We may follow sports for their ordered rationality — for stats, standings, records, rules — but we watch them for the astonishing, the outlandish, the unprecedented. We watch sports to see rules get broken. Right now the Boston Red Sox's designated hitter and (lately) surprisingly competent first baseman David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, 37 years old and one win away from his third World Series ring, is hitting a baseball like he's waging war against possibility. Each at-bat feels like some great script that's already been written and just needs to be acted out. Even his taken pitches exude an amused impatience: no sense in prolonging the inevitable.
Ortiz narrowly missed a grand slam early in Boston's Game 1 rout of St. Louis, and homered later in the same contest. In Game 2, he put the Sox ahead with a sixth-inning home run, only to see the bullpen and defense fumble the game away. In Games 3 and 4 he went a combined 4 for 5 with three walks. In Game 5, he ripped the first pitch he saw for an RBI double, then collected two more hits. For the series, Ortiz is hitting .733 with a 2.017 (!) OPS. Over this same stretch his teammates are batting .151. The Red Sox have received spellbinding pitching from ace Jon Lester and closer Koji Uehara, but, if they win the title, Ortiz will take the MVP in a landslide.
David Ortiz is a baseball player like Keith Richards is a guitar player. Many are more versatile, some are more virtuosic, and a few might even be more talented, but when Ortiz steps into the batter's box it's hard to remember any of their names. Terms like “charisma” and “star power” are tempting but imply something vaguely unearned, the stuff of politicians and rom-com actors. Ortiz's blend of will, skill, and style takes special form in October, when he alchemizes the unbelievable into the inexorable. “I was born for this,” he declared after Game 5, over the protestations of absolutely no one. Ortiz's career numbers in the postseason (.296 batting average/.403 on-base percentage/.554 slugging percentage) are excellent. His stats in the World Series (.465 BA/ 556 OBP/.814 SLG) are historically spectacular. He's become a walking invitation to magical thinking, so much that his impact seems to exceed the diamond itself. In Game 4, Ortiz treated his teammates to a fiery fifth-inning pep talk, the contents of which remain unknown but which currently ranks somewhere between “How do you like them apples?” and Kennedy's Inaugural in the annals of great speeches by Bostonians. At the time of this writing it's still climbing.
Ortiz joined the Boston Red Sox in 2003, a lumbering castoff from the Minnesota Twins with a rep for flailing at curveballs when he wasn't getting hurt. In his first season with the Sox he burst into unlikely stardom, hitting 31 home runs for a team that lost the ALCS in the 11th inning of Game 7 at Yankee Stadium, the last great heartbreak of the bad old days. The following October, of course, Ortiz became the iconic bat on the most beloved Red Sox team of them all, and his performance in the 2004 ALCS comeback against the Yankees remains one of the most famous stretches of hitting in baseball history.
In 2004 I was a Bostonian living in New York and remember all that vividly. But the Ortiz moment at the front of my mind these days came earlier in that postseason, in a now-forgotten three-game ALDS sweep of the Anaheim Angels. The Red Sox had won the first two games handily and were up 6-1 in the top of the seventh inning of Game 3, at Fenway. With the bases loaded and two out, Sox reliever Mike Timlin walked in a run, then surrendered a game-tying grand slam to Vlad Guerrero. Tie game, 6-6.
Without dredging up the bones of insufferable exceptionalism, it's worth remembering that there were about 85 years when the Red Sox were best known for their spectacular proficiency at losing important baseball games. When Guerrero hit that home run, a two-game lead felt more like a two-game deficit. As the game dragged into extra innings I was utterly convinced that if the Red Sox lost, the next two games and the series were as good as forfeited, because that's how it always went.
Then Big Papi stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning and crushed the first pitch he saw over the Green Monster.
Just like that, the series was over. The fact that this home run is now an afterthought in the postseason exploits of David Ortiz tells us all we need to know about everything he's done since. But something about that home run still feels crucial, if only in retrospect. Here was a game the Sox were supposed to win, which meant they were really supposed to lose, except then they won, and suddenly rules were being broken.
Much has been made this postseason of Ortiz being the lone player remaining from that 2004 Red Sox team, but that's the stuff of drive-by hagiography and is only part of the story. Red Sox fans don't just love Ortiz because he was there in 2004, they also love him because he was there in 2003 and has suffered through everything before and since: ugly divorces with erstwhile franchise stars from Nomar Garciaparra to Manny Ramirez to Josh Beckett, to his own positive PED test (failed in 2003 but revealed in 2009, despite the fact that MLB's survey testing was supposed to remain anonymous), relatively abysmal 2009 and 2010 seasons, and many games lost to injury just last year, when then-manager Bobby Valentine essentially accused him of quitting on the team.
That charge, coming as it did from one of the most loathed figures in Red Sox history, likely made Ortiz even more popular, if such a thing is even possible. Ortiz's connection to Boston is defined by triumph but was forged in misery, and has been nurtured by his own unique endurance. Big Papi is far from the greatest athlete in the city's history, but a third World Series title would surely make him the most beloved. Brady is Brady but the Pats aren't the Sawx; Bird is an icon but his heart always belonged to French Lick. Bobby Orr may have been the greatest player to ever lace up skates, but even in chilly Boston the stars on the ice will never outshine Fenway's brightest lights. The Red Sox themselves have had plenty of immortals, from Williams to Yaz to Pudge to Pedro, but Ortiz's championship success and staying power are unmatched. He's also perhaps the first icon of Boston baseball who seems to unreservedly love playing there, a fact not lost on an ever-attentive and notoriously thin-skinned fan-base.
The significance of Ortiz being a dark-skinned Dominican man shouldn't be ignored, nor should it be triumphantly waved around to shrug off a long history of Boston racism, in sports and everything else. Those wounds are still open, and still healing. A statue of Bill Russell will finally be unveiled in Boston's City Hall Plaza on Nov. 1, a gesture that is long overdue. Russell is the greatest athlete in the city's history by almost any measure and a man whose relationship to the region was long marred by bigotry and ugly mistreatment. As Russell's former teammate and longtime Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsohn once put it, “[Russell] came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a [expletive] tunnel after Ted Williams.”
Ortiz is no Bill Russell — no one is Bill Russell — and the stoic, fiercely private Celtics center was never Ortiz. But not long ago the suggestion that a person of color from the Dominican Republic might stand before 37,000 Bostonians on a strange spring day and declare that “this is our [expletive] city” and be heard, instantly, as the voice of an injured Hub — more so than its Italian-American mayor, than its African-American governor, than any Kennedy, Cabot, or Winthrop — would have been unthinkable. Then again, so would the suggestion that the Red Sox might be on the brink of their third World Series title in 10 years. We watch sports to see rules get broken.