For those of us who love the Boston Red Sox, the announcement that David Ortiz will retire following the 2016 season surely brought back the memories. No one in baseball has authored the same number of clutch hits as Big Papi over the last thirteen years and no player has been as consequential for the Red Sox since the days of Babe Ruth.
Undoubtedly, a video montage of Ortiz’s biggest moments is coming, but here’s three big ones that stand out for me, and I imagine to a lot of Red Sox fans…
*In October 2003, the Red Sox were facing elimination against the A’s in Game 4 of the Division Series. Boston trailed 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth, with two aboard. I was driving from Washington D.C and just getting back to my then-hometown in Pittsburgh and nervously listening to the radio.
As I rolled through the mountains of western Pennsylvania and tried to keep my concentration amidst the winding interstate in busy traffic, I nearly jumped out of seat as Ortiz doubled in both runs. I found the next exit, pulled off and listened to the remainder of the game in safety. The Red Sox closed out the win 5-4 and won the series in Game 5.
*The morning of October 17, 2004 was not a pleasant day to be a Red Sox fan. One night earlier, the Sox had taken a 19-8 drubbing from the Yankees to fall behind 3-0 in games in the ALCS. I was being picked up by a friend in the morning to drive from Milwaukee to Chicago and watch the Redskins-Bears game, before we made it back to my house to watch Game 4 in the evening—a game I assured my friend would put me out of misery with a Yankee sweep.
“Well just hold on,” my friend said. He proceeded to walk me game-by-game through the pitching matchups. It’s now a litany that every Red Sox fan knows by heart—if Boston just won Game 4, they were coming with Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and then an all-the-pressure’s-on-the-Yankees Game 7. “Don’t let us win tonight,” Kevin Millar was brazenly telling reporters beforehand. All this was unbeknownst to me as I rode down I-94 toward Chicago in the morning. All I knew was that I had been given some hope, however thin it might have been.
Fast-forward to past midnight CST. Ortiz has already delivered a clutch two-out, two-run single that briefly put the Red Sox ahead 3-2. They fell behind 4-3, before the now-historic steal by Dave Roberts helped tie the game in the ninth. Then the long slog through extra innings began. My friend had drifted into a doze, and later admitted to me that he no longer cared who won, so long as somebody did. I recall looking over at him in his doze and thinking “I don’t know what’s worse, that he came up with this idiotic idea about the Red Sox coming back or that I’ve bought into it.”
It was Ortiz who came to the plate with a man aboard in the 12th and pulled a shot toward right field that had the look of being gone off the bat. There was a brief moment when I looked at the reaction of outfielder Gary Sheffield and wondered if he might have a play on the ball. No chance—the ball crashed into the right field bullpen. The Red Sox had won. Ortiz did it again the next night, with a bloop single to win Game 5 in the 13th. He opened the scoring in Game 7 with a two-run blast. He ended up ALCS MVP and the Comeback that’s now part of sports lore was complete.
Oh, and that Redskins-Bears game I mentioned? Two lousy teams played a game that set the cause of offensive football back to around the 19th century. In watching my DVD of Game 4, I still get a kick out of seeing Fox’s coverage scroll the football scores and showing that my ‘Skins won with Mark Brunnel’s 95 passing yards leading the “highlights” of statistical achievement.
*Finally we come to the most recent installment of Papi’s heroics and I would argue, the one that probably has the longest shelf life. It was Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS. The Red Sox looked hopeless against Detroit pitching. Boston was shut down in Game 1 and trailed Game 2 by a 5-1 score in the eighth inning. Somehow they scratched their way to loading the bases. Ortiz was up, but there were two outs.
Even if you expected him to hit the ball hard somewhere—and I did—what happened was electric beyond all comparison. He unleashed another bomb to the right field bullpen. The moment was made even better by the all-out effort of Ortiz’s friend Tori Hunter, the Tiger right fielder who leaped head-first into the bullpen to try and stop the home run. Hunter flipped over and was thankfully all right.
A Boston policeman positioned in the bullpen raised his arms in ecstasy and the picture became the symbolic image of the “Boston Strong” rallying cry that became the city’s mantra after the Marathon Bombing that spring and the way they had honored the first responders—the police.
If Ortiz doesn’t hit that home run, the Red Sox are in an 0-2 hole and probably lose the ALCS before it ever gets back to Fenway. Instead, they won the World Series.
The game-winning hits and walkoff home runs are legion. I look forward to the Farewell Tour of 2016 as they get recounted in all their glory. David Ortiz isn’t the best player the Red Sox have had since the Babe’s era—Ted Williams was the best hitter who ever lived, Manny Ramirez was a better hitter on the great teams of the 2004 and 2007 championship runs. Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher in franchise history and arguably it’s best post-Babe Ruth player.
But David Ortiz is the connecting thread. In this 21st century Red Sox Renaissance, Ortiz is the sole player who was on all three champions—2004, 2007 and 2013. He was MVP of the ALCS in that first run and MVP of the World Series in the final run. He is to the Red Sox what Tim Duncan is to the San Antonio Spurs, or to pick a more local version, what Tom Brady is to the New England Patriots. And that’s the man everyone else came and went around, during a glorious period in franchise history.