He isn’t Irish. He isn’t Catholic. He doesn’t wear L.L. Bean and didn’t go to BU, BC or Harvard, though he surely has had a Dunkin’ Donut or two. He actually shares little in common with New England beyond his legendary workplace, having grown up in the Dominican Republic as David Arias before asking his first major-league team, the Minnesota Twins, if he could be known as David Ortiz.
That said, you will have to tell me who has been a bigger Boston icon in recent times.
Tom Brady? The Patriots never will be the Red Sox.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett? Gone, in Brooklyn.
Larry Bird? A long time ago.
Aerosmith? A longer time ago.
Ben Affleck? Close.
Matt Damon? Closer.
Ted Williams? Frozen somewhere.
Paul Revere? OK, enough.
Maybe there’s a Kennedy or Dropkick Murphy we’re leaving out. But if anyone ever doubted who owned the city lately, all questions were answered April 21. That is when Ortiz, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon explosions, grabbed the microphone in front of a massive American flag at Fenway Park and played the urgent role of community healer.
“This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox. It says Boston,” he told the pregame crowd. “We want to thank you, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the police department, for the great job that they did this past week. This is our f—ing city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
All you need to know is that his f-bomb was dropped on TV, nationally and locally — and the FCC didn’t care. Nor did the Red Sox or baseball commissioner Bud Selig. That’s how potent and important his message was, and it’s what we rewound back to during Game 4 of this World Series, when Ortiz sat in the dugout at Busch Stadium and gathered his uptight teammates for another pep talk in the sixth inning.
“I’m the veteran dude on this team. That’s why I have to say something,” Ortiz told the media the next day. “I sensed everyone was feeling down, frustrated, like a sinking boat. I told them, `Don’t do anything more than you’re capable, don’t force things out.’ I mean, if you’re a David Ross, don’t try to do things as if you’re David Ortiz.
“Sometimes you get to this stage and you try to overdo things. And it doesn’t work that way. I kept telling my boys, `This is the World Series, this is the World Series.’ You don’t get to this level every day. Have fun, play the game the way you know how.”
Since then, thanks to a three-run homer by Jonny Gomes that won the game Sunday night and another brilliant pitching performance by a foreign-substance-free (presumably) Jon Lester on Monday night, the Red Sox have catapulted from a dead team walking to within one victory of their third World Series title in 10 seasons. If this franchise is the poetry and beating heart of their region, then Ortiz is the one common denominator through its curse-shredding era, having been there in 2004 and 2007 and now, at age 37, in the worst-to-first season that no one saw coming. In anticipation of the first Series clinching at Fenway since 1918, Red Sox Nation can ask itself this giddy question: Was it possibly worth it to endure 86 previous seasons of championship-less agony knowing you would win three times in a decade?
In that sense, Big Papi has been the curse-buster, bigger than the Bambino both figuratively and, well, literally. If he always has been a massive presence with the bat — and has torched the Cardinals by going 11-for-15 with two homers, six RBIs and four walks — Ortiz now is the inspirational rock of the Red Sox religion, too. “It was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher,” Gomes said of his latest speech. “He got everyone’s attention and we looked him right in the eyes. That message was pretty powerful. Just gave us a little kick in the butt that we needed.”
When Ortiz departed Game 5 in the eighth inning after an infield hit and looked to be limping, New England gasped. He was fine, and so were the Red Sox, with Koji Uehara coming up with his automatic save to back up Lester’s gem in a 3-1 victory. Of all the sluggers in baseball history, according to ESPN, guess who has the highest World Series career OPS? Ortiz, at 1.370. Lou Gehrig is second. Babe Ruth is third. Reggie Jackson is fourth.
“What planet’s that guy from?” said Ross, who broke the tie in the seventh with a double. “That’s why we call him Cooperstown. He does Hall of Fame stuff around here on a regular basis.”
“I think we’re all watching and realizing he’s tough to get out right now,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny conceded.
“I was born for this,” said Ortiz, who provided a first-inning double that gave the Red Sox the early lead and now is hitting .476 over his three World Series.
Though he swings as if he could play another 10 years and has personally airlifted a team that otherwise has struggled to scrape out hits — he has 11 of the 33 Series hits for a team that has struck out a record 156 times this postseason — Big Papi knows the end is nearing for him at some point. The night before, he stood by his locker and said, per the New York Times, “I don’t have another 10 years in me. I don’t know when I’m going to be back in the World Series. So I have to give everything I have right now. I’m definitely enjoying this.”
If he wins it all at Fenway, no one would blame him for retiring on the spot, on top in a massive celebration. If we once thought of October and immediately flashed to Jackson, now that man is Ortiz. He balks when he hears that, but with 17 postseason homers … well. he has just passed Ruth on the all-time list while passing Jackson in career postseason total bases. “Once we get to October, I’m not tired at all,” he told the media. “I feel good. I’m not trying to put pressure on myself to overdo things. It’s an honor, man (to be called Mr. October). People are letting you know that you got the job done, you know? And that’s good, because not too many of us are able to produce in October.”
Another who produces is Lester, who overcame the flap over the goo on his glove — and, for that matter, the chicken-and-beer fiasco of 2011 — to win his third of three career Series starts. In 21 innings, he has allowed one run. He is the ace this team has needed amid uncertainty on the staff and offensive inconsistency. But that staff also knows where the support comes from.
“David is a game-changer,” Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavy said. “He’s as clutch as anybody I can remember playing with or against. It just seems he has a flair for the dramatic. When the situation is the biggest, he’s at his best.”
Imagine the drama Ortiz could produce in Boston one last October evening. He knows what’s coming at Fenway, in the fabled park that always has been bigger than Red Sox Nation but somehow shrinks in the shadow of Big Papi. “It’s going to get loud out there,” he said.
The noise will be most deafening for him.