David Ortiz arrived at Fenway Park early Monday afternoon aware that it might be his last day as a player. For the first time in his career, he circled the ballpark in his car, trying to grasp the full dimensions of the potential finality.
A player who over the season’s final months typically eschewed batting practice in favor of time in the trainer’s room made a point of popping out of the dugout and into the cage before Game 3 of the American League Division Series. By his third round of hacks, he was launching comets over the Red Sox bullpen as if as a final offering of gifts to the fans.
He could not deliver the same in the actual game. Indeed, he did not have the opportunity to do so.
That Ortiz’s final plate appearance — bottom of the eighth, chance to tie a playoff game with something of an echo of his famous home run against the Tigers in 2013 — should feature four straight pitches off the plate, en route to a walk and an eventual departure in favor of a pinch runner, seemed too anticlimactic to stomach, even for Ortiz.
“Once I got out of the game, I was screaming at my team to put me back in it,” Ortiz said of his transformation into a cheerleading role at 9:21 p.m. “Make me wear this uniform one more day, because I wasn’t ready to be over with the playoffs.”
Yet the choice didn’t belong to Ortiz or to the sold-out crowd at Fenway Park that wanted to see the 2016 season prolonged by at least another game.
And so, when the Red Sox’ 4-3 defeat against the Indians was complete at 9:51 p.m., tens of thousands refused to leave.
Perhaps it was a state of disbelief after 14 seasons in which Ortiz continually breathed life into his home park (“We want Pa-pi”). Maybe it was simply the hope that this franchise giant would accept one final bow (“Thank you Pa-pi”). But they remained.
Manager John Farrell spoke to a somber Red Sox clubhouse, and Ortiz followed. His career over, the substance of Ortiz’s message nonetheless heralded his excitement for the future of the organization.
According to Xander Bogaerts, Ortiz said to “just be optimistic and be proud of what we achieved. Obviously, with all the young guys coming up, we have a lot of potential. He’s looking forward. He sees what the future has in stock and he definitely appreciates that for this organization.”
Speechless in the spotlight
That message delivered, Ortiz learned that the fans remained. And so, just over 10 minutes after the conclusion of the game, he walked back onto the field, encircled by photographers, and headed to the pitcher’s mound — close to where he made his declaration of defiance on behalf of Boston in 2013.
This time, there was no speech, only freely flowing tears and the last gesture of a cap raised out of respect to all who were there, in all corners of the park.
“Tonight when I walked to the mound I realized that it was going to be — it was over,” said Ortiz. “It was pretty much the last time as a player [to] walk in front of a crowd. And the emotion came back out.
“I’ve been trying to hold my emotions [the best] I can, but that last second I couldn’t hold it [any] more. That’s how we feel about what we do, because we love what we do.
“I respect this game so much and I love this game so much that as long as I played I wanted to always be one of the best — not because of me, not because of my personal stats, because I don’t really care about that. I really care about the fans. I really care about the emotion that they live through.”
Those sentiments — and tears — were reciprocated from the stands.
By 10:08, he’d returned to the clubhouse and stood alone at his locker for a moment, head sunken, before disappearing to the shower area. After a few minutes, he ruptured the silence, bellowing praise to his teammates for their accomplishments in making the worst-to-first pivot.
By the time he emerged to the main locker room at 10:29, Ortiz was once again beaming, jovial both in the company of his teammates and at the sight of his son, D’Angelo, and his father, Leo.
“Dude, I’ve got to take a picture with my dad!” Ortiz exclaimed boyishly.
Red Sox mental skills coach Bob Tewksbury approached Ortiz with a copy of a picture from 19 years earlier, when the two sat in the Twins dugout. On Sept. 2, 1997, Ortiz made his big league debut as a pinch hitter in the pitcher’s spot for Minnesota against the Cubs. The Twins starter in that game had been Tewksbury.
“He said I was there in his first game when he got called up and I was there for his last game,” said Tewksbury.
Ortiz asked Tewksbury to show the picture to his father, then the slugger took a picture of the two men together. Others — players, security guards, clubhouse attendants — continued to approach Ortiz to express their admiration and affection. Finally, just after 10:30 p.m., Ortiz adjourned from the clubhouse into the interview room.
“Ultima vez,” he chuckled as he entered to visit with reporters.
A bridge and an exit
The press conference alternately connected with the worlds that Ortiz bridged, the player serving at times as his own translator, immersing himself in both languages to such an extent that, at one point, he absent-mindedly offered an answer in his second language to an inquiry presented in his first.
When the word “psyche” was mentioned, Ortiz asked for a definition of it. He later used the word in an answer. That facility in his second language served as a reminder: This outsized personality became so familiar only because he took it upon himself to master a language other than his native tongue.
Given the scarcity of bilingual reporters covering the Red Sox for publications in New England, Ortiz very easily could have been an icon for one culture but a relative unknown to another. Thanks to his own initiative, that was not the case. In his second language, he revealed more than many players have in their first.
“I can’t ask God for any more than what he gave me,” he said. “I’m a guy that came out of the Dominican one day when . . . I just turned 17 years old, and all I want to do was have fun at what I do.
“And then through my career I saw a lot of things happen. I saw a lot of guys being lost in their life, not just their career, but their life in general, because this is everything that they have and they never made it.
“And everything that I saw that cut them short, to not make it in their career, I kind of played it out like it was myself.
“Viewing things from the outside, [keeping] my feet on the ground and trying to learn through the process and not taking anything for granted [gave] me a 20-year career.
“That kid that was expecting just to have fun, here it is, 23 years later, having a career and walking home.
“I’m happy and proud of going home the way I am right now.”
A few minutes later, Ortiz’s press conference concluded. Exit stage left.
“Que te vaya bien,” pronounced MLB senior vice president Phyllis Merhige, the press conference moderator.
Fare thee well.
At 11:44 p.m., nearly two hours after the end of Ortiz’s career, a few dozen loiterers dotted Van Ness Street, hoping for one more glimpse of the man. Inside the white SUV that left the players’ lot, a wave came from a silhouette. Those last fans responded in kind, raising their hands as they watched the shadow of a legend disappear into the night.