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 world series championship rings

Three World Series rings and an MVP ring make for a fistful of bling. / Photograph by Michael Ivins/Red Sox

Jackie MacMullan, former Globe sports columnist and current writer at ESPN: Everything in Boston is about race, you know? And I just never felt like it ever was with David. Am I wrong about that? He’s colorblind. And people were colorblind when it just came to flat-out adoring this huge Dominican hulk of a man. What a great gift to give to the Red Sox franchise, which has its own dark history, and to their fans. He made our city colorblind. I’m always appreciative of that, that he was capable of doing that with his charm and his charisma, and his willingness to give back. I still think there’s just a genuine kindness about him that has transcended color, race, gender, age, everything. And those are the best kind of superstars.

 

The 2003 season established Ortiz as a force in the Red Sox lineup, but he climbed another rung in 2004, starting to regularly deliver the clutch hits that made him the Reggie Jackson of his time, Señor Octubre.

Rodriguez: Going back to 1996, he’s had the clutch gene in him from day one. He was a clutch player in A-ball. He was a clutch player with Escogido in the Dominican Republic. Every time he came up in Minnesota, he seemed to get a big hit even though he was platooning with Doug Mientkiewicz. We’ve all been watching and we’ve all had a great seat—unfortunately for us, a little too close sometimes. The combination of him and Manny Ramirez was just prolific. It seemed like there were 10 of them. They seemed to hit every inning. I was like, “Are they up again?”

Schilling: The sabermetrics people go ape shit when you talk about clutch because there’s no way to quantify it. But it exists. As a player, I know it exists.

 

During the 2004 season, Ortiz batted .301 with 41 home runs and 139 RBI to help lead his team into the playoffs. Ahead two games to none in a best-of-five series against the Anaheim Angels, Ortiz stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning. Facing lefty Jarrod Washburn, he parked a game-winning homer over the Green Monster and carried the Sox into the second round of the playoffs against the Yankees.

Millar: The homer against Washburn probably started setting the stage for this—I don’t know what you’d call it other than confidence, swagger. Whatever went into his soul, from that point on he turned into the biggest, greatest postseason RBI guy in the history of the game. Derek Jeter hit .308 for many years, on that stage, in the postseason. But the damage that David Ortiz did is another click better than what Derek Jeter did. And that’s saying something.

Nine days later, the Yankees were murdering the Sox, three games to none, on the brink of ending Boston’s championship dreams for the second year in a row. Down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning with nobody out, Millar drew a walk and the speedy Dave Roberts entered the game as a pinch runner. As it neared midnight at Fenway, suddenly the team’s hopes flickered back to life, the sequence of events now serving as a refrain to the greatest postseason comeback in the history of Major League Baseball.

Roberts stole second. Bill Mueller singled. The game was tied.

And the season marched on.

Werner: After our devastating loss in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2003, John [Henry] and I discussed the fact that we might not get that close to playing in the World Series for quite some time. But our 2004 team had enormous talent, both offensively and defensively. We were in our box in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS, and I was working on a statement of congratulations to the Yankees for again vanquishing us, when someone said, “Roberts just stole second base.”

With the game tied in the bottom of the 12th inning, the season hung in the balance. Ramirez singled and took a short lead at first base. At 1:22 a.m., Ortiz dug in against Yankees pitcher Paul Quantrill.

Epstein: I was sitting with the other baseball ops guys in the scout section at Fenway, about a dozen rows up behind home plate. I remember really liking the Quantrill matchup because of the sinker and David handling the low ball out over the plate well.

Schilling: It was a bad matchup for Quantrill. A guy like him, he liked to run his two-seamer back in against left-handed batters. And David just didn’t back off the plate. So the ball was going to run right to the barrel of his bat.

Epstein: Quantrill tried to jam him inside, and David did a great job bringing in his hands, which was one of the holes that he really closed up after joining the Sox. And then he homered. We went nuts, sort of pig-piling on each other briefly in the scout section before running down into the clubhouse.

Paul Quantrill, former Yankees pitcher: He’s such a good hitter in general. But Fenway made him a different hitter, especially for a pitcher like me, because he could take you over that wall in left field. When I pitched to him in the 2004 playoffs, I tried to get inside and it didn’t quite work out—at least for me.

The Sox were still alive in the title hunt, and Ortiz was just getting started. The very next day, Game 5 had lasted a record-setting five hours and 49 minutes when Ortiz walked up to the plate in the 14th inning. With the score tied, Johnny Damon stood at second base and Esteban Loaiza looked down from the mound.

Epstein: By that time, he was coming through so often for us it seemed as if the whole ballpark was just waiting for his turn in the order to come around. It was an awful lot of responsibility for someone, a surreal amount really. And then David finally muscled a jam shot into center field to bring Damon home for the victory.

Millar: The at-bat off Loaiza was probably one of the greatest at-bats in Red Sox history. It ended up being a broken bat, base hit, walk-off knock. That was a 10-pitch at-bat. He put us on his back for two games—we were down three games to none—and said, “You know what, guys, I got this.” David Ortiz turned into Big Papi that year.

Epstein: We pig-piled again and made that sprint through the stands down to the clubhouse. I remember being a little carried away by the euphoria of the moment, telling the writers it was one of the best baseball games ever played or something like that. We were all on an Ortiz-fueled high. He had put us on his back and single-handedly delivered us back to New York. I remember seeing him later in the clubhouse and he was drained by the emotional burden of the whole thing…he looked in a quiet moment like a guy who knew he could use a little bit of help the next two games.

Werner: October 18, 2004, could be the greatest single day in club history because Ortiz won Game 4 with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning after 1 a.m. that night, and then, on the same calendar day, in Game 5 Ortiz hit a 14th-inning walk-off single off Esteban Loaiza!