Within the confines of Fenway Park, Alex Rodriguez is the most loathed Yankee of recent vintage.
In a 2019 Boston.com “Biggest Boston Sports Villains” bracket, A-Rod was the runner-up to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was a mortal lock to take that title after Deflategate and probably will hold it for life.
But to David Ortiz, Rodriguez was no villain. He was his buddy Alex, a friend from their earliest days in professional baseball, when they were both Mariners minor leaguers and Ortiz, years from finding fame, had a different last name.
“How long have we been close?” pondered Rodriguez during a recent conversation. “Let’s put it this way. I didn’t just know him before he was Big Papi. I knew him when he was David Arias.”
Rodriguez and Ortiz — he switched from Arias to his paternal surname after a September 1996 trade to the Twins — played together in instructional ball in September 1993, when Rodriguez, the No. 1 overall pick in that June’s draft, was 18 and Ortiz was just 17.
“We became good friends there,” said Rodriguez. “As you can imagine, everyone was drawn to him, even at that age. Then we played together in winter ball in the Dominican with [Leones del] Escogido. Even at Day 1, I knew that he was a superstar.”
Rodriguez became the superstar first, making his MLB debut at age 18 in 1994 (at Fenway Park, of all places), then hitting .358 with 36 homers two seasons later. Ortiz did not debut in the majors until 1997, and did not find stardom until blossoming with the Red Sox in 2003 after the Twins released him.
Boston fans who blanch at seeing the word “friendly” precede “rivalry” in any discussion of Red Sox-Yankees history might not want to learn this, but Ortiz and Rodriguez, who was traded to the Yankees in 2004 after nearly ending up with the Red Sox, remained tight even when the competition between their teams reached full boil nearly 20 years ago.
Sometimes, Ortiz would give Rodriguez rides to Fenway while the Yankees were in town.
“When he would come to New York at the height of the rivalry, he would come to my house and have dinner, and when I struggled, he would give me batting lessons and talk about the mental side,” said Rodriguez, who, beyond his prominent role on ESPN, also works with Ortiz on Fox Sports’s baseball studio programming.
“And then years later, when he got a little bit overweight and he struggled, I basically went in to his house, looked in his fridge, and sat down and helped him change his complete diet.
“We thought the Red Sox might be on the verge of releasing him [in 2010], and he was starting to think about playing somewhere else and getting his career back on track.
“So throughout our careers, it’s been very back and forth about how we helped each other out.”
Rodriguez’s Hall of Fame case appears to be in purgatory, a performance-enhancing drug scandal and suspension that cost him the 2014 season marring a career in which he hit 696 home runs. He received 34.3 percent of the vote in 2022, his first year on the ballot. Ortiz received 77.9 percent in surpassing the 75 percent threshold.
Rodriguez said he feels no envy. Just happiness for a friend of 30 years.
“I love him like a brother," he said. “What he’s done for Boston and for the game of baseball, he’s iconic, and even a better person.”
How to watch the induction
MLB Network will be the exclusive home for coverage from Cooperstown Sunday. The enshrinement ceremony for Ortiz, Tony Oliva, and Jim Kaat, as well as deceased inductees Buck O’Neal, Bud Fowler, Minnie Minoso, and Gil Hodges, begins at approximately 1:30 p.m., but the network’s on-site coverage begins at 11 a.m.
Brian Kenny is the master of ceremonies, while Harold Reynolds, Greg Amsinger, Peter Gammons, Bob Costas, Tom Verducci, and Jon Morosi will contribute to the studio programming.
In advance of the inductions, MLB Network will air one-on-one interviews Costas conducted with Ortiz, Oliva, and Kaat.
Each year, MLB Network produces the introductions and brief features that air on the network and for the Cooperstown crowd immediately before an inductee comes to the podium to make his speech. Each introduction has a special narrator, usually a former teammate or manager. Ortiz’s intro will be narrated by Pedro Martinez.
The network will re-air the ceremony in its entirety at 8 p.m. Sunday.