David Ortiz is the most important player in Boston Red Sox history.
He isn’t the best. That honor still belongs to Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived, and you even could make a strong case that a few fellow Red Sox legends rank between The Splendid Splinter and Big Papi. But no player to ever don a Red Sox uniform has impacted the franchise, the city, the region’s culture and the landscape of Major League Baseball quite like Ortiz.
Now, before you blow a gasket, let’s be clear about a few things.
Teddy Ballgame is in a league of his own. The man was a war hero who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the United States. That’s not being overlooked here, by any means. We’re simply working off the assumption that Williams’ military service, which helped shape a country, let alone a sport or a single organization, goes well beyond anything we’re accustomed to seeing from professional athletes nowadays. It’d be fruitless to argue against the importance of Williams in the context of American history, as his standing — like the standing of anyone who’s ever served — is immeasurable, really.
Same goes for someone like Pumpsie Green, the first black player to ever play for the Red Sox. Without him or anyone else who’s ever broken down a racial or social barrier, the world wouldn’t be what it is today. That should be celebrated but also understood when it comes to living room arguments such as this.
Thus, we’re simply looking at this through the lens of what the player has meant to the Red Sox and the day-to-day ethos of the organization, its fan base and the area in which it resides. There’s no denying that things have drastically changed over the last 14 years, and Ortiz has been a driving force throughout what could only be described as a golden age for the Red Sox and Boston sports in general.
Before Ortiz arrived in 2003, the Red Sox were mired in an 85-year World Series drought, with annual expectations the club somehow would fall flat on its face no matter how close it got to finally achieving championship glory. Now, three titles later, the expectation is that the Red Sox will find a way to succeed and that Ortiz will be the catalyst in that success.
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If you want to say Pedro Martinez’s arrival before the 1998 season helped pave the way for the seismic shift, that’s fine. And if you want to credit the entire 2004 Red Sox team for finally knocking down the door, that’s OK, too. But Ortiz was the life of the party when the golden age began, providing clutch moments that Red Sox fans had only dreamed of before. And he’s remained the life of the party for 14 seasons, combining consistent success with a flair for the dramatic and an infectious, larger-than-life personality.
Ortiz is a superstar in every sense of the word. He’s someone both players and fans gravitate toward, which is something the organization has been able to profit from in terms of marketing and certain personnel decisions.
It once was far-fetched to think a poor child from the Dominican Republic could grow up to become the epitome of a true New Englander. Yet that’s what’s happened with Ortiz, whose off-the-field contributions somehow have managed to surpass his ability to knock a baseball into next week at the most opportune times.
There’s a reason the Red Sox called upon Ortiz to deliver a speech in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. And there’s a reason Ortiz nailed it, putting into words exactly what most Bostonians were feeling at the time. Big Papi has an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion in anything he does, and with that comes a certain trust and faith that previously was unprecedented across Red Sox Nation — once home of a lovable losing franchise, now home of a potential dynasty.
The wide smile. The spit into his gloves. The Herculean power. The clutch gene that few athletes possess. All are hallmarks of Ortiz — the player and the person — and all make him a fascinating figure.
When Ortiz rides off into the sunset after this season, Red Sox fans will remember the World Series rings, the mammoth home runs and the game-winning hits. But above all, they’ll remember his overall aptitude for elevating those around him — emotionally and physically — and his influence in turning around the fortunes of an entire franchise.
Boston has a certain swagger to it now. And Ortiz is to thank.
Thumbnail photo via Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images