Everything about David Ortiz is loud and unapologetic — his style, his opinions and his bat. Big Papi is feared, respected, beloved, and debated.
Ortiz’s legacy is based upon commanding and demanding the spotlight with sheer force of personality and forceful and fateful swings of the bat, especially in October.
Like all great entertainers nearing the end, the 39-year-old Ortiz is contemplating and shaping his legacy. Hence, the Players’ Tribune essay. When Ortiz retires, he is going to leave a void on the Fenway Park marquee. From his considerable shadow, the next face of the Red Sox is going to have to emerge.
To rise to synonymous-with-a-team stature, a player must exhibit the right combination of ability, likability, and longevity. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, all three boxes must be checked.
Face-of-the-franchise status can be fleeting and fickle; just ask Mo Vaughn. Even sure-fire candidates can have their destiny derailed (see: Conigliaro, Tony).
Ortiz was an unlikely Red Sox icon.
It’s easy to forget now, but Ortiz joined the Sox in 2003 as a non-tendered free agent castoff from the Minnesota Twins. He spent the first half of the season sharing time with Jeremy Giambi — not Jason Giambi, the 2000 American League MVP, but his brother. Ortiz joined a star-studded Sox team that had Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and Jason Varitek.
Few would have predicted that Ortiz would emerge from that group as the Red Sox’ signature player and doyen. But he has displayed the production and the personality to become not only the face of Fenway, but one of the faces of baseball.
The ideal scenario is to do it like the Yankees, having a royal line of succession from Babe Ruth to Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle. But often these titles remain in abeyance for a bit. The ascent has to happen organically.
It’s possible the successor to Ortiz isn’t even on our radar or in the Red Sox organization at this point. But let’s look at some candidates to take the baton from Big Papi.
Dustin Pedroia — The diminutive second baseman is already the emotional ballast of the clubhouse. He possesses the sardonic wit of a stand-up comedian and an outsized personality. He has a slick nickname — Laser Show —and a uniform that picks up more dirt than a Swiffer. The Sox regard him as a cornerstone player because they gave him a from here to eternity contract extension that will take him through the next two presidential elections. But the former AL MVP will turn 32 in August. His OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) and power numbers have declined for three straight seasons. He has vowed to return to form after left thumb and wrist surgery.
Pablo Sandoval — Sandoval has likely never been called a mini anything, but he is like a mini-Ortiz. The switch-hitting third baseman is a marketing department’s dream with his gregarious personality, postseason pedigree and a catchy, cuddly soubriquet — Kung Fu Panda. The Sox already put him on the cover of the 2015 media guide with fellow free agent addition Hanley Ramirez and Ortiz. Sandoval is a year older than Ortiz was when he came to Boston. Sandoval won three World Series in San Francisco. Like Ortiz, he saves his best work for baseball’s biggest stage, as he has a .344 lifetime postseason average and a World Series MVP. But Sandoval might not be, ahem, built to last, and he has never hit 30 home runs or driven in 100 runs in a season.
Mookie Betts — Too soon? Markus Lynn Betts has followed up his meteoric rise through the Red Sox organization last year with a tour de force spring training, seizing the center field and leadoff gigs. Betts is already one of the most exciting players on the Red Sox. He displays speed, surprising pop, uncanny hand-eye coordination and a certain panache. Former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told the Houston Chronicle that Betts was “like from another planet with his hand-eye coordination and everything.”
The Sox got burned relying on young players in 2013, and Betts is 22 with a mere 189 big league at-bats. But he carries himself with a big league aura — already joking about getting manager John Farrell a more stylish wardrobe — and the sneer/snarl he flashes while playing is a signature mannerism. If a guy named Mookie were to become the face of the Red Sox it would be proof that the baseball gods have a sense of humor.
Xander Bogaerts — Bogaerts is six days older than Betts. His rookie season wasn’t the Garciaparra-esque campaign we all expected. He endured struggles on his way to a .240/.297/.660 slash line and looked middle school dance awkward in the field. It didn’t help that the Sox shook his confidence when they pulled the plug on him at shortstop for the return of Stephen Drew. It remains to be seen if Bogaerts can stick at short. However, he has the potential to become an elite hitter. His performance in the 2013 postseason showed he can handle the bright lights of October baseball. Like his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter, Bogaerts’s handles himself with a quiet dignity.
Others — Blake Swihart could be the Boston version of Buster Posey. The elbow injury to Christian Vazquez could hasten the switch-hitting catcher’s arrival. The Sox backed up the Brinks truck for Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada. The tales of Moncada’s skills sound apocryphal, but the Sox are believers in the 19-year-old infielder. Moncada would appear to be blocked by Pedroia and Sandoval. But if he can have the impact of countrymen Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu, he could become a signature star.
The Sox have to face the reality that at some point they won’t have Ortiz as their pitch man, front man and the Man in their lineup.
There will be life after Big Papi, just a little less interesting and dramatic.