Big Papi: David Ortiz reflects on his legacy with the Red Sox

By Roger Rubin, The Sports Xchange  |  May 2, 2016 at 10:15 AM
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BOSTON -- Ted Williams knew exactly what he wanted for a legacy. It was simple and grand. He wanted those who saw him passing by to say "there goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter that ever lived."

The matter of legacies is now significant for another Red Sox icon, David Ortiz. Big Papi announced last fall that 2016 would be his final season. And so we reminded him of what Williams wanted and asked him last week what he would want people to think as he passes by after he retires.

He needed time to work up to a response during a 20-minute conversation.

As it weaved along through the his three World Series championship seasons, his take on the way the Red Sox fan base has morphed in the 14 season he's spent in Boston and whether he will really walk away if he has the kind of season this one is shaping up to be, he finally came up with an answer.

"I'm going to tell you this: I would like people to say when they see me walking by 'there is the guy who made the impossible become possible,'" Ortiz told The Sports Xchange.

Once again, Big Papi goes deep when there is a moment to rise to.

That is exactly who he is: in his personal career, in how he helped changed the direction of the 2004 postseason and helped lift the Red Sox their first World Series title in 86 years, in how he changed the culture and attitude of an entire region of baseball fans.

There will be those who will want to anoint Ortiz the greatest Red Sox player of all-time because of all the hardware he showered on the organization. And it's possible that is how he will be remembered by this generation of Sox fans. But this is also the organization that produced Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, that starred Pedro Martinez in his prime as well as Roger Clemens in his.

Is Big Papi the greatest Red Sox player of all-time? Perhaps. Is he the most historically significant? There is no doubt. David Ortiz is the most important player the franchise has ever had.

The comeback to defeat the Yankees in the 2004 AL Championship Series after trailing in the series three games to none - something that had never happened in baseball - still lights him up and was the beginning of his legend.

"I was talking to my friend the other day and it was really the first time I've thought about the comeback we had in 2004. It was something that was impossible, impossible because the game before they scored (19) runs," Ortiz said. "I am not going to lie to you: I wasn't expecting to come back because of what happened the game before. But as a professional, you have to come in and do what you've got to do. But if I tell you now that I thought we'd beat them after we were down 3-0, I'm lying to you.

"When you look at it, even to think about it, it's impossible. With a team like they had that year? I'm serious - impossible. But it's not because it happened."

It's not like Ortiz did it himself, but he was the fulcrum for the momentum swing with his game-winning homer in the 12th inning of Game 4 and his walk-off single in the 14th inning of Game 5.

That Ortiz would be part of such a comeback could be forecast by his career path. He was actually cut by the Twins after the 2002 season. "I was a guy who was an underdog, released by an organization. I was a guy with tons of people doubting me," Ortiz said.

"I am not a five-tool guy, you know what I am saying? I play OK defense and I can throw a little bit. I am not fast. I am probably not in the top 10 hitters in the game. But I showed up when it matters, you know? That's my tool. That's my tool. I take it personal. I mentally feel like I'm better when I am at the plate than anyone else. That's my mentality - I am not saying that I am - but when I am at the plate I'll take my chances against anybody. To me, I want people to look at me and think 'yes I can.'"

"When he's done, he will be on the Mount Rushmore of Red Sox," longtime Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione said. "It's not just performance, though that is deserving enough. His personality and passion have made him special here.

As for 'yes I can?' It's more like 'yes we can' when it comes to the Boston fan base. For decades each Red Sox season came with a great hope and the loathing of the stretch where it would ultimately fall apart. Today - after World Series title in 2004, 2007 and 2013 - the fans in New England can see every season ending in a Champagne celebration in the clubhouse.

"Maybe they didn't before but they believe now," Ortiz said. "It happened and not once, not two, but three times."

And over that time Ortiz, the ultimate postseason prime-time player, earned a spot in the New England consciousness as more than a player. He felt it, too. That's why when the Red Sox returned to Fenway after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Ortiz couldn't help but pick up the microphone during the per-game ceremony and, unrehearsed, address the crowd.

His memorable words: "This is our f---ing city. And nobody's going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

"There are a lot of people who come up to me and thank me for the World Series, say their grandpa or mother or wife or father or grandma loved the Red Sox and went in peace because we finally won," Ortiz said." Just as many thank me for what I said that day.

"It wasn't David Ortiz speaking out there," he added. "It was a citizen that was feeling the pain and suffering just like everyone else. And I guarantee, if you'd pulled anyone from the stands and put the microphone to them, they would have said almost exactly the same as I did."

"It's hard to imagine another athlete, especially in these days, doing something like that," Castiglione said. "Some of the guys who were very brave in the late 1960s and spoke out for civil rights were amazing. But doing that right there? That's part of what makes David so special."

When Ortiz is ultimately assessed in the pantheon of Red Sox players by traditional measures, he may be the great but not the greatest. He doesn't have the .344 lifetime average of Williams or the 3,419 hits and seven Gold Gloves of Yastrzemski. He doesn't have the three Cy Youngs that Clemens earned of the two that Martinez chalked up in an exceptional seven seasons.

He will always be shadowed unfairly for playing the designated hitter position. And there is the allegation that he tested positive for a still-unnamed performance-enhancing drug in 2003 survey testing before the substances were illegal in baseball, though that almost never seems to bear mentioned.

Outside Fenway Park there are statues of Williams and Yastrzemski. It's because they made singular contributions unlike any other. Ortiz did that too, made the impossible in New England possible. One day he should stand forever with them as well.

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