BOSTON (CBS) — My oldest son is 12 years old now, born in August 2004, only weeks before David Ortiz produced the heroics of that October. Just recently, we were driving when I played him a brief compilation of Ortiz’s greatest words and works.
“Dad,” he said quite simply and without any prodding. “I’m going to miss him.”
Me too, buddy.
So whaddaya say, Red Sox followers? Let’s belly up to the bar for one more October, let’s have one more for the road. Ortiz has undergone many transformations in his career, from David Arias to David Ortiz to who he is now, arguably the most impactful Red Sox player in history. “Big Papi” was born in October, after all, and that is where he should retire. In the playoffs. On baseball’s grandest stage. With the chance to once again do what he has done better than any Red Sox player in modern history, than any major league player of his era, than arguably any ball player ever.
Hit. Under pressure. With the whole world watching.
In the last several weeks and months, you have read a great deal about Ortiz. You will continue to read a good deal more. There are lots of people out there who know Ortiz far better than I ever did and there are some people who know him less. I covered Ortiz and the Red Sox for much of his Boston career and for many of the key years, and I had the privilege of working with him on his book, “Big Papi.” I entered the know-it-all world of talk radio following the 2009 season and really have not spoken with him since, and I have spent chunks of my time over the last six years criticizing him, chastising him, defending him, praising him. The job is the job. It has good parts and bad. I know with certainty that Ortiz hasn’t agreed with everything I’ve said and that some of it has annoyed him, maybe even angered him. I suspect he has felt duped.
You know what? I can’t blame him. I don’t blame him. I would feel exactly the same way. Many of us like to run around and claim that criticism doesn’t bother us when we all know it does. The relationship between the baseball media and baseball players, especially, is complicated and confusing. One the one hand, you need access for information. On the other, you review performance and try to call ’em as you see ’em. Inevitably there is conflict, and so balancing the needs of the job with the responsibilities of the job are an endless challenge.
The people around the team on a regular basis walk that line daily. I’ve done it. It’s not easy. It’s infinitely more difficult than sitting in a radio studio and firing off your opinions as if you’re sitting in traffic, alone in your car. As if nobody can hear you.
Unfortunately, if you’re lucky, people are listening.
Here’s the point: I think the world of Ortiz and always have. He has flaws like everyone else – he is human, after all – but his strengths far outweigh them. Earlier this summer, Boston Magazine asked me to compile an oral history of Ortiz’ time in Boston, which involved speaking with an array of people about Ortiz on and off the field. Some of the comments made the cut and some of them didn’t. Speaking by phone from the manager’s office in Cleveland, Terry Francona said of Ortiz: “Everybody talks about David’s hitting – and it’s prolific – but he’s got that big smile, it’s really warm, and he can almost embrace you with it. That’s a big key with him.” Said Kevin Millar by phone from his home in Texas: “There’s a warmness about David Ortiz that people don’t realize.”
Of course, Millar is wrong. People do realize it. Francona felt it. Fans feel it. Even most opponents do. (Cyncical Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy referred to Ortiz as “Father Christmas.”) As a leader, Ortiz has always been far more interested in putting his arm around a teammate than in berating him, and it has earned him the respect of his peers. He never forgot how hard the game is. He just made it look easy.
Think about it: picking Ortiz’s greatest in-game moment is a little like trying to identify the Beatles song. The series-clinching home run against Jarrod Washburn and the Angels in 2003? The grand slam against the Tigers in the 2013? How about the home run against Paul Quantrill and the Yankees? Or the bloop single against Esteban Loaiza? Or the two-run home run in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series at New York.
Most big leaguers are lucky if they have a moment in October. Ortiz has a greatest hits album. In multiple volumes.
Make no mistake, there were issues along the way. There always are. Ortiz was among a large group of players who tested positive for banned substances during sampling in 2003. There were rumors he would be released in 2009. Francona and the Red Sox actually went through a stretch where they pinch-hit for him with Mike Lowell against left-handed pitching. And there was the endless posturing over his contract, rightly or wrongly, which is always something that few fans want to hear.
Through it all, Ortiz kept taking his hacks, to the point where he’s now having arguably the greatest farewell season by any team player in the history of sports. He leads the major leagues in OPS, for goodness sake. He has batted a sterling .335 with a 1.114 OPS and 70 RBI (in 72 starts) at Fenway Park. He has been among the toughest outs in the game, in the short term and the long, and he is the consummate athlete leaving on his own terms. You can’t fire me. And you still can’t get me out. I quit.
Way back when, this weekend was to mark Ortiz’ final days in the big leagues. As it turns out, there is enough time for an encore. We will get at least one more song. But in the coming days or weeks, one way or another, Ortiz’s career will come to a close, and there will be an entire cast of teens and pre-teens who have never known life without him, never known what it is like to root for the Red Sox without Big Papi, never known the identity of a franchise before David Ortiz came along.
They will miss him.
We all will.