By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
A PLAYER FOR THE AGES
It was late in the evening on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The Detroit Tigers were leading the Boston Red Sox 5 to 1, on the cusp of taking a commanding two games to none lead in the American League Championship Series and punching their ticket to the World Series. But the Red Sox had loaded the bases and David Ortiz was coming up to bat. Reliever Joachim Benoit, who back in June had struck out Ortiz on a devastating sinking changeup, was brought in to face him. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland no doubt remembered that previous encounter.
But Leyland and Benoit had a problem; Ortiz remembered too. He made up his mind that he was going to ignore Benoit’s high voltage fastballs and wait for the changeup. He didn’t have to wait long. On Benoit’s very first pitch, in came the changeup. Ortiz took a mighty swing and out it went, but not before right fielder Torii Hunter made a valiant effort to keep it in the ballpark, tumbling head first into the Red Sox bullpen.
The old park actually shook from the roaring of the crowd. The Sox had come back from a near-death experience to tie the game. The suddenness of it all seemed to break the spirit of Detroit; the score was still tied but they were already beaten. When the Sox pushed across the winning run in the ninth it seemed almost anti-climatic. The rest, of course, is history; the Red Sox went to win that series and then took out the Cardinals, four games to two, to capture the World Series, with the by then immortal David Ortiz batting an other-worldly .688
I remember sitting in my seat in Section 16 after that dramatic home run and marveling at what a legend he’d become, right before our eyes. He is someone who will be remembered for decades and honored by people who never saw him play, not only for his heroics but for his larger-than-life personality that made him as beloved in opposing dugouts as in his own.
His home run that night served as the bookend for another great moment that season, a year that cemented his place in baseball lore. Before the Red Sox first game after the horrendous terrorist bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon he was asked to say a few words representing the players. He had been on the disabled list and did not travel with the team on a brief road trip after the bombings. He stayed at home to have his injury treated and thus he witnessed all the events of the week following the bombings; the killings, the outrage, the manhunt and the virtual shutdown of the city. He had no prepared remarks as he was handed the microphone but was filled with the emotion that had been building up in all of Boston for the five days since the bombings. His voice boomed out over the public address system of the sold out ballpark and into the homes of countless thousands of TV viewers as he said, “This is our (bleeping) city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
As he marched off the field toward the dugout it sunk in on him that he had not only used a cussword, it was the back beauty of all cusswords. He wondered how much trouble he’d be in. The first inkling that everything would be all right came as he reached the first base line, and there was his friend the mayor, Thomas Menino, giving him a resounding high five. He not only didn’t get in any trouble, he was put on a pedestal for saying what everyone in the town was thinking. I’ve heard of some people who have gotten way with using that cussword in public, but only David Ortiz has been honored for it.
That speech in April, combined with the home run in October elevated David Ortiz from the rank of Great Player to that of Player for the Ages. He is someone who will be talked about and honored fifty or even a hundred years from now. He breathes rarified air of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and not many others. Everything that happened in the three seasons that followed is merely icing on the cake.
When I got home the night he hit that grand slam in the ALCS, I knew I had to write a poem celebrating Big Papi and the legend he’d become. The words came pretty easily, and I spent the next day polishing it and making sure that it scanned. I knew that I had to make reference to his by then famous speech following the bombings, so I used it as a punch line, but I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t offend some people to refer to that crude word, even in an oblique way. I showed the poem to no one until the next home playoff game when I sought out my friend Tom Kennedy. I knew Tom would be the ultimate judge as to its appropriateness because he is not only the father of now Red Sox president, Sam Kennedy, he is also an Episcopal priest. I showed him the poem, he read it, and then let out a whoop of laughter. I knew I had passed muster.
ODE TO BIG PAPI
Start carving the statue. Get the site ready,
Right on the sidewalk between Yaz and Teddy.
He’s king of clutch hitters. Fit me for the crown.
Get driving instructions to old Cooperstown.
He’s our Hall of Famer. He’ll get there with ease.
The Pope will proclaim him, “Saint David Ortiz.”
To us he’s Big Papi. We love it that way.
The big pop’s in his bat when he saves the day.
Other teams fear him from east to west coast.
He launches those big bombs when it matters most.
On the day that he is installed in the Hall
Sox Nation will be there, his fans, one and all.
And when that Hall plaque is put into his reach,
We pray that he’ll launch no f-bombs in his speech.
On June 23rd the Red Sox will officially retire Ortiz’ number thirty four. The normal practice is to wait until a player is inducted into the Hall of Fame before retiring his number, the only exception being the legendary Johnny Pesky - who served the club for more that sixty years as player, coach, manager, broadcaster and good will ambassador.
The Red Sox will retire Papi’s number years before his name is even eligible to be on the Hall of Fame ballot and less than three months into the season immediately following his retirement.
That raises a question: what took them so long?