COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Tens of thousands made the pilgrimage across Cooperstown. They wore the jerseys of a man whose last name conjured not just a player but moments in time, years of their lives, indelible sentiments that remain fresh long after they were first experienced.
As David Ortiz took the stage in front of a jubilant throng, the enduring meaning of his history with the Red Sox was apparent.
“When I think about Boston, I think about the last game I played [in 2016]. Standing on the field of Fenway Park, it felt like the whole cities of New England and each one and every one of you was surrounding me and was showing me all your love,” Ortiz gushed in his speech. “I will always be Boston and I will always be there for you Boston. I love you, Boston.”
The crowd erupted in appreciation of the person who Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy calls “the most important player in the history of the Red Sox.”
Hanging in the background of Ortiz’s celebration, questions amplified about the direction and identity of the team whose hat is featured on his Hall of Fame plaque. Sunday’s grisly 8-4 loss at Fenway to the Blue Jays dropped the Sox to 6-17 since June 26. Each defeat nudges the .500 team closer to seller status in advance of the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
Yet even beyond those immediate circumstances, questions loom not only about who the Red Sox are, but who they will be moving forward.
When might there by another afternoon in Cooperstown for a player who is synonymous with the Red Sox? Or, as one person in the organization put it when thinking about the possibility that Rafael Devers could earn a place in the Hall: “Will he be wearing a Red Sox cap if he gets in?”
Inside and outside the organization, there has been a season-long conversation about the futures of Xander Bogaerts — eligible this offseason to opt out of the six-year, $120 million deal he signed before the 2019 season — and Devers. The team made no headway in brief spring training extension talks with its two homegrown stars.
The two All-Stars are the faces of the franchise. Will that remain the case in the coming years?
The Sox and their fans did not have to ask such questions about Ortiz thanks to a series of deals that turned out to be the baseball opportunity of the century — the Twins’ decision to non-tender Ortiz as a 27-year-old following the 2002 season — but also those made to retain him.
After he signed his initial one-year, $1.25 million deal prior to the 2003 season, Ortiz reached six subsequent agreements with the Sox, including four multi-year deals, three of which were struck well before his potential free agency. The relationship wasn’t always seamless — the Red Sox let Ortiz reach free agency twice and nearly took him to an arbitration hearing in 2012 — but it endured.
And with that enduring relationship, the Red Sox ensured that Ortiz would remain a part of the team’s identity not just for 14 years as a player but now on into retirement.
What is the value of such a presence?
“It matters probably even more than we know,” said Kennedy. “I remember Alex Verdugo coming [to] spring training [in 2020], just like a little kid. All he wanted to do was meet David Ortiz. Having that kind of persona and presence and leader hanging around just shows these guys that it can be done and that this franchise and this organization is about winning World Series championships, period.”
Through at-times turbulent roster turnover, Ortiz became a constant — part of the reason why, after their disastrous 2012 season, the Red Sox made re-signing Ortiz an urgent priority in an effort to stabilize and reestablish their championship expectations following a last-place finish. He rewarded that effort by serving as the connective circuit tying the 2013 team to its 2004 and 2007 predecessors.
Some of the deals that Ortiz took were perceived as less than full market value to stay in Boston. He valued spending his career with the Red Sox, just as the team valued keeping him there.
Bogaerts struck such a deal in 2019 but seemed wounded that the organization’s proposal to extend him this spring fell well short of even the discounted deals made by other teams to their franchise players. Devers found the comparable deals (most notably, an offer using Matt Olson’s eight-year, $168 million extension) used by the Sox in their proposal to be an unhelpful framework.
Still, both have deep roots in the organization and both have expressed their hopes of staying in Boston for the long haul. Fans have made known their expectation that the Red Sox front office and owners do what is necessary to retain them. The Red Sox front office is well aware of that sentiment and why it exists.
“We’re blessed with the best fans in all of baseball,” said Kennedy. “They love this team for a lot of reasons, mostly because of the amazing players that have come through and contributed to World Series championships. Raffy and Bogey, in addition to being World Series champions, also happen to be great guys and great with the fans. That’s where this dynamic comes from.
“We’ve got guys on this roster who know what it takes, homegrown guys, and our hope is that they continue to be a part of the organization as we move forward and we can win [titles] number five, number six, and number seven over the next several years. That remains the goal.”
Yet two-and-a-half years after trading Mookie Betts, it remains unclear how the Red Sox will pursue that goal — and the degree to which retaining their stars on top-of-the-market extensions will be a part of that pursuit.
Sunday served as a reminder of the extraordinary and enduring value of a franchise player to the fans of that team. But it left unanswered the question of when — or if — the Red Sox might experience such a full arc of a player who not only grows into stardom but sustains it for the duration of his career in Boston.