It’s one of the most recognizable nicknames in baseball. But David “Big Papi” Ortiz says it all came about by accident.
The Minnesota Twins released Ortiz on Dec. 16, 2002, and he signed with the Red Sox five weeks later. When he arrived at spring training that February, Ortiz knew only a few people around the Red Sox.
“I couldn’t remember everybody’s name. So I called everybody ‘Papi’ because that’s what people do in the Dominican. It’s just a friendly thing, a sign of respect,” Ortiz said. “After a while, they started calling me ‘Papi’ in return and then it became ‘Big Papi.’ It took off.”
NESN analyst Jerry Remy played a role in the popularity of the nickname when he started using it on the air.
“I went up to him in the clubhouse and I asked him to explain the Papi thing and he did,” Remy said. “I said do you mind if I call you ‘Big Papi’? He was fine with it and it started to catch on.”
Over time, Ortiz’s nickname became part of his persona. There are now “Big Papi” T-shirts and other merchandise and even food products under the banner of “Big Papi’s Kitchen.”
“I don’t mind it,” Ortiz said. “Everybody everywhere calls me that. I hate when I hear it with an accent and it sounds like ‘Big Puppy.’ I’m not a little dog.
“It’s fine. I don’t make my life difficult because of things like that. If it makes you happy, it’s all right with me. I’ve heard it all over the world, everywhere I go. It’s something that’s fun.”
Ortiz has had other nicknames along the way. When he was with the Twins, Ortiz was known as “Big Cat” because he was smooth around first base.
Dustin Pedroia started calling Ortiz “Big Pun” a few seasons ago, short for “Big Punisher.” In 2013, when Ortiz led the Red Sox to the third World Series championship of his tenure, several players started calling him “Cooperstown” with affection.
“I still call him that,” Clay Buchholz said.
But “Big Papi” is what he is best known by. Ortiz sometimes wonders what would have happened had he not landed in Boston.
“I’d be just David,” he said.