COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — While a plaque in Cooperstown will immortalize the playing career of David Ortiz, the newly elected Hall of Famer’s influence on the game has not been frozen in carbonite.
His larger-than-life persona remains felt across the sport, both in his continued role as one of the most recognizable — and marketable ― faces in baseball and in his efforts to mentor new generations of players.
That ongoing relationship with the game is a natural outgrowth of a path forged during his playing career, one where an all-encompassing commitment to competition for nine innings yielded to friendships outside of the confines of games.
“He brings so much to this game and outside of this game,” said Tigers star Miguel Cabrera. “We want to follow his steps. We want to be like Big Papi.”
Ortiz, of course, is a Red Sox icon. Over 14 years from 2003-16, he smashed 500 homers — 483 in the regular season, 17 in the playoffs — and made 10 All-Star teams, the on-field accomplishments that served as the primary basis for his election to the Hall of Fame.
In Boston, his status transcended those accomplishments. He emerged as the central narrative-shattering player in the transformation of the Red Sox from a beleaguered franchise that failed to win a championship over 86 years to one that has claimed four titles in the 21st century — three with Ortiz in the middle of the lineup. He became the voice of the region in the wake of the Marathon bombings in 2013. A powerful case can be made that he is the most significant Red Sox player of all time.
Yet his imprint as a player was not limited to Boston or the Red Sox. The legendary slugger emerged as a source of counsel to the entire sport. He’d invariably arrived at Fenway on the phone with someone in the game, anyone from a minor leaguer to commissioner Rob Manfred, and that reach has not receded in retirement.
“He’s the kind of player that makes our game what it is,” said Manfred.
That has always been the case, dating to long before Ortiz emerged as a superstar. Albert Pujols recalled tracking Ortiz when he was a minor leaguer in the Mariners system in the 1990s, and has remained close to him for more than a quarter-century.
“Back in the Dominican Republic, I got in a lot of trouble with my parents because I used to skip school to go watch David Ortiz when nobody knew David Ortiz. He used to play for Seattle and [the Mariners’ Dominican academy] was in my backyard,” said Pujols. “David was like a big brother to me.
“Just forget about the numbers and forget what he did in the field. To me, it’s what he does off the field with his foundation and the impact that he has made and the life changes that he has made for others. That’s what I admire the most about David Ortiz,” Pujols continued. “I can pick up my phone and call him any time; he can pick his and call me any time, and every time we talk, he’s just full of wisdom.”
To Ortiz, that responsibility as a mentor, as a person who answers a call from a younger player, is precious. So it’s somewhat surprising that he feels the current generation of players is not taking full advantage of it.
“In my day, when I was trying to figure things out, I would love to have a friend like David Ortiz who would share his thoughts about the game, about what he knows, about what he learned,” said Ortiz. “I’m a guy that, I’m open always. [But] it’s not like you receive many phone calls from players trying to figure things out. So, it’s kind of like, OK, I did my thing, you do yours.”
Yet while Ortiz expresses some befuddlement about the infrequency with which current players contact him, players express amazement about how much he does remain engaged with them even after his playing days.
Ortiz remains a brother to contemporaries from his playing days, a father figure for those who arrived in the big leagues late in Ortiz’s career or since his retirement, and sometimes both.
“Large father, large brother; he wears all the hats for me,” said Mookie Betts, who estimated that he still talks to Ortiz at least once a month.
One after another, All-Stars testified to the considerable role that Ortiz has played and continues to play in their careers and lives. Rafael Devers, who met Ortiz early in his time in the Red Sox organization, said that Ortiz regularly checks in about his family life.
Nationals star Juan Soto — whose debut came in 2018, two years after Ortiz retired — said that when he got off to a slow start this season, Ortiz was on the phone talking him through his uncharacteristic struggles. Mariners rookie star Julio Rodriguez said that he met Ortiz this past winter in the Dominican — before Rodriguez had made his big league debut — with the legend offering encouragement.
“Big Papi is Big Papi. He’s not changed one bit since he’s retired,” said Padres third baseman Manny Machado. “He’s the same guy. Those are the people you want to be around.”
Manfred is similarly grateful for the input offered by Ortiz on a variety of issues.
“After I was elected [commissioner], one of the first players that I formed a relationship with where I really could say he was a friend was David,” said Manfred. “He was really helpful to me, always willing to give you honest advice, and that’s the best kind of friend you can have.”
While Ortiz maintains plenty of informal involvement in the game through personal relationships, he’s also maintained more official roles within it. Many stars who have spent decades in the game retreat, at least for a time, once they’ve retired. Ortiz has created his own sort of barnstorming tour in his post-playing career.
“He’s harder to find than the president,” joked Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “You look and he’s in Boston one day and then he’s in LA the other one, then he’s with [music star] Bad Bunny playing softball.”
Ortiz never fully stepped away from the game. He accepted a role immediately after his retirement as a Red Sox special assistant, serving as an ambassador for the franchise, talking to big league and minor league players, while making community appearances and meeting with corporate partners on behalf of the Sox.
“He’s just always there and willing to help. He loves the Boston Red Sox, he loves this region, this fan base. And he’s, he’s always available,” said Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy, who recalled evidence of that notion when visiting Ortiz in the hospital when he was recovering from surgeries after he’d been shot in the Dominican Republic. “He was just locked in on every single game, every pitch. And I was struck that, you know, it’s not your normal retired baseball player.”
And in retirement, Ortiz has remained a face of the sport, through his work as a Fox Sports analyst and his many advertising engagements. The opportunities exceed his available time.
“I’ve gotten to the point I have to say no sometimes,” said Ortiz. “[But] when you’re hot, you’re hot. You’ve got to take advantage of what is happening right now.”
Ortiz’s experiences, and wealth, could create a number of opportunities moving forward. Kennedy suggested that Ortiz could join an ownership group, become more involved with the Red Sox front office, or take a role working with the league office about the direction of the game.
“He’s good at everything,” said Kennedy. “This guy could literally do whatever he wants to do.”
For now, Ortiz seems energized by his array of responsibilities — someone whose retirement as a player did not signal his fade from the game. His induction into the Hall of Fame represents, in many ways, the final defining emblem of his playing career, but his life in baseball continues to evolve.