About 18 months ago, I made a wonderful new friend through a community organization that has nothing to do with baseball. So it wasn’t until earlier this year that the Red Sox happened to come up in conversation, and as is so often the case when that’s the subject and I’m involved, I began to wax verbose. Eventually she stopped me, but not because she wasn’t interested: instead, to my surprise, she said she wanted to schedule an evening to hang out so I could tell her more about it when we both didn’t have other places to get to. To my further surprise, she followed through on that idea, and last month, we sat on my couch watching Faith Rewarded with my commentary.
Thus, just last month, I happened to be in a position to explain to someone not familiar with the game just what David Ortiz means to Red Sox fans, and to the City of Boston in general. My friend does a lot of work in the field of racial justice, so I started there, recounting the shameful legacy of the Yawkey years and the fact that the Sox were the dead last team in the league to integrate, 12 years after Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers. In fact, Jackie Robinson and two other promising Negro League players were given a tryout (of sorts) in Boston shortly before Robinson broke the color barrier with another team. The legend goes that someone – someone who was never identified, but who is believed by some to be Tom Yawkey himself – hollered “Get those n-----s off the field,” and that was that until the Sox signed Pumpsie Green in 1959. It would be another few years before the Red Sox had a bona fide star player of color in Hall of Famer Jim Rice, who had more than his fair share of run-ins with the notorious Boston sports press that had been sarcastically nicknamed “the knights of the keyboard” by Ted Williams.
There were several other players of color, such as Mo Vaughn and Pedro Martinez, who laid the groundwork for David Ortiz – Martinez most directly, when he alerted Red Sox management that the Minnesota Twins had let Ortiz go to free agency in early 2003. But in his 13 years with the Red Sox, Ortiz reached a status among Boston fans and press that had been totally unknown to his predecessors – he was one of the few athletes of any cultural background the Red Sox fan base and press corps never turned on in a way they seem to love to do with star players, even the posthumously canonized Williams. Pedro, too, had his run-ins with Boston’s “fellowship of the miserable,” particularly following an injury and conflict with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan in 2001. Despite Pedro’s legendary performances in his early seasons with the Red Sox, there was a time period in 2001 and 2002 where the talk of sports radio was whether he was a “prima donna” for refusing to speak to the press for a while after the Kerrigan affair. Pedro, like so many star Red Sox before him, was not immune to Boston's bitter court of public opinion. Nor were so many other Sox darlings, in the end – even the manager that brought the team their first two World Series championships in 86 and 89 years, respectively, would eventually be dragged through the mud on his way out of town. Yet, even with the shadowy accusations of the Mitchell Report on his record, Ortiz never suffered that total fall from grace in the eyes of local fans. For any player, that was impressive. For a player of color, it was unheard of.
But there are also ways David Ortiz changed the culture of baseball in Boston that have nothing to do with political issues. In actions and in how he carried himself, Ortiz both represented and helped to create a kind of optimism among Red Sox fans that was light years away from the reputation for “Calvinistic self-doubt” and cursed fatalism that had belonged to “lovable loser” Red Sox fans before 2004. His smiling face cheered Sox fans from above the Brookline Avenue Mass Pike bridge that would eventually be renamed after him in early 2004, as Sox fans still stung from the bitter loss to the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. And between the lines, he delivered the opposite of what Red Sox fans had been conditioned to expect – clutch hit after clutch hit to spark comeback wins. By the time Ortiz was through here, what he began even before he threw a desperate town and team onto his back in the epic Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS had become the full-blown baseball zeitgeist. His sunny disposition and dazzling smile were contagious, and he became the new face of a team whose members and fan base truly believed victory was always possible. As with his escape from Boston’s historical pattern of racial animus, he had plenty of help from teammates and predecessors, of course, and he didn’t singlehandedly solve all of the city’s problems. But he undoubtedly changed the tone.
Last month, I happened to meet some men from the Dominican Republic at a work-related event. I didn’t want to presume they were baseball fans solely because of where they were from, but once business niceties were out of the way, eventually the conversation moved to the sport that turned out to be our common passion. In Boston and in the DR, the days Pedro Martinez started, everything else shut down. One of the men said the phrase where he comes from was “Pedro lanza hoy” – “Pedro pitches today.” Nothing else needed to be said, and nothing else mattered.
Eventually, he asked me who was more popular in Boston, Martinez or Ortiz. It was a tough one to answer, since Boston literally would not have one without the other. And Martinez, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was probably the superior player overall, as Ortiz’s Hall of Fame future as a designated hitter remains in doubt for now. Martinez also did plenty to introduce Boston, and the US in general, to Dominican culture and paved the way in more ways than one for Ortiz’s popularity here.
But, I said, at least for Red Sox fans, while Martinez is objectively legendary, Ortiz is subjectively personal in a way Pedro isn’t. The time I met Ortiz at a fan appreciation day in 2009, it took him at least five times as long to circle the field greeting fans as the rest of his teammates. People of all ages could not get enough of him – they handed him their infants and small children without a thought, and just about everyone wanted a hug, myself included, which he obliged. A heartfelt emotional attachment to Ortiz that went far beyond the fans' affection for other players was clear that day, and in the ensuing years of his career, which culminated in the outpouring that marked his final season in 2016 and his number retirement ceremony last June.
It’s also clear that while Ortiz’s playing days are over, his days as a Red Sox icon are not, as he was the only former player, and certainly the only local celebrity of his status, to appear in the Opening Day ceremonies at Fenway Park yesterday. His work as an ambassador between Red Sox Nation and the world – and vice versa – is also clearly ongoing. Aly Raisman is locally heralded in her own right for her accomplishments on and off the Olympic gymnastics mat, and she was greeted with real fervor when she made her entrance at Fenway to kick off the game with “Play Ball” alongside Ortiz on the mound.
What happened next, however, was above and beyond what politeness and ceremony required, and demonstrated why Ortiz remains both a beloved and a groundbreaking figure here. He shed his jersey, tossing it behind him to reveal a black t-shirt underneath emblazoned with the words GIRL POWER. As Ortiz and Raisman left the field, he stopped in full view of the crowd and took a selfie with her. In other words, in front of the fans that worship him, Ortiz made a great show of being her fan. Raisman is her own person with her own stellar career and well-deserved fanbase, but yesterday, at Fenway, she was undeniably on Ortiz’s turf – and he made a point to show the fanbase that would follow him anywhere in just what direction they should look next. Few other athletes in Boston history would dare take such a political risk, but as always, the rules are different for Ortiz. He truly can do no wrong in Boston’s eyes. And Boston will be better for it.