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 baseball

The ball Ortiz smashed over the fence for his astounding 2,000th career hit. / Photograph by Toan Trinh

In 2012, the Red Sox were in a tailspin and finished dead last in the American League East. The team had fired Francona and let Epstein walk away the year before, and put the team in the hands of manager Bobby Valentine and Henry’s confidant, Larry Lucchino. So in 2013, the Sox had modest expectations and a new identity. But then the team went on an improbable run into the playoffs, where they faced the Detroit Tigers for another chance at a championship ring. After dropping Game 1 of the ALCS, the Red Sox trailed the Tigers 5–1 in the eighth inning of Game 2. Then Ortiz stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. What came next was perhaps the most memorable hit of his career, a game-tying grand slam against Joaquin Benoit that launched the Sox to a 6–5 victory and altered the course of the series.

Jim Leyland, former Tigers manager: Well, I think you know that you’ve got a real dangerous guy approaching the plate in a big situation, and you know he’s had a lot of big hits in big moments. So I went with my best reliever. I think Ortiz had mild success against Benoit—not a lot, nothing major. And Benoit had the best chance. But you know, when David steps up there, he’s been through a lot of big situations, been very successful. So you know there was a possibility he could come up with a big hit. I wasn’t thinking home run, that’s for sure. I figured if he gets a base hit, okay, it’s not the end of the world. If he drives in a couple of runs, it’s not the end of the world.

Rodriguez: We’re all fans, right? You think, “At some point, the magic has to stop with this guy,” but then he just keeps outdoing himself. It’s a great inspiration. It’s really amazing.

Leyland: To be honest with you, when he first hit it, I didn’t think it was a home run. I really didn’t. I saw [right fielder] Torii Hunter going back and I thought Torii was going to catch it.

Schilling: The grand slam in ’13—that’s unprecedented. I was at home watching. When he came up, I knew they wouldn’t get him out. And then when he hit it, I was like, “No fucking way.” And it wasn’t because I didn’t believe he could do it. It was more like, “This guy is incredible.”

Werner: We will never know if we could have won any World Series rings without David’s remarkable contributions. All he has done in World Series play is have a batting average of .455, an on-base percentage of .576, and an OPS of 1.372—which rank number one in history for players with a minimum of 50 plate appearances. We were right to give him that plaque 11 years ago [commemorating Ortiz as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history], and he continues to demonstrate Hall of Fame leadership both on and off the field.

 

david ortiz oral history baseball bat

Photograph by Toan Trinh

Last November, Ortiz announced that he will retire at the end of this season. During the first half of his final season, Ortiz is leading the majors in doubles and slugging percentage. Who knows how much magic he’s been saving for another championship run before he walks off the field and into the clubhouse for the final time?

Leyland: I remember the Boston Strong thing when he spoke and everything. So it’s been a nice marriage there for him, obviously. What an unbelievable career. I must say that I am a little bit shocked that he’s still doing what he’s doing now. I think it’s unbelievable.

Shaughnessy: It really boils down to this: It’s Ted Williams always and forever in my view. And I know Ted Williams didn’t win three championships and all that. First of all, numerically, it’s a joke. Just look at all the numbers. Five years of military service and all that. And if you read about Ted or know people who lived it, he was the largest figure in New England in the 20th century, except for John F. Kennedy. Ted Williams. The numbers of trees that were killed in his name and everything he did, he was the largest figure for, like, 22 years. And it just doesn’t go away.

But I think the argument for me now is, Ortiz, he’s number two—because of the number of championships, because of his career path and the clutch hits, his personality, the love of the fans. It really comes down to the Yaz thing in my view. Yaz was here for 23 years, but Yaz was almost a tragic figure. And David’s not. Yaz has admitted to me that he thinks David is bigger and the second-best Red Sox hitter ever. I don’t see where else you could go with it now.

Johnny Damon, former Red Sox outfielder: Any time you have a guy like David Ortiz who just seems to thrive in that postseason pressure—he wants to be the man in those spots and he’s made a hell of a career doing it. In the history of baseball, people are going to remember David Ortiz, and I know Yankees fans are going to be happy he’s not around.

Bud Selig, former baseball commissioner: There are some players who represent the game in any generation. I was proud of the fact that during my commissionership, we had somebody like Derek Jeter, who was really one of the faces of the game. And I’d say the same about David Ortiz.

Walsh: As far as what he’s meant to the city, it’s more than his career on the field. He’s become an iconic symbol for the city of Boston. When you watch his interaction with people—and I’m not just talking about mayors and movie stars—he interacts with real, everyday people, even if it’s just flipping a ball over the protective screen at Fenway Park.

Werner: David called John Henry and informed him that he had made the decision to retire after this season. When I spoke to David directly after that, I just said it was a privilege to have been a Boston Red Sox fan during this period and to have been lucky enough to have had a front-row seat for these many years.

— Extra —

The Big Papi Fan Club

Mark Wahlberg, Casey Affleck, and more talk David Ortiz.

— Plus —

Big Papi on Big Papi

David Ortiz, in his own words.