his bat from my time with San Diego when I tracked the Twins’ farm system. Bill James and the numbers guys liked him, as he had been a consistent offensive performer throughout most of his pro career. Our scouts felt he was a talented hitter with some holes, but who didn’t have holes? Later in the off-season, Pedro Martinez called to recommend him and swore by his personality and character.

Tom Werner, Red Sox chairman: Credit Pedro Martinez for recommending to Larry [Lucchino], John [Henry], and me that we sign Ortiz. It was December 2002, and the Twins had surprisingly released David. We called Theo, whose initial response was unenthusiastic. But we trusted Pedro’s judgment.