BOSTON -- As David Ortiz held court Monday afternoon with two reporters who covered his entire playing career with the Red Sox, he looked like the Big Papi of old. He moved without pain. He laughed easily. He communicated freely even after discussing his harrowing experience over the past three months.
This was noteworthy because it in no way described how Ortiz looked or felt just a few short weeks ago.
Ortiz feared first for his life, and then for his quality of life, when doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital performed a third surgery on him in early July as a result of complications that stemmed from the gunshot wound he suffered in the Dominican Republic on June 9.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to be who I am right now and go back to normal, you know? At some point, I started losing hope,” said Ortiz, in what is a startling admission from someone who has always carried himself without fear, be it on the baseball field, in public or with his family.
The first surgery was performed in the Dominican in the hours after the shooting -- for which Ortiz still has no explanation. Doctors operated on his damaged intestines and liver, and they had to remove his gallbladder.
The second happened just after he was transported via a medivac from the Dominican to Boston in order to make sure the first surgery was done correctly, which it was.
But as the weeks went by, Ortiz wasn’t turning a corner. He wasn’t able to eat or drink without a feeding tube. Doctors then figured out why he wasn’t recovering.
“They discovered that this bullet gave me a bacteria that they had never seen before,” said Ortiz. “They had this team, antibacteria team. They were really on me, hard, because they want to get this out of my body. The reality is that they did, but they fought with it. The reason why they went in the third time is because the bacteria had my intestine all kinked. It wasn’t able to function.”
In the hours after the first surgery, things were moving so fast and Ortiz was out of it enough that at least he couldn’t fully comprehend what was happening to him. But the entire process around the third surgery was jarring to him.
“Now I know what I’m dealing with,” Ortiz said. “Now I know where I got damaged and I know that those parts weren’t working the way the doctor expects. They started talking about a third surgery. Then, when I was hearing all that, you get scared because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to survive. But then I survived, and my next thing to worry about was, 'What am I going to be like after everything?' That’s when you really start worrying about things.”
Food for thought
Once it became clear to Ortiz that he would survive, he became worried about one of the most simple joys in life -- being able to consume and appreciate food again.
“I spent six weeks without eating or drinking. I had this tube going from my nose to my stomach that was the one that was going to dictate … whatever I got in my stomach, that tube would get it back out,” said Ortiz. “I used to move it sometimes trying to drink water, because I would get so thirsty.”
What does Ortiz remember as the lowest point?
“I guess when you start losing hope,” said Ortiz. “Before and after I got my third surgery, I was losing weight and I wasn’t looking right.”
But then Ortiz turned a corner that he is still basking in each day.
“Right after I got my third surgery, a week after, I still wasn’t able to swallow or drink anything. Think about that. It was bad,” said Ortiz. “But on the other hand, Dr. [David] King and everybody there was very confident. They motivate you. Dr. King, every time he kept on telling me not to worry and that I was going to be fine. He never gave me any doubt. Even when he told me he was going to have to go in again because of the bacteria, he was not worried about anything.”
In the ensuing weeks, Ortiz had to train his body to eat again.
“So one week went by after I got my last surgery, and then food start making sense to me,” said Ortiz. “The smell started coming to my attention, so I told my sister to make me this soup which she makes, which is delicious. I basically started fighting with myself, training my stomach. When you spend that much time without eating … your stomach is a muscle, which is trained. I start having soup and I would get full right away.
“My appetite started coming back, but I wasn’t able to eat anything solid yet until I got to my house [in late July]. So once I got to my house, Dr. King would tell me, ‘Look, you’re going to have a small portion today, and if it feels good, you get bigger portions and you start increasing it like that. And let me know if you start feeling sick or something.’ But I never did. I was good.”
That scary night
The striking thing to Ortiz about the night he was shot is that the day couldn’t have started any more innocently.
“All I can remember is that I had a wonderful day that day with my kids,” said Ortiz. “I went to a facility where they were driving cars and playing around and all of a sudden I decided to go with a friend of mine. This one place -- it’s a very nice place, a lot of big-time people go -- I sit down and have a drink, and all of a sudden, I got shot. It’s something that I will not forget about.”
Ortiz wanted to emphasize how safe an environment he felt he was in.
“I was there for an hour and a half, two hours. Hanging out, having conversation with people. This place wasn’t a club,” said Ortiz. “This place was like, on a patio, that kind of type of place where you go have lunch, have a drink, go have conversation. That was a little confusing for people here when they first started talking about [the shooting], thinking that it was a club. It wasn’t a club. It was an outdoor patio, basically, where you just sit down and they serve you.
“I go there like, pretty much, once in a while when I’m back home, only on Sunday, and never heard of a problem. Man, I’ve never heard of anything bad happening there before. I think my experience was the first one ever happening there.”
At first, Ortiz was almost numb to the pain. And then it started to seep in.
“Yeah, I mean, I got shot, and to be honest, I wasn’t hurting [at first],” said Ortiz. “I felt like a little burn, but I don’t even look at that. I know that I was hurting because of the impact and the sound. I started hurting later, probably when I was about to walk into the surgery.
“You know how your body needs to have a certain point so you stabilize and you know what you’re doing? I felt like that was walking away from me, at some point. Not right away, but at some point, I wasn’t feeling as strong as I feel [normally], and I guess it was because I was bleeding, and that’s what happens when you get shot, I guess.”
The first fortunate thing that happened for Ortiz is the flawless way doctors in the Dominican handled his first surgery. The second was when the Red Sox -- in conjunction with Ortiz’s wife, Tiffany -- made the joint decision to get him on a medivac to Mass General.
Ortiz barely remembers the transport.
“I didn’t feel any of that,” Ortiz said. “I was still doped up from the medication. I remember one thing. I remember telling my Dad, ‘Dad, cover my feet. I’m feeling a little cold.’ And then I passed out. The next time I woke up was when I got to Mass General. I don’t even know when they took me out of the airplane once I got here. All I know is I opened my eyes once I got out of the ambulance going into Mass General and then, boom, pass out again. They took me to the [operating] room again.”
Getting to the bottom of it
If there’s one thing troubling Ortiz, it’s that he still has no idea why someone shot him. There has certainly been tabloid gossip, all of which Ortiz says is patently false.
“There were so many rumors out there. But like I told them, the Dominican is a country that social media informs you somehow, some way, because there is no consequence,” said Ortiz. “There are people that ... come out there with some things that aren’t true, just because they want to get followed or get some likes. There are a lot of rumors, a lot of bad things came out, but none of them were related to what really happened to me.”
Ortiz recently hired former Boston Police Department commissioner Ed Davis to work in conjunction with Dominican authorities in an effort to find out why he was targeted.
At this point, Ortiz doesn’t have much to go by.
“I have no clue,” Ortiz said. “It’s more based on being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Papi can go home again
Regardless of what the independent investigation uncovers, Ortiz said that he will go back to the Dominican Republic in the next couple of months, maybe by late November or December.
And contrary to what you might think, Ortiz said it will be a joyful moment when he returns to his homeland.
“I have my family and my friends over there,” Ortiz said. “It’s going to be really good to go back home and be able to spend time with my family and stuff. I can’t wait.”
How can Ortiz go back so easily after what occurred?
“I’m a strong person, mentally. I have seen things worse happening to people, and people get through it. So I guess that’s going to my case,” Ortiz said. “I feel safe. I feel fine. I’m just not going to be walking around back home like I used to. I don’t have no problem with nobody, so I don’t feel like I have to be all full of fear and stuff like that. In my case, I never thought something like that would happen to me, especially back home. But once it happens, you have to be more careful.”
In the coming weeks, Ortiz will go back to work for FOX in October as a studio analyst during the MLB postseason. And the weekend before Thanksgiving, he will host his annual golf tournament, which has been relocated from the Dominican to Miami this year.
At some point, Ortiz will be able to fully decompress and take complete stock of all he’s gone through.
“Man, I’m telling you, I’ve been living an experience the past three months,” said Ortiz. “It’s a life experience, man, and just thanks to God, I’m happy to be here. Happy for the opportunity to be here. Thanks to God every day, I’m so thankful and grateful.”
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.