David Ortiz’s achievements during his 14 history-altering-in-all-the-good-ways seasons with the Red Sox are accessed easily enough in the highlight reels and box scores tucked away in our minds. (YouTube and Baseball-Reference.com are also helpful, yes.)
So it came as something of a surprise Tuesday when I saw a statistic during MLB Network’s buildup to the announcement of the Cooperstown Class of 2022 that didn’t seem quite right, yet was.
The stat: In his 20-year career, the first six spent miscast with the small-ball Minnesota Twins, Ortiz hit 11 regular-season walk-off home runs, and two more in the postseason.
Thirteen walk-off homers, total? That’s a lot, my friends.
And yet that felt like, oh, approximately 34 shy of how many he seemed to hit during his tenure as — let’s make sure we get his title correct here — the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox lore, chief exorcist of pinstriped ghosts, and the man who came through, again and again and again, when the moment demanded it and 86 years of franchise history suggested we were asking for too much.
Ortiz is the ballplayer who first made Red Sox fans — scarred, cynical, hoping-against-hope Red Sox fans — believe words that another Minnesota athletic expatriate would crystallize after the Celtics’ 2007-08 championship.
Anything is possible!
Kevin Garnett howled it. Seasons earlier, David Ortiz made it so.
That’s why it was so satisfying Tuesday to see Ortiz elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, with 77.9 percent of the vote. In his first swing, wasn’t it fitting that Big Papi crushed it?
The news that he had made it — the only player elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America this year — didn’t quite trigger a euphoric reaction like, say, WEEI Red Sox voice Dave O’Brien’s “David Ortiz! David Ortiz! David Ortiz!” call of his grand slam that left both the baseball and Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter deposited in the bullpen during the 2013 American League Championship Series.
But truth be told, the reaction here wasn’t that far off, either. Ortiz was the Pied Papi of Baseball, helping to deliver three championships to Fenway and sharing an immeasurable amount of joy. He deserves this. And don’t ever forget how close he came to not making it to this moment after his June 2019 shooting. It’s a blessing that this occasion is not submerged in sadness.
This is how it should be. After Ortiz gave Red Sox fans so many reasons to celebrate through the years, fans now get to celebrate him in the buildup to the induction ceremony July 24.
Because his feats — particularly the walk-off homer in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees and the walk-off single in the 14th inning of Game 5, those twin sparks of hope when all seemed lost — are part of Red Sox canon now, it could be easy to forget how implausible his recurring heroics might have seemed when he first began producing them.
The Red Sox have a long history of charismatic, exceptional hitters putting together singularly extraordinary seasons. Carl Yastrzemski, ‘67. Jim Rice, ‘78. Mo Vaughn, ‘95. Ted Williams, in pretty much every season he wasn’t called to serve his country at war. But none could deliver the hits that would bring the Yankees to their knees, or the hits that would clear the bases and the path to the championship at once.
Now that he’s Cooperstown-bound, I’ll say it with more assurance than I ever have before, and you know I’ve said it before: David Ortiz is the best thing to ever happen to the Red Sox.
Now that the crowning honor has been bestowed, I keep thinking back to when it all began for Ortiz in Boston. The Twins, with their banjo-hitter fetish, had dismissed him after the 2002 season. The Red Sox brought him in, partially on Pedro Martinez’s recommendation, with some hope that he’d unlock his power, but Jeremy Giambi, the backup first baseman in his own family, got an opportunity before Ortiz did.
Channel 4 sports producer Joe Giza posted an old clip earlier this week of Ortiz introducing himself to general manager Theo Epstein at 2003 spring training. Epstein, who will join Ortiz in Cooperstown someday, had no idea what he had in Ortiz, or what he’d become. No one would have dared to think he’d become this.
Ortiz’s legacy here isn’t all about the walk-off homers, and the other assorted walk-off hits, and all of the tone-setting home runs he walloped early in games (think Game 7 of the ‘04 ALCS). He was so charismatic (has any Boston athlete other than perhaps David Pastrnak made more audacious wardrobe choices that somehow work?) and engaging (he unofficially led the league in bro-hugs at least six straight seasons) that you felt like you knew him even if you never met him. And if you did meet him, chances are he left you smiling at the silliness of that old expression, “Never meet your heroes.”
Ortiz didn’t just play for Boston or represent Boston, he became Boston. Which is why it was so fitting in the heavy, hazy aftermath of the 2013 Marathon bombings that he was the one who sauntered purposefully to the center of Fenway Park and found just the right words, FCC protocols be damned, to provide some desperately needed, don’t-mess-with-us catharsis.
With his bat and his words, Ortiz always knew how to lift up those around him and carry them to better days. This summer, he’ll get the beautiful day in Cooperstown and the enshrinement he deserves. Something tells me we won’t soon forget that speech, either.
Read more about David Ortiz
- Dan Shaughnessy: David Ortiz’s election seems to be another sign of a shift in Hall of Fame voting philosophy
- Interactive: David Ortiz is headed to the Hall of Fame. Explore all of the 558 career home runs that helped get him there.
- Behind the scenes: David Ortiz already had a presence in the Hall of Fame. Now he’ll be immortalized.
- David Ortiz’s journey through Major League Baseball to the Hall of Fame | Photos
- Read David Ortiz’s statement on being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame
- Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens issue statements after falling short in Hall of Fame vote
- Watch the moment David Ortiz learned he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer
- See the final vote totals for the 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame election
- How Boston Globe writers voted for the 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame