ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There is nothing small about Big Papi.
The smile. The swing. The “bombs.” The strut. The stature. The numbers. The persona. The divide among fans and media over his legacy.
They're all bigger-than-big, even in an era of supersized everything.
Saturday, Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz became the 27th major league player to hit 500 career home runs by hitting his second home run of the game off Tampa Bay's Matt Moore. The milestone came off a 2-2 curveball that landed in the right field bleachers. The crowd gave Ortiz a rousing ovation, and his teammates greeted him after he rounded the bases. The solo shot led off the fifth inning and gave Boston an 8-0 lead.
The 500th-home run milestone highlights Ortiz's incredible history of production. His 442 home runs in Boston place him third in franchise history behind Ted Williams, who hit all of his 521 homers for the Red Sox, and Carl Yastrzemski (452).
Ortiz becomes the fourth player to hit his 500th home run as a member of the Red Sox, joining Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Manny Ramirez. Saturday marked the 50th multi-home run game of his career.
For Big Papi, and Major League Baseball, 500 home runs is a big deal.
Before hitting his 500th home run, Ortiz spoke with Bleacher Report about his place in baseball history, his polarizing legacy and his Hall of Fame chances.
Producing 3,000 career hits, 300 career wins or 500 home runs once meant guaranteed admission to Cooperstown.
After the arrival of baseball’s performance-enhancing drug era, though, that is no longer the case.
“Those are tough numbers,” said Ortiz, who has hit 20 or more home runs 14 times and 30 or more homers nine times. He recognized that even with those superlatives, he had not yet hit home run No. 500. “Not a lot of us get to play 14 seasons or more. Not a lot of us get to stay consistent. That’s the most important thing, staying consistent. Look at the history of the game. Not many guys hit 500 home runs. It’s crazy.”
Ortiz tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003, along with then-teammate Ramirez, during a pilot testing program. The results were supposed to be anonymous, but the New York Times reported them.
Ortiz, then and now, denies knowingly using any banned substances. He told Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe in March it would be “unfair” if anyone denied him a Hall of Fame vote because of the 2003 positive. “I was using what everybody was using at the time,” he added.
This weekend, Ortiz continued to make the case that his on-field performance merits a Hall of Fame vote with his bat. His response to critics who believe his accomplishments are illegitimate is two-fold:
Focus on the positive. And baseball isn’t as easy as it looks.
“This game is hard enough. Some people look at this game, and they think it’s easier than what it is,” Ortiz said. “This game is not easy at all. This game burns your brain cells, even on your best day. Just for being consistent, and being able to perform at this level for years, I think that I deserve respect.
Ortiz turns 40 this November. In 273 at-bats from June 11 through Sept. 11, he offered a display of “old-man strength” at the plate. His batting rampage produced 26 home runs, 19 doubles, 70 RBI and a monstrous 1.062 OPS.
"When the big man runs the court, you have to hand him the ball." Red Sox interim manager and Boston Celtics aficionado-for-the-moment Torey Lovullo said after Ortiz was an unexpected insert into Saturday's lineup. "The Chief [Robert Parish] didn't run down the court not to dunk. D.J. [Dennis Johnson] had to give him the ball. You have to feed the Chief."
Indicative of the duplicitous nature of Ortiz's legacy was the controversy that surrounded his absence from the Red Sox lineup on July 12 due to the flu, the last game before the All-Star break. Ortiz didn’t play in an 8-6 loss to the Yankees. Boston left 10 men on base that night and fell six-and-a-half games back with the loss. Boston would not score another run for a week.
"I was sick," he said.
Nearly every discussion of his baseball legacy on talk radio, in social media or online triggers an immediate surge in the use of the words “steroids” and “cheater” among callers or commenters. It is an unwelcome but omnipresent part of his biography. In a first-person essay for the Players' Tribune in March, Ortiz claims he’s been tested more than 80 times and never failed a single test.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he is clean, some say. Gordon Edes has covered Ortiz’s entire career in Boston, with both the Boston Globe and ESPN.
Edes wrote for ESPN.com in March:
No one in 2015 -- as Ortiz surely must understand -- can offer passed drug tests as irrefutable proof of innocence, not when the two biggest drug cheats in sports, cyclist Lance Armstrong and Ortiz’s onetime close friend, Alex Rodriguez, used to make the same argument, in terms just as passionate as Ortiz, before they were exposed.
Edes has a Hall of Fame vote and has voted for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire in the past. He said Saturday that Ortiz deserves his Hall of Fame vote when he appears on the ballot.
When asked about his positive PED test, Ortiz chose to focus on the positive accomplishments of his career. "I like to have fun. Make people laugh. I'm not a negative. I don't like criticism just for the sake of it. I choose to stay positive."
Ortiz offered support of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady via Twitter after Brady's four-game suspension was lifted in early September. Not surprisingly, Ortiz picks the Patriots to repeat. Both Ortiz and the Patriots are dogged by accusations of cheating their way to success.
In 2007, coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for his role in Spygate. Last week, ESPN The Magazine's Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham (via ESPN.com), as well as Greg Bishop, Michael Rosenberg and Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated, published stories detailing further allegations of wrongdoing by the team.
"It's always going to be like that. You're not always going to make everyone happy," Ortiz said of the critics in both cases. "A lot of people who follow your career, and are on the positive side, that's all you've got to care about."
Parts of Ortiz’s workout regimen were featured in the 2014 biopic David Ortiz: In The Moment.
“The workout I did 20 years ago, there’s a better way to do it 20 years later. Everything has changed,” he said. “Guys who got to the big leagues throwing a 92-, 93-mile-per-hour fastball, now they’re throwing harder. The game had gotten quicker through the years. I don’t do more than what I used, but I try to keep up. A lot of us can’t keep up with what we did when we were younger because your body can’t take it anymore.”
It was also “in the moment,” Ortiz dropped his televised atomic F-bomb (warning: link contains NSFW language) on April 20, 2013. It came at Fenway Park in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt.
“People look at me differently because of what I do because I’m a baseball player. But I’m also a citizen,” Ortiz recalled. “It struck all of us. In 2013, we all suffered, not just if you were a baseball player, basketball player or a football player. But as a citizen. We all struggled with that. I said what I felt.
“I don’t think it was fair. Especially in the marathon, where everybody was racing to try and raise money to fight disease. There’s never a perfect time to do something like that. But the marathon? It was very frustrating. I said what I said as a citizen, as a member of the city of Boston, New England, who was affected by it.”
That moment, piled upon a litany of clutch postseason batting heroics, 400-plus career home runs with the Red Sox and the most recognizable smile in Boston sports history, has helped elevate Ortiz to a spot on the Red Sox Mt. Rushmore.
The Red Sox signed Ortiz as a free agent before the 2003 season following his release by the Minnesota Twins. Ortiz boasts a .553 slugging percentage in 82 playoff games. Seven of his 17 postseason home runs have given Boston a lead.
Did we mention he has three World Series rings, plus some massive World Series MVP bling?
As has been the norm at the original Fenway South for more than a decade, the crowds (14,796 Friday) at Tropicana Field this weekend were sprinkled with Red Sox hats and No. 34 jerseys. Saturday's second home run, No. 500, set off a standing ovation that continued after he crossed the plate and hugged teammates.
Heath Busa, 37, grew up in Massachusetts. Busa and his 11-year-old son Bryce, showed up at Tropicana Field on Friday wearing Red Sox attire and voicing hopes of seeing Ortiz hit No. 500. Heath Busa was unbending when it came to Ortiz's entrance into Cooperstown.
“He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Absolutely,” said Busa, who now lives in Tampa. “For what he’s done for the city of Boston, the three world championships, being one of the most clutch hitters of all time. One positive in ’03 doesn’t tarnish his legacy.”
Bryce showed support for his favorite player in form of a shirt that read “Big Papi Owns Boston.” Bryce’s generation will likely have the final say on Oritz’s historic legacy. If it does, Ortiz’s legacy is secure.
“I like him mainly because he’s cool, and he hits tons of bombs,” Bryce said.
Ortiz is often the coolest person in the room, even a room as vast and cavernous as Tropicana Field. Ortiz walked onto the field two hours and eight minutes before Friday's game as the Rays completed batting practice.
The spotlight quickly found him. Ortiz worked the scene smoother than Goodfellas' Henry Hill waltzing into the Copacabana. And he didn’t have to hand out $20s along the way. Ortiz hugged it out with former teammate Daniel Nava, chatted and glad-handed with members of the Rays, the Tropicana Field grounds crew and Boston fans screaming for his autograph.
The Red Sox team stretch began without him, but Ortiz quickly joined in with Hansel Ramirez. The middle son of Hanley Ramirez—a mini-me of his dad—was in a mini-Red Sox uniform wearing No. 13 and celebrating his eighth birthday. Ortiz’s stretch quickly devolved into a playful wrestling match with Hansel, the young boy’s howls of laughter echoing off the empty seats along the third base line.
“Watch out for that kid. He can rake,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz’s focus remains that of a full-time player (87 percent of his career games as a DH) who plans to play in 2016. His 550th plate appearance this season boosts a 2016 contract guarantee to $14 million, per Ricky Doyle of NESN.
His contract has a club option for 2017.
He doesn’t see himself becoming manager—“I’m good at talking”—but has, at times, taken an on-field leadership role.
Ortiz had his own Belichickian “Do Your Job” moment during Game 4 of the 2013 World Series. With Boston trailing 2-1 in the series and the game tied 1-1, TV cameras caught him yelling at a gathering of his teammates in the dugout.
“It was like 24 kindergarteners looking up at their teacher," Jonny Gomes noted at the time (via Boston.com's Obnoxious Boston Fan). That inning, Boston scored three runs and never trailed again in the series.
“[Terry] Francona, when he was my manager, he used to call me into his office. He told me, ‘I just want to remind you that there’s a lot of guys watching you. So I don’t want to forget that. I don’t want you to forget that that’s going on, even if you’re in your own planet,’” Ortiz recalled.
“That team, it wasn’t all about me,” said Ortiz, who hit .688 against the Cardinals. “We were underdogs who made it to the World Series. There were a whole bunch of young guys who didn’t have playoff experience. There was a little bit of pressure on those guys.
"Watching my teammates perform [at that time in Game 4] versus how we got there, there was a gap. When I hollered at them, I just reminded them of who they were, and why we got there. ‘Let’s go back and not try to overdo things.’ I guess that kind of clicked. After that, it was nonstop.”
Here's a photo of Ortiz's "tutorial session" with Hanley Ramirez:
Ortiz said he’s willing to resurrect that on-field leadership mode whenever he sees the need.
“We have meetings. We talk. Young guys want to know what you have to say about things,” he said. “Experience, sometimes, you need to put it in play. I’m pretty much on the bench watching everybody. There’s a lot of guys they get concerned about. That’s what experience is for. It’s going to come from the veteran players—guys who pretty much know everything about their teammates.”
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist and Bay State native. He wrote the “Obnoxious Boston Fan” column for Boston.com from 2011 to 2015. Follow him on Twitter @RealOBF.