Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz has become one of the faces of baseball, blazed a path that could end with a bust in Cooperstown and captured three World Series championships since 2004. Along the way, the 38-year-old has accomplished something far more impressive than any statistic or accolade can measure: Ortiz has become the embodiment of a Boston sports superstar.
As Patriots' Day is celebrated in New England on Monday, it's time to celebrate Ortiz's ride from Minnesota Twins castoff to one of the most celebrated and important athletes in the recent history of professional sports in the city of Boston.
It's been 12 years since Ortiz arrived—without fanfare, expectations or buzz—to a city starved for a winner in Fenway Park. Since that moment, all-time great credentials and a Mr. October moniker have been bestowed upon the left-handed hitting machine.
In a town where New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady still reigns supreme, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce recently etched their names alongside former legendary Boston Celtics, and memories of a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup are still fresh from 2011, it's not easy to stand out among a rabid group of sports-crazed fans.
Boston is far from a one-act city. Thus, the path to truly capturing fans must extend beyond wins, losses and championships. Clearly, those are prerequisites for a legacy. But to reach the level Ortiz has reached in Boston, more must be part of the story.
Anointing any athlete the "face" of a city or embodiment of a superstar isn't easy, especially in Boston. This is a place where Ted Williams and Bill Russell—despite profiling as top-five players in the history of their respective sports—were never fully embraced. The same can be said for Roger Clemens or Manny Ramirez or a slew of special talents that didn't connect with Boston for long-term adulation.
Despite coming from a different organization, country and background, Ortiz has been embraced by Red Sox Nation as a central figure to the history of the team. Years from now, expect to hear the names "Ortiz" and "Brady" and "Larry Bird" uttered together in Boston lore.
Undoubtedly, Ortiz's legacy jumped to a different level last year. When Boston Marathon runners emerge from the starting line Monday, a nation will rehash the horrible, violent and earth-shattering terror act that took place last year. In the aftermath of evil, sports and athletes are meant to serve as a distraction for people suffering from real pain.
The 2013 Red Sox—led by Ortiz's speech at Fenway Park—took that responsibility to heart. From talking the talk to playing at an elite level on the path to a World Series run, the Red Sox felt like more than just a baseball team last summer. They felt like a friend to a family in need of a laugh and joy.
Leading that joyous charge: the hulking slugger affectionately known as "Big Papi."
When newsstands opened Monday morning, the April 21 edition of Sports Illustrated was for sale. In it, Ortiz made the jump from athlete to columnist to opine about Boston and the strength the city has shown over the last year.
The following excerpt from Ortiz's column stood out, signalling to me why so many in Boston have gravitated to the Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, native:
People made a big deal about what I said last year at Fenway Park, when I spoke before our first home game after the bombing. I didn't know what I was going to say before I went out on the field. I just knew that I was angry. I was frustrated. I was emotional and maybe a little scared—I felt the same way everyone else did. I think we're all the same: In bad times we look for someone to help us through, like a superhero in the movies. When I said, "This is our f-----g city!" I wasn't trying to be that hero. I was just expressing what I was feeling: I was looking for a hero to protect what was ours. Our city. Our Marathon. Our way of life. When I said what I said and I saw the look in people's eyes, I knew we would be all right.
"Like a superhero in the movies": Six seemingly innocuous words in a Sports Illustrated piece written by a present-day athlete. Yet, they perfectly summed up what Ortiz actually is for the city of Boston: a superhero, akin to those that save the day in summer blockbuster movies.
Ortiz can't fly and doesn't even possess all of the five tools scouts look for in star players, but he seemingly always has a knack for coming through in the most important moments. Whether it's a team-rallying speech in the World Series, game-changing at-bat in October or finding the right combination of emotions—profanity included—to connect with a grieving city, Ortiz always finds a way.
Grantland's Bill Simmons—a lifelong Boston sports fan—wrote about Ortiz after the 2013 season, contrasting his path to legend status with Russell. In the column, Simmons summed up what it means to reach this level.
"It’s a great place. It’s the best place. You get to live forever in there. People tell stories about you to their kids, and their grandkids, and they can always say they saw you play."
The city of Boston didn't just see Ortiz play, it saw him rise from anonymity into a modern-day sports superhero. That—and 376 home runs in a Red Sox uniform—is what makes this athlete and his career so rare.
Brady could be the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Russell was the greatest winner in basketball history. In the future, a more prolific slugger will outpace Ortiz's numbers, win World Series games and earn a legion of fans.
None, however, will mean to Boston what Ortiz has meant over the last 12 years.