The Papi Monologues
He usually lets his bat do most of the talking. Now, at the start of a new season, there are a few things Big Papi himself wants you to know. Like the real reason he points to the sky after those heroic home runs. What he really thinks about the Yankees. And how TV makes him look a little, um, portly, bro.
I’m not really sure how it started, bro. I have no idea. After I started playing for the Red Sox, I would walk around the clubhouse and talk to guys, and I started calling them papi. In the Dominican Republic, we use the word all the time, like Americans would use buddy or pal. In Boston, before we knew it, everybody on the team was calling everyone else papi, and it wasn’t too long before the name somehow belonged to me.
Wherever I go now, bro, that’s what people call me.
I want to tell you something funny, bro: Anytime I go somewhere, people expect me to be fat. I’m serious.
They all tell me the same thing: I look fatter on TV. I’m a big dude—I’m 6 foot 4 and between 255 and 260 pounds—but I try to take pretty good care of myself. Even my teammates give me shit about it sometimes. But I wear a really big uniform that must make me look fat on TV. I like it baggy. I have a 40-inch waist and a 34-inch leg—so my real pants size is 40×34—but the ones I wear in the games have a 46-inch waist and a 40-inch leg. I like the uniform to be loose so I can move my arms and legs.
My mom and pop usually called me David, though in Spanish it’s pronounced more like Dah-veed. When my pop was mad, I could tell just by the way he changed his voice. Dah-veed would become Dah-VEED. We lived in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic until I was about 14 or 15, when we moved to an area outside the city called Haina. The streets were mostly made of dirt. We didn’t live far from the high school, where I played both basketball and baseball, and most of the fun we had was out in the street, in front of our homes, where kids and parents would get together and hang out, listen to music and have fun. And, of course, play baseball. Sometimes, we didn’t even need a real ball to play. I remember times when we would use a bottle cap for a ball because it was easy to make it curve or rise, dip or turn. I’ve always been able to hit a curveball, and I think one of the big reasons is because I learned how to hit a bottle cap with a broomstick when I was growing up.
By the time my mom and pop split up, it was probably for the best. My parents were arguing a lot. So when my parents finally split up, I think my sister Albania and I were actually relieved. My pop ended up getting remarried and had another child—my half-sister, Yacili—and I think it all worked out for the best. Believe it or not, I was actually a little shy as a kid and I didn’t like confrontation. (I still don’t.) I think that’s part of what made things so hard in our house when my mom and dad were arguing.
It was New Year’s Day 2002 and we had just celebrated Christmas, and I was driving with my pop when I got a call from Albania’s boyfriend. He told us that we needed to come right away. It took me eight minutes to get there. That’s not a long time. But that’s how long it took for me to find out that my life had changed. That I’d lost my mom. She had been in a car accident.
The car was on the side of the road when we got there. The driver fell asleep and hit a dump truck, and my mom was killed instantly. We’re pretty sure she had no pain. We were devastated. I don’t know how else to describe it.
I think about her all the time. After my mom died, I got a big tattoo of her face on my right arm. She’s still there, still watching out for me. People ask me sometimes why I point to the sky after I hit a home run, and I tell them that I’m thanking God. But I’m also thanking my mom.
I was just 21 when I got to the majors for the first time, in 1997, and I was still a little shy and sensitive. The Twins manager at the time—his name was Tom Kelly but everyone called him TK—was kind of a hard-ass. If you screwed up, you were gone. A lot of us felt like we couldn’t make a mistake.
The next year, things started to go wrong from the beginning. With a big son-of-a-bitch like me—and with a lineup that didn’t have much power—the last thing you’d want me to do is swing like a little son-of-a-bitch. That’s obvious, right? Most managers want a guy like me to swing from my ass up there because I can hit the ball out of the ballpark. But with TK, it was the opposite. After a while, it got a little frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get myself in trouble. So I started changing my swing and my approach.
And then, in the spring of 1999, a funny thing happened. I didn’t make the team. I didn’t know what to do. A couple of days before the Twins sent me back to Triple-A, my pop called me and said, “Stay there, I’ll be there in a couple of hours.” I was confused and I said to him, “Where are you, Pop?” He told me he was at the Miami airport. He already had flown over from the Dominican.
I thought my career was over, bro. The next day, I was still in bed when my pop knocked on my bedroom door. He stuck his head in the room and told me, plain and simple, “Time to go to work.” I got my shit together and went to the ballpark. I didn’t waste any time. I spent almost the whole year in Triple-A and hit .315 with 30 homers and 110 RBI, my best year in the minors. I was killin’ again. The Twins called me up in September.
When I look back now, how lucky was I? What happens to someone who doesn’t have parents like that, who care for their kids, who really talk to them and straighten them out and point them in the right direction?
After the 2002 season ended, I knew there was a chance I was not going back to Minnesota. I never thought it would happen the way it did. I was released. Not long after that, I was out to dinner at a restaurant in the Dominican named Vesuvio when I ran into Pedro Martinez and his cousin. We started to talk. Pedro made a call to Jack McCormick, the Red Sox’s traveling secretary, and I think Jack called Theo Epstein. It didn’t take too long for Epstein to call my agent, Fernando Cuza, and before I knew it we had a deal.
What if Pedro hadn’t made that phone call, bro? What if I had signed somewhere else? What if I didn’t get the chance to play in Boston, where people are as crazy about baseball as they are in the Dominican?
In the first spring training game I played for the Red Sox—in my first at-bat—the pitcher threw me a sinker away and I pulled a ground ball to second base (on purpose), just so we could move the runner to third. That was the way we played in Minnesota—move the runners, hit to the situation—so I assumed that was what the Red Sox wanted.
But Grady Little pulled me aside and told me: Swing away. The Red Sox wanted me to bring runners in, to drive the ball, because that’s why they brought me here. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. I felt like I just got out of jail, bro.
After we won the World Series, the whole city was going crazy. People were yelling out our names everywhere we went and we all felt like heroes. The day we had the parade we took the duck boats through the streets in downtown Boston. When we drove off the road and pulled into the Charles River, I looked at everybody and I was like, “How is this going to float, dude?” It was really cold outside and I don’t really like the water, so I put on a life vest. Everybody cracked up.
There were companies that wanted me to do endorsements and all kinds of deals, and my agents and I didn’t know where to start. It all happened almost overnight. It wasn’t even two years before that the Twins had released me, and now there were so many people who wanted to do deals with us that we had to figure out when we say yes and when we say no. In some ways, I think it was easier to step in the batter’s box and get the hits.
I ended up on the cover of a Wheaties box. Pedro and I got invited to Disneyworld. I even went out to Los Angeles and did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Even after we committed to Leno, he and his people were still calling us, just to make sure we were coming. No matter where we went, no matter who else was there, I felt like the biggest star there. The whole thing was incredible.
Because we beat the Yankees in 2004—because we basically have to fight them every year—fans ask us all the time if we hate them as much as they do. Let me tell you, bro: We don’t hate them at all. We really respect them. For all of the shit that has happened between us and the Yankees over the last few years, let me tell you what I remember the most. On Opening Day in 2005, there was a pregame ceremony to give us our championship rings. As luck would have it, the Yankees were the team standing in the third base dugout getting ready to play us. They had to watch us get our rings. Know what the Yankees did? They stood there and cheered just like everybody else. It was one of the classiest things I’ve ever seen a team do.
I don’t like talking about this too much, but let me tell you a little bit about what happened to me last year when the Yankees were in town. On the first day of the series we played a double-header and lost both games, getting outscored 26–15. It was a long and frustrating day. Later on, I was at home just hanging out with my wife, Tiffany, when my chest started beating really fast. Tiff noticed it, too. It made us nervous, but then it went away and we didn’t think anything of it.
The next day, it came back. I mentioned something to Tito (our manager, Terry Francona), and we decided that I should come out of the game and get it checked out. One of our team doctors, Dr. Larry Ronan, decided we should go to the hospital and have some tests done, so he drove me over to Massachusetts General Hospital. We took a back way into the hospital so nobody would see us. I spent the night there, just to be sure, and the next day they released me.
Know what the problem was?
I don’t like to lose.
I signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in January 2003 and I was 27 years old. A lot of people thought I was never going to be more than what I was at the time, a part-time designated hitter who had some power but wasn’t productive enough to play every day.
Now, four years later, even strangers know my name. The Red Sox have won a World Series. I was the Most Valuable Player of the 2004 American League Championship Series and I got more votes than any other player for the 2005 All-Star Game. I’m proud of those things, bro, but I’ll tell you the truth: I still can’t believe it myself sometimes. That’s why now, going into 2007, I laugh when I take the field and I hear people call out my name like I’m some movie star or heavyweight champion, or one of those dudes that make me get excited.
I mean, my pop still calls me Dah-veed.
It’s the rest of the world that calls me Big Papi.
From Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits by David Ortiz with Tony Massarotti. Copyright © 2007 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.