As a Red Sox fan who’s peak watching years have coincided with David Ortiz‘ tenure in Boston, last night was tough. It wasn’t tough because the Red Sox lost, realistically their fate was sealed in Cleveland, but rather to see Big Papi walk off the Fenway Park grass for the final time as a player was more emotional for me than I care to admit. Hell, I’m getting emotional just thinking and writing about it today. The words ‘thank you’ aren’t enough, but they’re the best I can muster: Thank you David, you will be missed more than you could ever know.
When Ortiz emerged on the Red Sox scene in 2003, my first instinct was that he was Mo Vaughn 2.0. Mo was one of my favorite players growing up. At 6’1″ and 225lb, he could put a baseball into orbit and that entertained me to no end. At the time, I thought no one could hit the ball harder or further…until I saw David Ortiz in a Red Sox uniform. During the first few games of Ortiz’ career, I was in awe that someone could be even bigger and stronger than the great Mo. Standing at 6’3″ and 230lbs (although at times I think that number was a little light), Big Papi filled the entire batters box with ease.
It took a while in that first season for Ortiz to get going, but one of the most telling moments of future success was his first HR in a Red Sox uniform. It came against the Anaheim Angels (or whatever they were called then) in the top of the 14th inning. He pinch-hit for Jeremy Giambi to lead off the inning and hit an opposite field bomb on a pitch on the outer-half of the plate to give the Red Sox the 1-run lead. It was followed by a Jason Varitek HR and the game ended 6-4. It was just a late April regular season contest, but it was the first of dozens of late-inning clutch heroics for Big Papi in Boston.
As much as I would like to re-hash every great moment in Big Papi’s career, I only have space and time for my favorites. At the absolute top of the list, and frankly should be at the top of every Red Sox fans list, is his performance in the 2004 ALCS against the New York Yankees. We know the story: down 0-3 after getting pummeled 19-3 in game 3, the Red Sox went on to win 4 straight and get to the World Series in which they swept the St Louis Cardinals and broke the 86-year curse. The script that was written in 2004 is arguably the greatest story in baseball history given the intense rivalry and unreal individual and team effort. At the center of it all was Ortiz.
Because today is a day for nostalgia, let me take you back. Game 4, bottom 9, down 4-3 with the season on the line and the greatest closer of all time (Mariano Rivera) is toeing the rubber. The situation does not look good from a Red Sox perspective. Kevin Millar leads off the inning with a walk and is immediately lifted for Dave Roberts (Rivera had just 20 walks all season in 2004 in 78.2 innings). Even though every single person at Fenway Park and every single person watching at home on television knew Dave Roberts was going to try and steal 2nd base, he slid in safely by the thinnest hair on my chinny chin chin to give the Red Sox a runner in scoring position. Still to this day when watching the replay of Derek Jeter applying the tag to Roberts, I honestly can’t tell if he was safe or out. After the steal, Bill Mueller hit the 3rd pitch of the at-bat into center field for a game-tying single. Hope was alive.
Fast forward to the bottom of the 12th inning. Manny Ramirez singles to lead off the inning and David Ortiz steps into the box against Paul Quantrill. On the 4th pitch of the at-bat, Ortiz crushed one over the 380 sign in right field for a walk-off win that will never be forgotten. By my estimation, that one swing is the most important hit in Red Sox franchise history. It propelled the Red Sox to a 7-game series victory and led to the most important moment in Red Sox history, the final out of game 4 of the 2004 World Series. Ortiz went on to hit 2 more HRs in the series as well as a walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th inning in game 5. His legacy truly began being written in that Yankees series and the story grew longer and more impressive as each passing year and clutch hit occurred.
All of this unfolded during my sophomore year at UConn. Being uniquely situated between Boston and New York, the UConn campus was rife with trash talk and bad blood between Yankees and Red Sox fans. I heard it from every single Yankees fan, real and bandwagon, after the 19-3 game 3 drubbing and I just had to grin and take it. There was no response and very little hope for a comeback. Just 4 days later, I was watching game 7 with my girlfriend, now wife, who is an avid Red Sox fan from the Boston area. Even though the Red Sox had a 7-run lead entering the 9th inning of game 7, our hearts were pounding out of our chest and our nerves were fried. Once the final out was recorded, tears of joy (and relief) began to flow and outside you could hear hundreds upon hundreds of cheers and screams across campus.
As any college students would do, we all ran outside and began running around campus like complete idiots. Hoards of students ran past Gampel Pavilion (basketball arena) and to the old football stadium on campus, Memorial Stadium. Dozens of students (mostly drunk) decided to take down the goal posts in celebration and after several minutes of trying, were successful. Even though I watched from a safe distance, that moment sticks with me to this day. It was finally time for Red Sox fans to celebrate.
All of this is just to say, in the most heartfelt way possible, Thank you Big Papi. You have single-handedly changed everything about being a Red Sox fan. You created expectations that are just unrealistic and nearly impossible to reach, yet somehow, you reached them over and over again. We now expect wins and championships on a yearly basis and anything else is a failure. In the 8th and 9th inning last night, most of Red Sox nation was expecting a big late-game comeback because you have set bar so damn high. It was a honor to witness your career unfold in Boston; the void that is left behind with your retirement is to large to fill.
As my brother-in-law Jonathan said on Facebook last night after the game, “Thank you 34 for the memories. See you in Cooperstown in 5 years with Brian Phair!”