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 bobblehead

Photograph by Toan Trinh

The Sox battled back to tie the series at three games apiece, winning Game 6 in New York behind Schilling in what forever became known as “The Bloody Sock Game.” The next night, in the first inning of Game 7, Damon was on second base when Ramirez whistled a single past Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter into left field. After Damon was thrown out at the plate and dejectedly returned to the dugout, Ortiz stepped up and homered once again—propelling the Red Sox to victory and earning him the series MVP. Then came a World Series matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals, which brought the Sox their first championship in 86 years.

Schilling: Johnny got thrown out at the plate. And it was like, “Oh, crap.” Then David hit the next pitch out and we were up, 2–0. And it was like, “Okay, everything’s going to be fine.” I always felt like that hit won us the World Series.

Rodriguez: I think that was the birth of Big Papi. When you think about what he did against us, I think we both felt that whoever won that series was going to be world champs. I think we felt that in our hearts. It was a pick-your-poison situation. They had us cornered because if it wasn’t Big Papi, it was going to be Manny. We were forced constantly to pitch to Big Papi—and he made us pay every time.

 

Over the following years, Ortiz’s legend grew—he set a Boston record in 2006 with 54 home runs and helped the Sox win a second World Series title in 2007—nearly as fast as his popularity. From public events with the mayor and his own charity golf tournament to a line of hot sauces and salsa to serving as spokesman for Vitaminwater, JetBlue, and Dunkin’ Donuts, Big Papi and his infectious smile were everywhere.

Tom Manchester, of Dunkin’ Donuts: He’s got a very high level of appeal that cuts across a lot of different demographics. He’s not only relevant to hard-core baseball lovers, he is also relevant to casual fans. He cuts across ethnicities. He cuts across age groups and genders. So old guys like me love him. Young females like my two daughters in their twenties love him.

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end and Dunkin’ spokesman: Doing the Dunkin’ Donuts commercials with him and just listening to him sing in his Dominican Republic–type voice, his accent, it was just awesome.

Still, Ortiz’s career in Boston was not all good. In 2009, the New York Times identified him as one of more than 100 major leaguers who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during 2003.

Werner: A lot has been written about the 2009 New York Times report, which identified players who allegedly had tested positive in 2003 for performance-enhancing drugs—test results, incidentally, which were supposed to be confidential. I just want to say that there are a lot of uncertainties regarding that list. There are more names on the list [104] than the number of positive tests [96], and the lawyers who leaked that list never identified which drugs were detected in which players.

Epstein: I just remember the shock all around, and then meeting together, trying to figure out how to protect him publicly and manage the crisis that day so he could get just a little bit of time and space to respond the right way. He was so surprised and so disoriented by the report. We just had to get through that day so he could determine what had happened and how to respond.

MacMullan: I remember being at the park during the whole steroid flap. He was mad at everybody. He was swinging the bat [aggressively]. And he was giving me this interview and he was doing it in front of all the beat writers. He knew what he was doing. And he was so angry. But then he went out for batting practice and there was this little kid who was clearly disabled. And he was yelling Ortiz’s name. And here’s this guy who two minutes earlier was swinging his bat as hard as he could to take someone’s head off, and he stopped, and he waved to the kid, and the next thing you know he’s in the stands with the kid. So I think that’s why he resonates with people.

Werner: I have always believed that David never bought or used steroids, and he has vigorously denied doing so whenever asked. One reporter, Dan Shaughnessy, of the Boston Globe, even tied Ortiz’s alleged use to the fact he was from the Dominican Republic, an over-the-top example of stereotyping. The fact is that since the implementation of a drug program by MLB in 2004—called the strongest in all of sports by outside experts—Ortiz has been tested more than 50 times, and we have been informed that he has never tested positive.

In addition to the allegations of steroid use, Ortiz suffered a wrist injury and endured his worst season for the Sox in 2009—batting a lowly .238—which strained his relationship with the organization, particularly with manager Terry Francona. At one point, there was media speculation that the team was ready to dump the All-Star.

Francona: By then, he was more of a veteran presence. I’d been with him for several years. The relationships had become cemented. We went through some tough times later, and thankfully we had something to fall back on.

Epstein: That was a very uncomfortable time for all involved, most of all for David, of course. David wants to perform and help his team win so badly—and takes it so personally—that it’s hard on him in those rare stretches when he’s not hitting. Whether people were treating him differently or not during that stretch, he felt they were and I know that bothered him, as it would anyone.

Francona: I believed David would come out of it, but it was hard. It was hard for me. I always prided myself on being loyal.

Epstein: Of course, we had internal discussions about the longer-term future and strategizing about different scenarios, but we were never close to making a move. I think there’s a tendency to take a performer like that for granted, and it rattles your view of everything during a slump like that. It was a huge relief when he started to hit and things were back to normal.