This spring training with be first without legendary Ortiz
His 541 career homers ranks 17th alltime, ahead of legends such as Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx and Ernie Banks and just behind others such as Mike Schmidt, Manny Ramirez and Reggie Jackson.
But Mr. Ortiz can’t be measured solely by home run or RBI totals over a 20-year career that ended in 2016.
He was far more than numbers on a statistical website or the back of a baseball card. Mr. Ortiz was a charismatic, galvanizing, inspiring figure for the Red Sox, likely the greatest clutch hitter ever.
On the biggest stage in the biggest games against the toughest competition with the most on the line, Mr. Ortiz was at his best.
But he won’t be at JetBlue Park this spring training or making road trips to CenturyLink Sports Complex and the Charlotte Sports Park.
It will be the first spring training without him in Fort Myers since 1996, when he was a minor-leaguer in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system. The Mariners traded him to the Minnesota Twins later that year and in 2002 the Twins released him. In 2003, Mr. Ortiz signed a free-agent deal with the Red Sox, and then became a legend.
In three World Series, all won by the Red Sox, he hit .455 with three homers and 14 RBI. Then there were the dramatics, the unparalleled even uncanny ability he had to deliver in the late innings when the Red Sox were teetering on the brink of elimination from series.
But it was even more than that. People who have reported on the Red Sox and other Boston pro sports teams for many years said this man from the Dominican Republic might deserve a spot on the city’s mythical Mount Rushmore of sports legends, or at least serious consideration.
Mount Rushmore has room for only four but Ortiz is in that conversation with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, legendary Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins and Bill Russell and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics.
He rose to the occasion in an even more memorable way than cracking walk-off homers. Mr. Ortiz delivered in an emotional way at a wrenching time in the city’s history, a moment that transcended sports.
In the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Mr. Ortiz spoke to a packed Fenway Park about the city and its response to the terrorist attack. The players wore jerseys that day that carried the city’s name instead of the team name.
“All right, Boston,” Mr. Ortiz told the crowd five days after the bombing. “This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox,’ it says ‘Boston.’ …. This is our f------ city and nobody is going to dictate our freedoms. Stay strong.”
That cemented his place in Boston sports history.
“He’s one of us,” said mlb.com writer Ian Browne, who has covered Mr. Ortiz and the Red Sox since 2004.
Boston Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley said there was some debate for a few days about the strong language used in the ballpark but that faded away. What would the sports columnist have said if asked to speak at the ballpark?
“I would have said exactly the same thing,” Mr. Buckley said.
The speech elevated Mr. Ortiz to another level.
“He became a citizen/baseball player,” Mr. Buckley said.
Mr. Ortiz was a special presence in the batter’s box, the dugout and clubhouse and even beyond. Veteran Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione has been in Boston since before Ortiz arrived in 2003.
He knows what he will miss as the Red Sox enter the 2017 season without Mr. Ortiz.
“His smile,” Mr. Castiglione said. “The magnitude of it. He’s larger than life. He loved the game and he loved people and very emotional. … A wonderful guy.”
It was a rare package of talent, bonhomie and charisma that cemented his spot in Red Sox lore.
Oh, those big hits certainly helped.
“He didn’t press in the big moments,” Mr. Castiglione said. ”He really thought the pressure was on the pitcher.”
Mr. Castiglione has broadcast Red Sox games since 1983. His knowledge of the Red Sox and their history is likely surpassed by few people. Mr. Ortiz is clearly in the pantheon of all-time Red Sox greats, in Mr. Castiglione’s view.
He’s there on the Red Sox Mount Rushmore, Mr. Castiglione believes, with Mr. Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and pitcher Pedro Martinez. If he could squeeze a fifth player on the team’s Mount Rushmore, Mr. Castiglione would like to find room for pitcher Roger Clemens.
But for Mr. Ortiz there is no doubt, in the broadcaster’s opinion.
The Twins, though, had their doubts on Mr. Ortiz, releasing him in December of 2002. The Red Sox signed him in January of 2003.
Red Sox fans and media know the legend. They’ve seen what he’s done. They know Mr. Ortiz’s 483 homers with the Red Sox are second in franchise history behind Mr. Williams’ 521. They know his 1,530 RBI rank third in team history, behind only Mr. Yastrzemski and Mr. Williams. They also know he’s more than the sum of his statistics.
If a mythical Boston sports version of Mt. Rushmore existed, Mr. Buckley would place the 1940s and 1950s’ left-handed slugger on it ahead of the just retired DH.
Despite missing all of three seasons during World War II and most of two other seasons during the Korean War for military service, Mr. Williams ended his career with 521 homers and a .344 batting average.
Mr. Buckley said younger fans might lean toward the DH.
“It’s sort of a generational thing,” Mr. Buckley said.
While Mr. Ortiz thrived in post-season play, in Mr. Williams’ only opportunity, the 1946 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he hit 200 with no homers or RBI.
Mr. Ortiz’ fabled post-season run success could never, of course, have been predicted. In the winter of 2002, after hitting .272 with 20 homers and 75 RBI with the Twins, Mr. Ortiz signed a free agent deal with Boston. In each of his first five seasons with the Red Sox he knocked in more than 100 runs.
He became one of the game’s most feared sluggers.
“They never imagined that,” Mr. Browne said of the Twins.
Nor could anybody have predicted the magnitude of his popularity.
“I think he might be the most popular player in Red Sox history,” Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Ortiz played on all three of the Red Sox championship teams.
“The one common thread on all three teams,” Mr. Browne said.
In 2004, Mr. Ortiz was a critical part of the team that became the first and still only team to overcome a 3-0 post-season playoff series deficit. They shocked the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
“He was driving the bus for that team,” Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Ortiz continued slugging right to the end of his career, hitting .315 with 38 homers and 127 RBI at age 40. But it was more than raw numbers. He led the American League last year in RBI, slugging percentage (.620), OPS (.1021) and doubles (48).
“Probably the best walk-off season ever,” Mr. Browne said.
In the end, though, it was more than clutch performances and consistency. It was also an engaging personality that endeared Mr. Ortiz to fans.
“I’ve never seen such a high profile player make time for so many years,” Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Browne said he’s seen Mr. Ortiz take time before games to chat with sick children.
No DH has ever been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame but Mr. Ortiz, who also played some first base, could become the first.
“I think he’ll go in,” Mr. Browne said.
But first he has to wait the standard five years before becoming eligible. Now, the 2017 Red Sox will start a season without him for the first time in 15 years.
Mr. Buckley will miss the slugger.
“As a sports columnist I celebrate the guys who are fun to talk and write about,” Mr. Buckley said.
Red Sox fans will continue celebrating David Ortiz for many years to come. ¦
>> Pos: DH
>> HT: 6-3. WT: 230
>> Career: 1997-2016
Red Sox career home run leaders
1. Ted Williams 521
2. David Ortiz 483
3. Carl Yastrzemski 452
Red Sox career RBI leaders
1. Carl Yastrzemski 1,844
2. Ted Williams 1,839
3. David Ortiz 1,530