On “When It’s Over“, the biggest hit from Sugar Ray’s self-titled third album released in 2001, lead singer Mark McGrath opens the song with the following statement:
When it’s over
That’s the time I fall in love again
And when it’s over
That’s the time you’re in my heart again
McGrath did a lot for music in the late 1990s/early 2000s-like pioneering frosted tips and proving that yes, you can release the same song four different times and people will still lap it up-but I don’t think he ever knew he’d be able to sum up the final playing days of the most important Red Sox player of all time better than anyone else. After all Red Sox fans have been through with David Ortiz, this final season has made us love and appreciate him more than ever before.
This weekend, Ortiz will be playing his final regular season series at Fenway Park. While he and the Red Sox will continue playing into October after clinching the AL East crown on Wednesday (thanks in large part to Ortiz’s contributions), this weekend will serve as a sort of “last goodbye” for many of the fans. The Sox have already planned some mystery ceremonies for all three games against a Toronto team still fighting for a Wild Card slot, and have taken the liberty of somehow etching Ortiz’s likeness into the center field grass. And even as it’s happening before my eyes, it’s still nearly impossible for me to truly believe that this is where we are with Big Papi. From the beginning of his Red Sox career as a bargain bin signing, to an incredible four year peak from 2004-07, through injuries, slumps, clubhouse explosions, a positive drug test, broken records, huge smiles, bigger home runs, three World Series championships, to the greatest final season at the plate for any player in baseball’s seemingly endless history, one could argue that David Ortiz has a had a career with more twists and turns than any other. Yet, for an entire generation of Red Sox fans (myself included), his presence has been a singular constant, nearly always of excellence. Now that things are finally coming to a close after 14 years with the team, I find myself caring more about that consistent existence more than ever. Every home run has meant more this season, every big hit, every unheard joke with the opposing first baseman, has mattered more. Which makes sense; after all, Ortiz has mattered more than any other Red Sox player ever.
I think the best way to examine Ortiz’s career is to break it down into sections. The way I see it, there are six pretty distinct chapters of the Big Papi saga.
David Ortiz 1.0 (1997-2002)
Season Averages: 115 G, .265/.344/.473, 16 HR, 62 RBI, 109 OPS+
Ah, David Ortiz before he was DAVID ORTIZ. Disclaimer: I’ve taken the first three of Ortiz’s Twins seasons out of the season average because he played only 15 games in 1997 and 10 games in 1999. But his final three Twins seasons give a pretty good picture of what he was before the Red Sox scooped him up as insurance for Jeremy Giambi: A poor fielding first baseman with some pop from the left side of the plate. In other words, nothing exceptional. Nobody cares about this version of David Ortiz. Let’s move on.
David Ortiz 2.0 (2003)
Season Stats: 128 G, .288/.369/.592, 31 HR, 101 RBI, 144 OPS+
Ortiz’s 2003 season gets its own section, not because it was his best, but because it’s the first moment where Red Sox fans fell in love with the big fella. It was the first of 10 (!) 30+ HR, 100+ RBI seasons for Ortiz, and he made then boy wonder G.M. Theo Esptein look like a genius both during the regular season and during October. With the Red Sox trying to dig out of a 2-0 series hole in the ALDS and force a Game 5 against Oakland, Ortiz came to the plate with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth. The Red Sox were trailing 4-3 before this at-bat.
This game, and this season, were a sign of things to come.
David Ortiz 3.0 (2004-2007)
Season Averages: 152 G, .304/.408/.616, 44 HR, 135 RBI, 159 OPS+
This was Peak Papi. Ortiz and Manny Ramirez formed the most formidable 3-4 punch since Ruth and Geherig, leading the Red Sox to two World Series titles in four years after nearly a century with none. The regular season performances were sensational, from a dizzying 148 RBI in 2005, to a Red Sox record 54 HR in 2006, to a career-best .332 batting average in 2007. One enterprising YouTube user made a supercut of all of Ortiz’s home runs from 2005-2007, and while it is 14 minutes long, it doesn’t disappoint. But we all know where Ortiz cemented his legacy as one of Boston’s most clutch athletes, with 3 walk-off hits in the 2004 postseason, each somehow steeped in more drama than the last.
He also effectively murdered the Yankees in Game 7 with this HR in the first inning to key what would end as a 10-3 Boston rout of New York:
Ortiz’s final line for that postseason? 14 games, 5 HR, .400/.515/.764. The 2004 Red Sox were a special team where seemingly every player on the roster contributed, but none more so than Ortiz.
David Ortiz 4.0 (2008-2009)
Season Averages: 130 G, .250/.348/.482, 26 HR, 94 RBI, 112 OPS+
On May 31st, 2008, David Ortiz left in the ninth inning of a 6-3 win over the Orioles after injuring his wrist. A few days later, he would be placed on the DL, with damage to the tendon sheath (a term I still don’t fully understand eight years later). At the time of the injury, Ortiz was scuffling through his worst season in a Red Sox uniform, posting a slash line of only .252/.254/.486. He finished the year with 23 HR and a slash of .264/269/.507, and he was shut down in 11 postseason games, managing only 8 hits in 43 at bats. 2009 was even worse. Ortiz continued to trend downward, struggling to escape from a brutal start to the year, and posted the second lowest batting average (.238) of any season where he made more than 300 plate appearances. Columnists started wondering whether or not this was the end of Big Papi. Then, on July 30th, the New York Times reported that David Ortiz was one of many players who had tested positive for a performance enhancing substance in 2003, confirming Red Sox fans’ worst fears. To be fair to Ortiz, the test, which was supposed to remain anonymous, never clarified what he actually failed for, allowing fans (like me) to try to maintain a sense of plausible deniability about the whole thing. It suffices to say, this was the darkest point of Ortiz’s Red Sox career.
David Ortiz 5.0 (2010-2013)
Season Averages: 130 G, .300/.392/.560, 28 HR, 90 RBI, 154 OPS+
The Post-Peak Rebirth! After two down seasons, Papi bounced back with a four year stretch that isn’t that far off of his peak. His 154 OPS+ was only five points lower than it was from 2004-07, and he added two more 30/100 seasons to his resume. In 2012, Papi posted a monster .318/.415/.611 slash through 90 games, but his season came to a premature end thanks to the same Achilles problem that is forcing his retirement after this year. Unlike in ’08-09, however, the injury didn’t carry over to the following season, where Ortiz hit .309/.398/.554 and led the Red Sox to their third World Series title in 10 years. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Ortiz gave the best speech possible in a way that only Big Papi could:
It was the perfect statement for a city that had been rocked by a terrorist attack only a few days earlier, and demonstrated just how ingrained into the city’s fabric he had become. “Boston Strong” propelled the team to a shocking 97 win season, thanks in large part to the ever indispensable David Ortiz, both on and off the field. In the ALCS against the Tigers, he had his last (and maybe best) postseason moment. Down 5-1 in the bottom of the 8th inning, with the prospect of facing an 0-2 series deficit and fire-breathing monster Justin Verlander in Game 3, the Sox needed a savior yet again. Guess who delivered:
The Red Sox would win that game (and three of the next four) to advance to the World Series, where Ortiz was unstoppable. He had 11 hits in 16 ABs, 2 HR, 2 2Bs, and a slash of .688/.760/1.188. When the Red Sox were tied midway through Game 3, Ortiz gave another rousing speech, just as he had in April. The Sox scored three runs that inning to take the lead, and never looked back, winning the final three games of the series. David Ortiz, picked up off of the scrap heap before the 2003 season, now had three rings and a WS MVP trophy.
David Ortiz 6.0 (2014-2016)
Season Averages: 145 G, .284/.372/.564, 36 HR, 112 RBI, 147 OPS+
That brings us to the last stage of Ortiz’s career, the “How The Fuck is He Still Doing This?” stage. While the Red Sox struggled in 2014 and 2015, Ortiz continued to defy odds, posting nearly identical seasons back to back at age 38 and 39 (No, seriously, look. They’re the same). Last November, Ortiz announced that this season would be his last, and then has proceeded to have the greatest final season of all time. With three games left to play, he’s hit .315/.402/.620 (That’s good for a best in baseball in slugging percentage and OPS), with an MLB leading 48 doubles, while tacking on 37 HR and 124 RBI, the latter of which is the most he’s driven in since 2006. He’s passed Williams and Mantle on the all time HR list, and has removed any doubt that he’s the greatest (and, perhaps, last true) DH who ever lived. No player has ever had a wRC+ of 160 or better in their age 40 season or older. Ortiz, barring a fairly substantial three game slump, would be the first. Big Papi is definitely going out in style.
I’ve been a Red Sox fan my entire life, though the first cognizant memories of the franchise probably come from the 1999 team that lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. Pedro and Nomar, Trot and Daubach, Varitek and Valentine, those were the guys who truly introduced me to baseball. But looking back now, it’s been David Ortiz who has shaped my fanhood more than any other player in any other sport. Ortiz was there in 2003, when I suffered my true initiation into Red Sox fandom following Aaron Boone’s walk off home run. Ortiz was there again in 2004, saving the day time and time again and ending a Curse that I was too young to have fully experienced but still managed to fully understand. And he’s been there ever since. I was 10 in 2004, a teenager in 2007, and a sophomore in college in 2013. Now, Big Papi is ending his career just as I’m trying to start mine. Not to get too existential or cliched, but in a lot of ways, he (along with Tom Brady, Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan) has served as the bridge between my childhood and adulthood. Duncan is gone, Papi and Pierce are soon to follow. Brady may say he want to play until he’s 50, but I think we all know better. It’s the end of an era. And of those athletes, I have had the most polarizing relationship with Ortiz. Between the unimaginable success and the highest of highs, there’s been scandal and skepticism, there’s been angry outbursts in the dugout and in the clubhouse, and I’ll admit there’s been times I’ve questioned how much I actually like the guy. But through it all, there’s no denying what Ortiz has meant to the Red Sox, to their fans, and, on a personal level, to me. And there’s no denying that faced with the prospect of no longer having the him in my life at all, I’ve realized just how important he’s been.
Mark McGrath said it best:
I’m missing you
I never knew how much you meant to me
I need you, and when you go, go, go, go
I know, it never ends, never ends
Here’s to hoping that David Ortiz has a little more October sorcery left in that bat of his, so he can ride off into the sunset with with one last magical postseason run. Lord knows he’s earned it, and lord knows I’m going to miss him when he’s gone.
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