BOSTON—They knew it was coming, but they didn’t know when. David Ortiz had long ago announced that this, his 14th season with the Red Sox, would be his last, and despite the fact that he’d somehow produced one of his finest years—a .315 batting average, 38 home runs, 127 RBI—his resolve to retire had never wavered. But Boston fans couldn’t be sure which would prove his final game. They had every reason to imagine it would come several weeks from now, perhaps even in early November in the World Series, as the Red Sox were considered the favorite to win the American League pennant and had drawn the Indians, with their desperately depleted pitching staff, in the best-of-five Division Series. But Cleveland had eked out a 5–4 win in Game 1, and won again, 6–0, in Game 2. On Monday, as Sox fans streamed over the newly named “Big Papi” David Ortiz Bridge on Brookline Ave. toward Fenway Park, they knew: This could be it.
The 40-year-old Ortiz knew it, too. He hadn’t given the possibility any thought until a couple of days ago, when someone mentioned it to him. So, when he arrived at Fenway early Monday afternoon, he did something he had never done before any of the 1,048 games he had played in the old ballpark. He did a lap of it, in his car. Yawkey to Brookline to Lansdowne to Ipswich to Van Ness, just in case.
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Though Ortiz would hit no mammoth, clutch home run in Game 3, as he had done so many times before, he did what he could to stave off the inevitable. He led off the second inning with a five-pitch walk against soft-tossing Indians starter Josh Tomlin, who wanted no part of him, but the inning ended on a double play three batters later. In the fourth, after Cleveland had taken a 2–0 lead, he grounded out to first baseman Mike Napoli, his former teammate.
In the sixth, after the Indians’ Coco Crisp—another old teammate—had blasted a two-run homer over the Green Monster to increase Cleveland’s lead to 4–1, he stepped to the plate against a third player with whom he’d once shared Fenway’s home clubhouse, Andrew Miller, with one out and men on second and third. The 6’7” southpaw has become the game’s most dominant relief weapon, particularly against lefties like Ortiz, to whom his strikes look like balls and his balls look like strikes. He struck them out 32 times this season, against one walk. But Ortiz battled Miller. He laced the fourth pitch he saw, an 84 mph slider, to center. It traveled 292 feet, and never rose higher than perhaps 20 feet off the ground, but as it died replacement center fielder Rajai Davis caught it at his knee. Still, Dustin Pedroia tagged up and scored from third. Ortiz had driven in a run. It was 4–2. Striking distance.
Two innings later, in the eighth, Ortiz came up again, with two outs and a runner on second. Cleveland skipper Terry Francona, who was Ortiz’s manager for seven years and two World Series wins in Boston, called for his closer, Cody Allen, to replace Bryan Shaw. Ortiz stood in the box, swiping at the dirt with his foot, as the Indians gathered on the mound. As Allen threw his warmup pitches, Ortiz stood off to the side. He seemed as relaxed as he had ever been, loosely swinging the bat and twirling it over his head, tapping his spikes, pulling the legs of his uniform pants low so they covered his ankles, flipping a ball into the crowd. Then his name was announced, and the crowd whistled. He tucked his bat under his right armpit, spat into his palms and clapped them together. This, surely, was his moment.
The Indians wouldn’t give it to him. Allen threw him four straight balls, some high, some outside. Ortiz grimaced as he jogged to first, but still: two men on. A chance. Ortiz thrust his arms in the air, eliciting and conducting the crowd’s growing frenzy. The next batter, Hanley Ramirez, singled on a sharp line drive to left and cut the Red Sox’ deficit to one, 4–3. Then manager John Farrell, sensing a chance to tie the game on another single, replaced Ortiz at second with the speedy pinch runner Marco Hernandez. At 9:21 p.m., he trotted off the field and high-fived his way down the dugout. PA-PI! PA-PI! the fans chanted. “Put me back in it!” Ortiz screamed to his teammates. “Let me wear this uniform one more day!”
They tried. The next batter, Xander Bogaerts, hit a screaming line drive, but directly into the glove of second baseman Jason Kipnis. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, against an exhausted Allen, Jackie Bradley Jr. singled to right, and then Dustin Pedroia walked, and then Travis Shaw worked a full count. But Shaw weakly flew to rightfield. It was over: not just the Red Sox’ season, but Ortiz’s career.
No one knew what would happen next. It hadn’t been scripted, perhaps because no one could have expected the end to come so soon. As the Indians celebrated around second base, some fans began to file out of the stands. From above, patches of empty red seats began to be revealed. Many more, though, waited—for something. PA-PI! they chanted, again. Then, THANK YOU PA-PI! Then, hopefully, ONE MORE YEAR!
In the Boston clubhouse, Ortiz was speaking to his teammates, who were now his former teammates. Be proud, he told them. Behind a young corps of stars like Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, they had in one season gone from last place in the AL East to the division’s champions—as if from day to night, he said. Learn from this. Build on this, even without him.
Then a Red Sox staffer told him that most of the fans hadn’t gone anywhere, so at 10 p.m., as the theme from The Natural played, he reemerged from his dugout. He made his way to the pitcher’s mound, on the same infield where he had three years ago celebrated the third World Series championship he had helped deliver, the same one where, six months before that, he had helped a town that was traumatized by the Boston Marathon bombing to heal by defiantly proclaiming, “This is our [expletive] city!” At 6’3" and 230 pounds, he towered over the circle of television camera-wielders who surrounded him.
Ortiz had found himself overwhelmed three times during his farewell season. Once was on Sept. 25, after he had learned that his friend Jose Fernandez, the Marlins pitcher, had died in a boating accident. He reflected on the staggering loss, and on life’s brevity and its lack of guarantees. The second was on Oct. 2, during his formal retirement ceremony. The third was now. He lifted his hat in the air, and his eyes grew red and filled with tears as he turned round and round. Finally, he walked back to the dugout, and he paused just before he descended its top step. A phrase kept running through his head. La última vez, he kept thinking. The last time.
After he disappeared, a middle-aged couple, wearing matching polar fleeces and standing in their seats behind the first base dugout, turned to each other and tenderly embraced for several seconds. They turned to the friend who had given them their tickets. “Thank you,” they whispered.
By the time he got back to the Red Sox’ hushed clubhouse, he was Big Papi again. As he took off his uniform—revealing the giant scorpion tattoo that covers his left bicep, its pincers near his elbow and its stinger near his neck—and hung his thick gold chain from a hook in his locker, he talked quickly and happily to the teammates and coaches who approached for back-slapping hugs. He signed a bat for catcher Ryan Hanigan, inscribing it with silver ink. He dressed in a gray hooded sweater, a gray beanie and skinny black jeans, applied two blasts of cologne to his neck and, eventually, went upstairs, for his final press conference.
“La última vez,” he said, upon entering the room at 10:33. Over the next 37 minutes, in English and Spanish, he was as he almost always seemed to be: open, honest, funny. “I can’t lie: What they did to us, we expected to do to them,” he said of the Indians. “Because we felt we had the better ballclub. But when it comes down to the playoffs, and short series, it’s not about who is the best, it’s who played the best. And obviously they did.”
Someone asked if it had entered into his psyche that he wouldn’t be playing tomorrow. “What is ‘psyche,’ anyway?” he said, grinning and drawing laughs. “Keep it simple. You mean, your mind. Playing around with this Dominican kid.”
Mostly, Ortiz expressed not loss—of the series, of his career—but gratitude. “I can’t ask God for no more than what he gave me,” he said.
“Like I always say,” he later continued, “I wasn’t a five-tool player. I wasn’t. I saw a lot of guys playing the game with me, and I used to look at them and was like, ‘Man, I’ve got no chance.’ I play with so many great players that I used to tell myself there’s no way I can be that good. But most of them didn’t have what I had, my mindset, my mentality, the way I grab knowledge and things. Those 10 seconds to slow down and look at things from a different view. And I think that’s one of the best things—that’s one of the best talents that God can give to any human. And I feel like I’ve been blessed with the one tool that got me a 20-year career. And the rest is history.”
He had signed out of the Dominican Republic with the Seattle Mariners in 1992 as a 17-year-old who just wanted to have fun, but over the next almost quarter of a century he had lived his dream: 541 homers, those three rings, $160 million, a wife and a family, American citizenship, the love of an entire city and an entire region, a career that will likely put him into the Hall of Fame. It was over now, a bit earlier than he expected. But still, he had lived it, and he had shared it, and that’s what mattered.