The first page of the introduction to “Papi’’ summarizes the significance of David Ortiz, according to David Ortiz. He says he would one day “accumulate more home runs, hits, runs scored, and runs batted in than any DH in history.” Beyond that, “I cursed terrorists and spoke up for freedom without fear.”
Thus runs Ortiz’s freewheeling, insider memoir, written with the help of longtime sports journalist and radio personality Michael Holley. Two warnings: Those who prefer their profanities out of earshot might consider covering their eyes through parts of this book and those looking for a salacious tell-all will be disappointed.
In fact, Ortiz shares little of the personal. We learn that his father nudged him toward baseball; that he was “shattered’’ when his mother died in a car wreck in 2002; all the material about his wife, Tiffany, through courtship, children, separation, and reconciliation, could fill no more than a couple of pages.
Ortiz trots us briskly through his childhood in a Dominican Republic neighborhood where the ground was contaminated with battery acid and “there was a shooting almost every day.” Ortiz rode his powerful bat and, eventually, his infectious personality to a 20-year major league career, over the course of which he was paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $160 million — which is almost certainly a neighborhood free of battery acid.
After signing his first contract at 17 with the Mariners for $10,000, Ortiz broke in with the Minnesota Twins in 1997, where appreciation for him was minimal, in part, according to Ortiz, because Twins manager Tom Kelly “believed his players were dumb [expletive].’’
The Twins released him after the 2002 season, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to a part-time player who’d never hit more than 20 home runs.
It would be accurate to say Ortiz bloomed after he joined the Red Sox a year later. It would be more accurate to say he exploded. Over the next 14 seasons, he made the All-Star Team 10 times. More significantly, he played on three World Series winners.
Ortiz attributes much of his success, particularly in his first few seasons with the Red Sox, to Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez. The former had urged the Boston front office to acquire Ortiz; the latter taught him how to read pitchers. When Sox manager Grady Little tried to sit Ortiz, Martinez told the “boss”: “If he doesn’t play when I’m pitching . . . then I’m going to refuse to pitch.”
Some readers may be surprised to learn that a player — even one as accomplished and respected as Martinez — could have that kind of influence regarding the lineup. They may be even more surprised to learn that Ramirez studied pitchers, since the impression Ramirez created was that he was a natural who didn’t study anything. Ortiz maintains that “Manny wanted people to think he was a lazy [expletive] because he didn’t want anyone to know just how hard he was working.” He doesn’t say why that was.
Ortiz had always been a big, strong hitter. With the help of Martinez and Ramirez, he devoted himself more diligently to his craft. As he says, “It seriously got to the point where I would be dreaming about hitting.” That was perhaps the same time opposing pitchers began having nightmares about him.
It’s no surprise that Ortiz resents the sportswriters who asked him about performance-enhancing drugs (which he vehemently denies ever using), particularly the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, “that [expletive] still walks around like he owns the team.”
It was surprising, at least to me, that Ortiz had so little respect for the team’s management. Under Terry Francona, the Sox won two championships, but on April 27, 2010, Francona lifted Ortiz for a pinch hitter, thus disrespecting him. Papi hasn’t forgotten.
And throughout his 14 years in Boston, Ortiz felt the front office continually overpaid for players who couldn’t play at Fenway — Carl Crawford comes to mind — and nickel-and-dimed players who demonstrated that they should have been retained at their market value. (In the “free agent market,’’ “[i]t’s not a time when the best players get paid; it’s a time when the best available players get paid.’’)
He feels Boston drove Ramirez to the point where Ramirez concluded that “the Red Sox don’t deserve a player like me.” Theo Epstein, who also presided over two World Series champions, is a hero to Boston fans, but to Ortiz he’s that “numbers-crunching Red Sox executive” who stuck Ortiz with “some of the worst long-term contracts in baseball.” (Interestingly, Ortiz’s take on owner John Henry, who also owns the Globe, is more ambivalent, giving him some blame for his contract gripes but concluding that “Mr. Henry loves the game . . . [and] appreciated me as a player.’’)
Given all that, maybe it’s a wonder Papi endured so well and so long. Now his many fans have a book in which the hitter looks back at his extraordinary run and what made it go.
PAPI: My Story
By David Ortiz with Michael Holley
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, illustrated, 262 pp.Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” on WBUR. His most recent book is “Take Me Out” from Zephyr Press.