The man also known as David Ortiz still cuts an imposing figure at the plate, but as the legendary Red Sox slugger and perennial All-Star eyes life after baseball, he’s got family and philanthropy on his mind
BY MATT THOMPSON
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
HOW DO YOU MISPLACE someone like David Ortiz? The slugger has a linebacker’s build and rounds the bases with all the alacrity of an aircraft carrier. With his wide smile and big swing, the man everyone calls Big Papi, 35, is not so much a member of the Boston Red Sox as he is the Sox. More than any other player, he’s the symbol of the team’s improbable, curse-reversing last decade.
Still, when I arrive at Fenway Park, he’s nowhere to be found. A security guard tells me to try the clubhouse, where I run into rakish Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon showing off a girlie calendar to reporters, but no Ortiz. I walk out onto the field. Still no luck.
Finally, a facilities worker tips me off that Papi has been spotted in the stands with a friend from the Blue Jays. I look up into the distant green seats. Sure enough, there he is.
That this demigod can go missing in the game’s most sacred shrine only hints at his many contradictions. He’s a fluent English speaker who carefully maintains his Dominican accent, even after 19 years in the U.S.; he’s an outspoken steroid opponent who, in 2003, turned up on a leaked list of players who had tested positive (a charge he denies); he’s a big-personality home-run hitter who also happens to be gentle and deeply philanthropic.
After a turn at batting practice, Ortiz trots over to the dugout, dramatically blows kisses to a smattering of fans, sits down beside me and chuckles. “You’ve got me for the next seven minutes,” he says. “Whatever you want to talk about.” I balk at the paltry offer — the team promised a half hour — and after an uncomfortable moment, he breaks into a big “gotcha” smile.
HEMISPHERES: You’re a five-time All-Star who holds the Sox’ single-season home run record — but, as Lefty Gomez said, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” How lucky have you been?
ORTIZ: I don’t think I’m lucky at all. I had to put in a lot of hard work to get to be where I am. Things happen to a lot of other players and you say, “Wow, that was lucky right there,” but I don’t have that kind of luck. If I did, I might have more than 2,000 hits [laughs].
HEMISPHERES: Well, you were pretty unlucky with injuries early in your career. Do you think that’s part of what’s kept you from those 2,000 hits?
ORTIZ: Injuries don’t depend on luck. Injuries depend on how you get prepared physically. I used to have a lot of injuries, but it was because I played the game like I was 170 pounds, diving headfirst and all that kind of stuff. And at one point I realized that for a guy my size, that’s not a cool thing to do. Big guys are not supposed to be diving headfirst.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve certainly got a real big-guy swing, though. Was there anyone whose cut you copied when you were coming up in the Dominican Republic?
ORTIZ: The way we grew up playing baseball in the Dominican Republic is totally different from here. Here you’ve got baseball games on TV 24/7; we only started consistently having televised baseball games in the Dominican probably 10 years ago. But we did have heroes coming up. The first time I ever really watched a baseball game was when Kirby Pucke did that catch in center field [during Game Six of the 1991 World Series]. He became one of my favorite players. He was right-handed, though, so I couldn’t copy him.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve talked about the hard work and dedication that goes into playing at this level. But some players take it too far with performance-enhancing drugs. Your friend and former teammate Manny Ramirez, for instance, just retired after failing a drug test. How much does this tarnish the game?
ORTIZ: My boy Manny’s situation: I don’t know all the details, but it doesn’t look good for him. I do think the players’ union and the league are doing a great job now when it comes to the testing program. We know the policies, and whenever one of us gets caught in that situation it’s our fault. We can get tested anytime. And that’s really good for the game. I guarantee you that there won’t be that many people acting stupid and getting themselves in trouble anymore. The whole steroid era, I think, is over. And as for me personally, like I always say, life continues after baseball. I’d like to be there for my kids after I’m done playing. I don’t want to have my body all screwed up and die a few years after. I want to be able to complete my mission with my family and my kids. But I don’t blame nobody for doing it — everybody does what they do for a reason. But at the same time you definitely have to be aware of what you’re doing and try to keep the sport clean.
HEMISPHERES: What’s it like going back to the Dominican Republic these days? I’d imagine it’s hard to keep a low profile.
ORTIZ: Six-foot four inches, 230 pounds: I don’t know where you can hide there. You know what I’m saying? Plus, our games are on TV all the time there now, and I’ve been doing a lot of things not only on the field but off the field. I love working with the community, and I’m more recognized there for that than for what I do in the games, which has made me a really happy person. You play this game today and your career can be over at any second, but I’ve seen 70-year-old ladies that say, “That’s the guy with the foundation that does open-heart surgery for kids.” These are people who have never watched a baseball game. That makes me feel like I got four homers in a game, and you know that doesn’t happen too often [laughs].
HEMISPHERES: You’re well known for having a huge personality, hence your nickname, Big Papi. Is that something you’ve cultivated?
ORTIZ: Not really. I don’t look at fame like it’s something to work on. If you do, you won’t look good. I feel like I’m living a dream that I could wake up from at any time. And the one thing I want, when I do wake up, is to feel the same love for people that I do now, and to make sure that my kids — if they ever decide to be baseball players or whatever — that they have some good things to hear about their daddy. As for “Big Papi,” that just came from me not being good with names [laughs]. I used to call everybody Papi, because I guessed they’d like that. Even if I didn’t know your name, you’d be like, Oh, he called me Papi!
HEMISPHERES: You’ve said before that you “can never fall in love with a team,” which is a funny thing for a Red Sox player to say, considering how rabid the fans are in Boston. What did you mean by it?
ORTIZ: When I was with Minnesota, I thought that was where I would be my whole career. When they released me, they hurt me bad. And that’s happened to a lot of guys. That’s why you see guys, when they’re forced to retire, getting teardrops, because all the memories come out. But, you know, this is a business. You can be here today; you can be some other place tomorrow. And loving your team is different from falling in love with it. I love my team. I love being here, and hopefully I’ll finish my career here. But falling in love is different. If you’re like “I ain’t going nowhere” or “nothing can happen” — there are a lot of guys who, once they start thinking like that, their careers are over. They don’t know how to get used to a new team, a new chemistry.
HEMISPHERES: One hard adjustment for you was the passing of your mother, who died in a car accident in 2002. Has raising kids given you any new perspective on your relationship with her?
ORTIZ: My mom was pretty much my everything. She still is, even if she’s not around. I always think about her. When I am with my family and my kids, I think about everything I learned from her, because she’s a great human being. And once I lost her, it hit me pretty hard because, one, you’re never ready for that, and two, everything happened really fast. But I’m the kind of person who tries to keep up with the good things. I don’t like no negativity. I like positivity around me, because positivity adds things to your life. I’m the kind of guy who likes to keep things simple.
Contributing writer MATT THOMPSON, a lifelong Mets fan, fondly remembers Red Sox great Bill Buckner.