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.
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Ortiz delivers his iconic post–marathon bombings speech. / Photograph by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Rodriguez: I was in Texas. I had long, long talks with our owner, Tom Hicks, begging him to bring over David Ortiz.

Epstein: We expressed interest to Fern Cuza, David’s agent, and stayed in touch over the next month. In early January we had Dave Jauss [a former Red Sox coach] work David out at first base. Jaussy confirmed he was just passable at first base, but we would be getting a bat-first guy who was one of the best and most clutch power bats in the Dominican League. On January 15 we claimed first baseman Kevin Millar off release waivers. I continued to talk to Fern, and Pedro kept calling to lobby for David. It finally came together on January 22—a one-year deal for $1.25 million.

 

Even after signing Ortiz, the Red Sox didn’t really know what to do with him. In his first six weeks with the team, he batted .208 with 15 strikeouts. The Red Sox had a logjam of players at the corner infield positions, and Jeremy Giambi was ahead of him as the starting DH.  

Kevin Millar, former Red Sox first baseman: We were at the end of April, and Ortiz wasn’t playing much. I was getting most of the at-bats at first base, and Giambi was getting most of the DH at-bats—he was hitting .160 or .170 but had a good eye. Well, Ortiz hit a home run late in the game—basically a game winner in Anaheim—and we all knew. By this point, Ortiz and I had been together for six or seven weeks and we understood who should be starting. Players talk. And that Jeremy thing was getting a little tired from the players’ side because of lack of production.

Epstein: David was frustrated and pretty down, though he tried not to let it seep into the clubhouse. He sent Fern Cuza to see me, and we chatted in the player parking lot at Fenway after a game. Cuza said that David loved it in Boston, but that not being in the lineup was driving him crazy. He said David wanted to be traded unless we could get him in the lineup every day. I told Fern to give me a week and we’d find a way to get David in the lineup. On May 29, we made a trade and David was in there just about every day after that. He started hitting immediately—a .961 OPS in June—but he had only four home runs through June. The guys were teasing him a lot about it, calling him Juan Pierre [then a speedy, light-hitting outfielder with the Florida Marlins].

Millar: We’re on the plane and Ortiz is like, “That’s it. I’m going to call my agent and I want to be traded.” Look, I was a guy who was always in the manager’s office. I led the league in it, because it’s up to you to protect your career. No one else is. So my whole thing was, “Walk in the front door and go in and ask.” From that point on, he hit however many homers and had so many RBI, and Jeremy Giambi didn’t play much after that. So finally he put his foot down. He had that foundation of that home run. I remember this like it was yesterday. And David started turning into Big Papi.

Martinez has his own version of how Ortiz became the Red Sox’s everyday designated hitter, recalling a series at Philadelphia in June when he confronted then-manager Grady Little. According to Martinez, Little wrongfully disciplined Ortiz for leaving the clubhouse before the end of a game.

Martinez (in Big Papi): Somebody complained that David left, but the game was over. The next day I got really upset. David was supposed to be in the lineup [and wasn’t]. I snapped. I said, “Grady, don’t give me any of that bullshit.” He looked at me and he said, “Hey, don’t blame me. It’s not up to me.” And I said, “Well, you’re going to play him when I pitch. You’re going to start playing him in my games.” All of a sudden, David went boom, boom, boom. And he became who he is.

Werner: It became quickly apparent that David was a star. In 2003, in about 500 plate appearances, David slugged 31 home runs and had 41 additional extra-base hits. By contrast, in 156 plate appearances, Giambi managed five home runs.

 

In 2003, the slugging tandem of Ortiz and Manny Ramirez was emerging as among the best in the sport, and the Red Sox made the postseason. That winter, heading into the 2004 season, the Sox traded for starting pitcher Curt Schilling and hired manager Terry Francona to replace Little. By then, Ortiz was starting to become in Boston what he had been in Minnesota: a clubhouse leader who preached inclusion and had an infectious, positive, fun-loving presence. After the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot at Tampa Bay in 2004, the team had a wild postgame clubhouse celebration in which teammates aggressively sprayed beer and champagne on one another. In the midst of the chaos, Ortiz donned a pair of goggles and hooked a garden hose up to a sink in the bathroom and shower area. When he strode into the center of the room threatening to go nuclear, teammates literally ran for cover—and he bellowed like a Dominican Shrek.

Torii Hunter, former Minnesota Twins teammate (in Big Papi): It started in the minor leagues. David likes to cook. Tiffany [Ortiz’s then-girlfriend and now wife] would fly into town and he’d have a cookout, but he wouldn’t invite just me. He’d invite everyone. He’d buy the meat and the vegetables and everything, and he’d pay for it all. In the minor leagues, it was tough because you didn’t have the money. But he’d always have these [events] to keep everyone together. That’s what I remember about David Ortiz. He was our leader. I respected that. That’s when I realized he’s great, he’s cool, he’s a people person.

Curt Schilling, former Red Sox starting pitcher: He broke up a fight between me and Manny once. I think it was in ’05. Manny had the day off. Seth McClung [then with Tampa Bay] was pitching against us and he threw hard and, in the first few innings, it was like he was Sandy Koufax. David struck out and came back in the clubhouse and said something like, “Shit, that motherfucker is throwing haaaard.” And I said, “No shit.” Manny and I were sitting on opposite sides of the clubhouse and I was like, “Manny is no fool. He knows when to take a day off.” And Manny got pissed. He was like, “Fuck you!” And I was like, “Go fuck yourself.” And then—and I remember this—he put his shoes on first, and then he came charging at me. After he put his shoes on. And David intercepted him about halfway there.

Millar: He’s a better person than he is a player. There’s a warmness about David Ortiz that people don’t realize. Take away the bling, the swag—I’ve never seen him say no. I can’t say that about 90 percent of my teammates. And I’ve never seen him say no to a child.

Shaughnessy: There’s so much to like. Why wouldn’t any fan love this guy more than any player ever? I understand that. How could you not? My God. He’s delivered and he’s been great with the fans. He’s great with the old ladies, the little kids, and that’s just the way he is. He’s Father Christmas, you know?