David Ortiz has gone from the streets of the Dominican Republic to selfies with President Obama — and one day soon, Big Papi may have his own statue.
The nickname tells the story of the man. Big Papi. Larger than life but warm and cuddly. Powerful and lovable. Gigantic. Genial. David Ortiz acquired the appellation in a manner far more practical than grand, however. “I’m just terrible with names,” says the man mostly responsible for ending decades of futility for the Boston Red Sox and helping them win three World Series championships. “I used to call everyone Papi, so people would be like, ‘OK, Papi, we’re going to Papi you back.’ I’m a big guy and they just called me Big Papi from then on.” The name became special because of Red Sox championships in 2004, 2007 and 2013. The first title ended an 86-year championship drought for Red Sox Nation. And by the time of the last one, Ortiz had played in such a magnificent manner that when the Red Sox visited the White House to be honored by the president, Ortiz was the player selected to present a Red Sox jersey to Barack Obama. That’s when the lovable Big Papi appeared.
Ortiz, decked out in a stylish suit and wearing sunglasses on the South Lawn of the White House, lit up when Obama said, “Let’s get a good picture here, come on.” Ortiz, however, responded: “Actually, do you mind if I take my own?”
SNL's take on David Ortiz and his presidential selfie.
Three-time World Series champion (2004, 2007 and 2013) and nine-time All-Star (2004–2008, 2010–2013)
What transpired was the selfie seen around the world — “the Big Papi selfie,” as Obama called it. Both men smiled as the crowd applauded. Although Ortiz was accused of taking the selfie as a promotional ploy for one of his sponsors, he staunchly denies that. Instead, he says he did it for the same reason he does everything: for fun.
“Everything went smooth when I was with the president, and who wouldn’t like to take a selfie with the president?” Ortiz says. “I asked him if it was fine. Then all of a sudden you see people flipping things around. I was like, well, whatever. The good thing is that I’m the only [baseball player] that has selfies with President Obama.”
Needing equipment, Ortiz would take the heads off of his sister’s dolls to use as baseballs. He would do the same thing with socks from his father’s drawer. He remembers hitting bottle caps with a broomstick.
The Dominican Republic sends many players to the major leagues. Ortiz became one of those players in 1992, when he was 17 years old and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. He quickly discovered, however, that slugging bottle caps was infinitely easier than hitting a curveball, and he struggled. It would be almost five years in Seattle’s minor-league system before he made the major leagues, and by that time he had been traded to the Minnesota Twins.
In five full seasons with the Twins, he maxed out with his best season, resulting in 20 home runs and 75 runs batted in — hardly prodigious totals. The Twins decided they did not want to make a larger financial commitment to Ortiz and released him on Dec. 16, 2002. “I was hurting,” Ortiz remembers. “I’m not going to lie to you. I never got released in my life before. I didn’t really know how to deal with it at the time. I thought it was the worst thing that happened to me.”
Ortiz did not cause much of a splash on the free-agent market, and it was a month before the Red Sox signed him to a contract for $1.25 million for the 2003 season, a contract which proved to be a bargain — although they obviously did not know it at the time. They didn’t even have Ortiz penciled in as an everyday player, but by June, a trade and an injury opened up a regular spot for Ortiz, and he emerged as a hitting star.
A year later, he became not only a Boston sensation but also one of the best players in the major leagues. After making the All-Star team for the first time, Ortiz led the Sox into the playoffs and was determined to defy history. In the early 20th century, the Red Sox were the premier franchise in baseball. In seven seasons from 1912 to 1918, they won four World Series titles. One of their key players in that stretch was Babe Ruth, a man of incredible talent.
In Boston, the trade eventually became known as “The Curse of the Bambino” and was popularized in a 1991 book of the same name by Boston writer Dan Shaughnessy. It was more myth than reality, of course, but it was emblematic of the frustration felt by Boston fans.
With Ortiz leading the way, that ended. When the 2004 playoffs began, Ortiz hit a game-winning home run against the Anaheim Angels in the American League Division Series and propelled the Red Sox to the AL Championship Series against the hated Yankees.
New York won the first three games and needed only one more victory to advance to the World Series. It seemed the Red Sox’s frustrations would continue. But Ortiz won two consecutive games, each time getting a hit to drive in the winning run. The Red Sox came back to win the series four games to three and then eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals in four consecutive World Series games to win their first championship since 1918. From that point, Boston had its baseball superhero and the Yankees had a nemesis who changed the entire complexion of baseball’s most storied rivalry.
“We’ve had a lot of teams that have competed against good Boston teams,” says Yankees icon Derek Jeter. “But [Ortiz] always seems like he’s in the middle of everything. He’s been a force and someone you have to pay attention to. A lot of the guys in Boston have had personalities over the years … but his has stood the test of time.”
In 2007, the Red Sox won another title, with Ortiz providing slugging and leadership. Then in 2013, at age 37, Ortiz provided magnificent moments as a hitter, a leader and a naturalized Bostonian. In the World Series, the Red Sox had won only one of the first three games in a seven-game series against St. Louis and were tied 1-1 in Game 4. But for the first time anyone can remember, a player called a team meeting in the middle of a World Series game. Ortiz gathered his entire dugout together.
“I let them know that you don’t go to the World Series every year. There’s players that never go to the World Series. The most important thing is not just to go to the World Series, it’s to win the World Series. I was trying to inspire my teammates and let them know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and you have to enjoy it the most you can.”
Moments after “The King’s Speech” (as a writer from the Boston Herald aptly labeled it), the Red Sox broke a tie on a three-run homer by Jonny Gomes and never again trailed in the series. Ortiz had a magnificent Fall Classic, getting 11 hits in 16 at-bats for a staggering .688 batting average, winning the World Series Most Valuable Player award and evoking these words from Gomes: “He shines the most when the lights are the brightest.”
After all the glory Ortiz and the Red Sox have enjoyed, this season has been a struggle. On July 6, the date the All-Star teams were announced, the Red Sox were in last place in the American League East. And for the first time since 2009 and just the third time in his 12 years with the Red Sox, Ortiz was not selected to the American League All-Star team. From 2011-13, Ortiz was voted as the starting designated hitter by the fans. This season, he finished second behind the Baltimore Orioles’ Nelson Cruz. Red Sox skipper John Farrell had the honor of managing the American League All-Star team thanks to the Red Sox making it to the World Series last year, and he thought about selecting Ortiz as a reserve. Ortiz dissuaded him.
“The All-Star Game is something where you’ve got a lot of choices and there are a lot of guys doing really well,” says Ortiz. “I’m a big fan of guys that have a really, really good first half making it to the All-Star Game. There are a couple of guys ahead of me this year at my position. Me and John, we had that conversation, and I said, ‘Hey, I just don’t feel like taking those guys’ places.’ I don’t think it’s fair. You’ve got guys like Nelson Cruz and [the Detroit Tigers’] Victor [Martinez] and [the Toronto Blue Jays’ Edwin] Encarnacion having unbelievable seasons. They don’t have as many All-Star Games as I have. I just keep it real. They’re having better seasons than what I’m having, and they deserve it.”
“I have never failed a test,” Ortiz says. “I’ve been tested more than 30 times. This guy … coming and pointing a finger at me. I think that was very irresponsible. If I ever have problems going to the Hall of Fame or something, it’s going to be because of that article, not because of anything else.”
Those unproven charges have had little impact on the relationship between Ortiz and his adoring fans. Yes, he’s been important in winning three World Series. But he also has become a Bostonian. His foundation, the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, raises money for children in New England and in the Dominican Republic who need heart surgery or are in need of critical medical care. He is an active member of the community. And when the attack on the Boston Marathon occurred on April 15, 2013, Ortiz felt the pain and anger as strongly as any Boston native.
Became the Red Sox’s single-season home-run leader with 54 in 2006 and also led the American League in home runs that year
Before the first home game after the bombing, Ortiz was spontaneously asked by the team to speak to the fans as part of an emotional pregame ceremony. And that was when Ortiz uttered a statement perhaps even more famous than any of his big hits.
“I just went out there and let it fly,” Ortiz says. “I was angry. I’m just another citizen when it comes down to that. I struggled like everyone else with the way things were going down with those days around here. It seems like that hit the spot. There was a lot of frustration going around, a lot of people injured. We were dealing with things we weren’t supposed to be dealing with.”
Despite the 86-year gap in winning a World Series, Boston has a rich baseball history and players who are beloved by fans. Two of those have statues in front of Fenway Park: Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. Williams — perhaps the greatest technical hitter in baseball history — is a mythic character whose achievements were so profound that a tunnel under Boston Harbor connecting South Boston with Logan International Airport is named after him. But he never led the Red Sox to a title.
At age 38, Ortiz is nearing the end of his career. It is not difficult to envision — considering his feats on and off the baseball diamond — him one day being represented by, if not a tunnel, at least a third statue. “David’s a Hall of Famer,” says Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavy. “David is as good as anyone who’s ever put this uniform on. I say that hands down. I know there’s some great history here, [but] I can’t imagine anybody more clutch.”
Ortiz the player has been a clutch baseball performer when it has mattered the most in Boston. And as it turns out, so has Ortiz the citizen.
IAN BROWNE has covered the Boston Red Sox for MLB.com for 13 years. He is the author of the book Idiots Revisited: Catching Up With the Red Sox Who Won the 2004 World Series.
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