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The Boston Globe

Sports

David Ortiz relishes being center of Red Sox

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

His Red Sox shirt unfurled and unbuttoned wide now, his ball cap ditched for celebratory goggles fixed atop his head, David Ortiz stood triumphant with flag in hand, smack in the middle of Fenway Park’s verdant lawn.

The big man with the bigger smile waved it with gusto and panache. Boston had won the 2013 American League championship. It said so, right there on his big blue flag, Ortiz slicing it through the autumn air in the first minutes of Sunday morning with mighty, invincible swipes.

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Bring on the Cardinals, he seemed to say, bring them on now, bring on whatever demons, serpents, contenders, or pretenders. In gesture, it was as if the big man waving his big blue flag were restating his claim anew, “This is our [expletive] city!’’

The outsized Ortiz, No. 34 XL in your World Series program. Designated hitter extraordinaire. Flag waver supreme. Legend. And liver of life out loud.

“I really haven’t been around a lot of superstars,’’ said prized Red Sox starter Jon Lester, no bit player himself. “But guys that have been around the league, and played for some different teams, they all say he’s the best superstar they’ve ever been around.

“Personality-wise, the way he carries himself, the way he goes about his business, he’s a true professional. From Day One that I’ve been here, he’s never changed — good, bad, or indifferent.

“You can’t ask for anything more as a teammate than having David Ortiz in that locker room with you.’’

He is now the Back Bay’s senior statesman, our Ben Franklin in red hose. Ortiz, 37 years old, arrived at the Fens at a time when the year 1918 still framed the discussion of all Red Sox failures, and he has stayed put through the lofty times of the 2004 and 2007 World Series triumphs and the great chicken-and-beer tomfoolery of 2011.

Neither of the august likes of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski ever shared in world championships, leaving Ortiz, if not the most glorified player in club history, easily one of its most cherished, if sometimes churlish.

Uncomfortable moments

The much-loved David Americo Ortiz. The hyphenated adjective has been attached to him throughout his career, the adoration only amplified in his decade-plus tenure in Boston. Now with well over $100 million in career earnings, and in the middle of a two-year, $26 million deal he signed in November 2012, he swaggers into a clubhouse with a smile and joke.

He is a one-man merengue full of noisy happiness and delight, ready to drill his next victim with a four-letter line drive to the funny bone.

“We played in the big leagues together for five seasons,’’ mused Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, who once shared a Minnesota Twins clubhouse with Ortiz. “He’s the funniest guy in the world. I love him to death. I’d do anything for him.’’

But lest he be considered for hardball beatification, Ortiz in his time in a Sox uniform also has lived through some uncomfortable moments, although none particularly serious or damaging.

His name showed up a few years ago on a list of players suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, but there never was a formal charge or suspension, and Ortiz’s dustup with the media settled fairly quickly.

This July, he struck out in Baltimore and turned his rage on a phone in the visitors’ dugout, smashing it to smithereens with his bat.

In August 2011, he stormed into then-manager Terry Francona’s pregame press conference and blurted out, “We need to have a talk, you and me.’’ Ortiz was enraged that official scorer Chaz Scoggins had amended his scorebook, clipping an RBI from Ortiz. Such snits have been part of the game forever, but rarely so public.

Also in 2011, as a free agent following the epic collapse of September that year, Ortiz suggested the unthinkable — that he might follow the trail of former Red Sox stars Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens to sign with the Yankees.

“That’s something I gotta think about,’’ Ortiz told ESPN at the time. “I’ve been here on the Red Sox a long time.’’

He soon had a new deal with the Sox, no doubt helped by the less-than-subtle pinstriped threat.

Resonant personality

The World Series begins Wednesday night at Fenway, Red Sox vs. Cardinals, and Ortiz will be slotted in his familiar cleanup spot in Boston’s robust batting order. Among the game’s most feared hitters for most of his time here in Boston, Ortiz originally was known as “Big O’’ with the Twins, who ultimately cut him free for fear that salary arbitration in the 2002-03 offseason would peg his price far above their budget-constrained payroll.

Snatched up here by then-general manager Theo Epstein for a one-year, $1.25 million deal, Ortiz soon picked up the moniker “Big Papi,’’ revered for both his power hitting and his powerful yet gentle, even childlike demeanor.

He helped the Sox bash their way to World Series titles in 2004 and ’07 alongside fellow slugger Manny Ramirez, and though Ortiz already was a massive presence in the room prior to Ramirez’s departure in ’08, he has since taken on the aura as perhaps the most colorful star ever to wear the Sox uniform.

“The way that he talks, the way that he walks into a room, all eyes turn to him,’’ noted Sox manager John Farrell. “Not just because of his stature and what he’s accomplished, but the energy and life and fun-loving approach he has for the game and a certain situation.’’

Not to mention a flair for the dramatic, the sensational, even the historic. Ortiz, though tied in knots at the plate for much of the AL Championship Series vs. the Tigers, was at his carpe diem best in Game 2, slamming a Joaquin Benoit changeup into the Red Sox bullpen in the eighth inning for a game-tying grand slam.

Be it with barb or bat, Ortiz has a way of influencing most everything and everyone around him.

“It’s defusing in tight moments,’’ said Farrell. “It’s really defusing for guys around him to hear the laughter or comment he might make. I think it puts a lot of guys at ease. If that’s a form of leadership, then he certainly epitomizes that in our clubhouse.’’

No one in his experience, be it player or manager, said the 51-year-old Farrell, has displayed such presence.

“That’s not to suggest that a team doesn’t have a lighthearted mentality or the one that’s going to stir the drink,’’ said the manager. “But with David, it’s just the confidence in which he speaks. Everyone in our uniform recognizes how long he’s been here and the success, the championships he’s won, and what it means to play and win in Boston.

“I think guys look up to that. When he speaks from the heart, it resonates deep.’’

Right off the bat

Born in the Dominican Republic on Nov. 18, 1975 — mere weeks after the Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series — Ortiz grew up idolizing NBA star Michael Jordan. The baseball field near his home was adjacent to a basketball court where the teenaged Ortiz spent much of his time. But the future slugger of 431 career homers (tied for 45th all time with Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken) paid little attention to his pals in Santo Domingo who were running around the base paths.

As legend has it, it was one of Ortiz’s hometown pals, Jose Paniagua, who wooed him away from the basketball courts. Paniagua, who eventually broke into the big leagues as a pitcher for the Montreal Expos, persuaded Ortiz to pick up a bat. Try just one game, implored his boyhood pal. In his first at-bat, Ortiz homered.

“Paniagua, he was crazy, man,’’ Ortiz recounted to former Globe staff writer Gordon Edes. “He said if he saw me playing basketball again he would kick my butt.’’

Eight months after the first homer, according to the legend, the 17-year-old Ortiz signed his first pro contract with the Seattle Mariners. Four years later, on Sept. 2, 1997, he made his big league debut with the Twins.

On Wednesday night, Ortiz will suit up for the 77th postseason game of a storied career that may deliver him one day to baseball’s Hall of Fame. The clubhouse in Cooperstown might never be the same.

“I think if someone tried to be just like him, they would fail,’’ said Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “I think it’s impossible to be quite like him.

“David is sort of larger than life and gives confidence to those around him. They see David walk into the room and no matter what happened the day before, saying something in Spanish and English and back and forth, they are like, ‘OK, it’s going to be OK in here today.’ ’’

Officially a folk hero

The Ortiz embrace isn’t exclusive to the Sox clubhouse. Prior to games home or away, when both teams are on the field in various warm-up modes, Ortiz routinely can be found holding court on the sidelines, often in what looks to be a standup comedy routine with fellow Spanish-speaking players on the opposing team. Everyone is all smiles, back slaps, and belly laughs.

Ortiz is adored even by those whom he takes deep. In Detroit last week, Benoit spoke reverentially of Big Papi, whose quick bat tore through his pitch in Game 2 and helped even up the ALCS at a game apiece.

“On and off the field, he’s a great person,’’ said Benoit, who is also from the Dominican Republic and has played on winter league teams with Ortiz. “He comes in and talks to all of us and [shares] his knowledge. He’s laidback. He’s easy to speak to.

“It’s not hard to know who David Ortiz is — what you see is what you get. He has a lot of friends everywhere. He’s a cool guy. There isn’t anything you see from him that is fake. He’s a legit guy. He’s real.”

From an image standpoint, his few churlish, uncomfortable episodes have been far surpassed by the playful Ortiz swagger, the home runs, the engaging Big Papi smile. In April of this year, he officially reached Boston folk hero status in the wake of the Marathon bombings when he announced to a Fenway full house, “This is our [expletive] city! Nobody’s going to dictate our freedom! Stay strong.’’

The moment was captured on TV as part of a pregame ceremony that honored the bombing’s victims and first responders. The crowd broke into a hoot. The FCC let the moment slide.

“Sure, there are people who are more comfortable being visible, and more comfortable being in a position where everyone is watching,’’ said Cherington, asked if he believes his DH was born with a showman’s gene. “He’s shown that over and over and over.”

Early Sunday morning, Ortiz showed it one more time. The thousands in Fenway still in a dither after the Tigers were eliminated, Ortiz swung that championship flag back and forth.

One-time Boston silversmith Paul Revere would have admired such a bold rallying of the troops.

“It is hard to imagine a Red Sox clubhouse without him in it,’’ mused Cherington, the man charged with planning for that inevitable day. “Because in our recent memory he’s [been there], since 2003.

“During that time, with a couple of down moments, it has been one of the more successful spans in Red Sox history. His personality has been a huge part of that clubhouse. So it is hard to imagine that room without him in it.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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