Papi's swan song will be a celebration for baseball

Red Sox legend's impact reaches far beyond fans at Fenway Park

February 23rd, 2016

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- No team does pageantry quite like the Red Sox. Few players have ever come along like David Ortiz.

The intersection of those two forces is guaranteed to bring a lot of wonderful moments at Fenway Park this season. Big Papi tributes will flow from the April 11 home opener through the afternoon game against the Blue Jays on Oct. 2, and a little deeper into the fall if the 40-year-old Ortiz has it his way.

Ortiz still hungry, but ready 'to pass the torch'

It would be fitting if the Red Sox returned to the postseason in Ortiz's final season. But no matter how this turns out -- whether the Sox thrill us with another run to the World Series or finish back in the pack in a balanced American League East -- there should be goosebumps all around baseball whenever the big-hearted, emotional Ortiz is in town.

Ortiz cemented his place in New England culture with his curse-busting collection of home runs and big hits en route to three World Series championships, as well as his salty use of language after the Boston Marathon bombing, but he's more than just a Boston treasure.

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Big Papi has fans in his native Dominican Republic and across the baseball landscape. Just as you didn't have to be a Yankees fan to appreciate Derek Jeter, you don't have to own Red Sox gear to marvel at how Ortiz showed up at Fenway Park as a 27-year-old and turned himself into an icon who changed the history of the game.

"I look at him as a guy who has the ability to rise in certain moments,'' Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "A better way of saying that is he didn't let the moment take him out of his own game. You think of great players, they're able to keep a calm heartbeat. Their pulse doesn't race. They're able to continue to perform in those most critical moments.

"I don't know if anybody in Red Sox history -- and you'd be hard pressed to find another player in baseball [history] -- has had moments in critical junctures of the game play out as David has. We're fortunate of being on the receiving end of those, and it's created lasting memories for all of us.''

No one who ever watched Ortiz drive a pitch deep into the right-field stands or over the Green Monster and then circle the bases with his chest out like Ali after a knockout will ever forget that sight. It doesn't matter whether you rooted for the Red Sox or the team they were playing against. Maybe you didn't have a favorite team.

If you went to a ballpark to be entertained, Ortiz always did his best to send you home with a smile on your face. He knows he's always been lucky to be a baseball player, and he never minded sharing it. Big Papi's bond with Boston fans runs deep.

Ortiz's 12th-inning homer off the Yankees' Paul Quantrill in Game 4 of the 2004 AL Championship Series provides a true line of demarcation between the Red Sox's long run of empty Octobers and their era of abundance. His clutch hitting is the common bond to the World Series titles in 2004, '07 and '13, with him batting .455 in the World Series and piling up 17 home runs and 60 RBIs in 82 postseason games.

"Playing for these fans, it's something,'' Ortiz said on Tuesday at JetBlue Park, after Boston's workout. "They can see. They see it all. They watch. When they're at the field, when they're watching the game on TV, they know. 

"They can feel, sense the guys who go out there and, [in] those nine innings or whatever we play, they know when the players gave everything they had trying to walk away with a 'W.' They know, and they appreciate that. I have been lucky, and they have embraced me. They know when I go out there and try my best, even when I'm not feeling my best.''

After hitting 58 home runs in six years for the Twins, Ortiz has 445 in his 13 seasons in Boston. His total of 503 ranks 27th all time (third among active players, behind Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols) and leaves him only 18 short of Ted Williams' total.

Ortiz was asked if he pictured himself like Williams, going out with a dramatic home run in his final at-bat at Fenway Park.

"It's not that easy,'' he said, laughing.

There's no scripting a baseball season, and Ortiz is looking at the one ahead like any of the others.

Ortiz is thrilled that Dave Dombrowski imported David Price and Craig Kimbrel to add heft to a pitching staff that missed Jon Lester last season. He can't wait to spend more time working with talented, inquisitive players like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who pepper him with questions like he once did Jason Varitek and Manny Ramirez, among others. Ortiz would love to play into October again, making it impossible to know when he would play his final game.

But this season will be different, because Ortiz will be saying farewell to fans wherever he goes.

"I will give my appreciation to the fans,'' Ortiz said. "It doesn't matter who we play. As a player, you have to be thankful to the fans for their support through the years.

"We make our living through the fans. I'm a player who has never forgot about that. I try to be the best I can be with the fans. It doesn't matter who you're cheering for. It doesn't matter if you cheer for Cleveland, Baltimore, for whoever. You are supporting me because you are a baseball fan.''

The end is coming, and Ortiz believes he's ready for it. His eyes are clear, his heartbeat steady. You wouldn't want to be the pitcher facing Big Papi on his final day.