The 2016 season marked the final one in the illustrious career of David Ortiz, who leaves his mark as one of the greatest hitters of our generation. If you were following him in the earlier part of his career when he was mostly a platoon player for the Minnesota Twins, you probably couldn’t imagine him earning that title or becoming the iconic figure he did. Former Twins’ GM Terry Ryan certainly didn’t. But Ortiz would ultimately finish with 541 home runs and 1,768 RBI, all the more impressive when you consider he didn’t break out until his later 20’s. It’s truly a testament to how consistent Ortiz was during his 14-year tenure with the Boston Red Sox and how he was able to stay in shape into his age-40 season, when he had a year for the ages that we may never see again from a 40-year old. Furthermore, Ortiz leaves behind a legacy that extends far past his accomplishments as a player. As great a hitter as he was, Ortiz’s engaging personality and outstanding track record of community service will forever solidify his standing as a living legend in Boston.
Although “Big Papi” didn’t become a household name until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, the talent was always there. Ortiz began his career in the Seattle Mariners system and hit an impressive .322 with 54 extra base hits in just 129 games with the Single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 1996. However, Seattle dealt him away to the Minnesota as the player-to-be-named-later in a largely forgotten move to acquire third baseman Dave Hollins. In the Twins’ organization, Ortiz continued to show promise, belting 30 home runs in two different minor league seasons. And for all stories we’ve heard about Ortiz becoming a superstar overnight in Boston, he was actually quite a bit better as a Twin than most people remember. In his last season with the team, Ortiz hit 20 homers while driving in 75 runs and contributing a very respectable .272/.339/.500 slash line. He wasn’t the Hall of Fame hitter he would become, but was certainly no slouch. You’d think most teams would love to have a player who slugged .500 in the middle of their lineup at a wildly affordable cost; Ortiz made just $950,000 in 2002. In fact, he was even better after the all-star break. 15 of his 20 homers came after the break, while he hit .297, compared to .240 before.
That is why the Twins’ decision to release him at the end of the 2002 season is one of the most puzzling and infamous baseball moves in recent memory. Concerned that he wouldn’t play in the big leagues next season, the Red Sox eventually signed Ortiz upon the advice of Pedro Martinez and the rest is history. The legend of Big Papi began, as Ortiz went from a player who nobody wanted to a beloved hero in Boston.
Over the course of his illustrious career with the Red Sox, Ortiz hit 30 home runs ten times and at least 23 in all fourteen seasons. He slugged .570 overall and was named to ten all-star teams, while winning six Silver Slugger awards as a designated hitter. Of course, the pinnacle of his playing career in Boston will always be his postseason performance. Ortiz was instrumental in turning the franchise around, cementing his legacy as one of the great postseason hitters of all-time. He treated the Red Sox faithful to more than their fair share of memorable moments, including his walk-off home runs in Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 4 of the ALCS in 2004. In the 2013 ALCS, his game-tying grand slam in Game 2 of the series saved Boston from falling behind two games to none heading into Detroit. In the Fall Classic that same year, Ortiz was given MVP honors by hitting an otherworldly .688, one of the finest performances in a single World Series ever.
Of course, playing an integral part in ending an 86-year title drought is enough to make someone a legend in a baseball city. But Ortiz’s popularity in Boston and the respect he garners throughout Major League Baseball are a result of his character and generosity on and off the field. The charity work he has done throughout his career is proof of a man who is so much more than just a baseball player. Whether it’s donating thousands of dollars to a hospital in Santo Domingo or setting up the David Ortiz Children’s fund, Ortiz has always been a model of how athletes and celebrities should use their status and wealth in the best possible way.
If there was any doubt how much he is loved in Boston, Ortiz finished third in the 2013 mayoral race. Earlier that year, he delivered his emotional speech to the crowd at Fenway Park in the aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings. His passionate words helped encourage a city to stay strong in the wake of a horrible tragedy. Despite a last place finish the year prior, the Red Sox went on to win the AL East and the World Series that year.
For a franchise that has enjoyed so many iconic players, Ortiz is at the top of the list of most beloved. He was the driving force behind three Red Sox World Series victories, something that Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, nor Roger Clemens were able to do once. In an era of constant change and roster turnover, Ortiz was the constant in the Red Sox lineup for so long, the only player to have been a part of the 2004, 2007, and 2013 championship teams. In fact, for the past two seasons, he had been the longest tenured major league player with his current team.
Both the city of Boston and the game of baseball owe a great deal to David Ortiz. His character and exuberance for the sport will be missed on the field, but judging by his always active role in the community, we certainly haven’t seen the last of him. Big Papi’s rise to stardom will go down as one of the greatest success stories in baseball history. His uniform number 34 will be the next to be placed on the right field facade at Fenway, overlooking the area where he hit so many of his 541 career home runs. Ortiz will eventually take his spot in Cooperstown as well – not bad for a guy who in his late 20’s was released and thought he might never play in the big leagues again.