One Man. One City.
Not too long ago, the thought of the Boston Red Sox winning a title was nothing short of absurd.
The team saw nothing but heartbreak since the 1918 World Series. Like the Chicago Cubs, the Sox were the “loveable losers” of baseball, complete with heartache from Bill Buckner’s missed play to Yankee players Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone homering to send the Sox home from title contention.
Babe Ruth’s departure to the New York Yankees marked a curse Boston seemed unable to shake. In the 2004 AL Championship series, down 3-0, the BoSox seemed destined to repeat history.
Then David Ortiz happened.
The slugger from the Dominican Republic signed with the Red Sox in 2003 after a 10-year career that featured a stint in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system and irregular playing time with the Minnesota Twins. After a breakout opening season, Ortiz went into the series with the Yanks and did something no other player had done before.
He redefined the Red Sox’ identity.
In Game 4, with Boston standing at the precipice of elimination, Ortiz hit a game-winning two-run home run in the 12th inning. In Game 5, he hit a walk-off single in the 14th inning.
By the time the Sox completed the first ever series comeback from down 3-0, Ortiz emerged as Big Papi, the man who led the charge to bring Boston its first title in 86 years.
It was the start of a legendary career that involved launching homers when the team needed them most.
“He’s good enough at this that his appearances over the course of a game amount to seismic events,” O’Connell said. “Things can look entirely different after Ortiz has done his work than they did before.”
He brought Boston back to the World Series again in 2007, helping the Sox sweep the Colorado Rockies. Now, in his farewell season, Papi is a big reason the Red Sox are making a legitimate run at the Fall Classic.
But his on-field heroics are only part of his impact.
On April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon. Three civilians died in the explosion, with 264 others suffering injuries. Officials cancelled or postponed many major events in the city, including a Red Sox home game.
On April 20, the BoSox returned to Fenway Park for the first home game since the attack. The team held a pregame ceremony to honor the law enforcement who apprehended the bombers and to remember the victims injured from the blast.
Ortiz was playing his first game after an Achilles injury in August. With emotions high, he took the mic. He reminded everyone that the Sox played as – and for – Boston. Then he exclaimed his most iconic statement.
“This is our f—— city,” he said. “And nobody is going to dictate our freedom.”
With those words, Ortiz did something few other Red Sox players have done: embody the essence of Boston.
The pantheon of iconic Boston sports figures contains some of the greatest athletes in the history of sports, including Ted Williams, the man who embodied the Boston Red Sox’ on-field excellence and the city’s culture off the diamond. Without question, Teddy Ballgame is the ultimate Red Sox player.
But even Carl Yastrzemski, long considered the BoSox’ number two player, makes a case for Papi taking up the silver medal in Boston baseball lore.
“I’d be happy that they would have me in the same class as him,” he said to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, referring to hypothetical debates over Yaz and Papi’s places in Red Sox history.
When a legend makes this statement, there has to be something to it.
But what drives this point home is the fact that Boston’s identity steeps itself very prominently in its sports teams – particularly the Red Sox.
Boston is one of the nation’s oldest cities, with roots in the American Revolution. Since the 18th century, the city has been a hub of culture, education and urban development. Yet it still maintained its holdings as a historic landmark.
However, in the last century, Boston adopted the Red Sox more and more into the city’s identity. Of the first 15 World Series matchups, the team won four titles – five when counting the innagural championship game where they were the Boston Americans. No other team won more than three. Winning was their identity.
Then, from 1918-2003, the team fell short of the title time and time again. Yet the fans and the city stood by the team, holding the Red Sox close to their hearts. Just as importantly, they remained loyal to fan-favorite players like Yaz, Ted and Papi.
So when the title came to Yawkey Way in 2004, the city rejoiced in the win. In 2007, it fully shrugged the “loveable losers” moniker. In 2013, pain from the Marathon bombing still fresh, it found solace in their team. In the last decade as a whole, the city found a renewed identity through its Red Sox.
In those years, they also found the man who best represented this ideal: David Ortiz.
Robert O’Connell of The Atlantic wrote in a piece about the lasting impact of Big Papi as he nears the end of his storied career. However, there was only one phrase he needed to write to get the point across.
“Across baseball, [Ortiz] is a legend,” he said. “In Boston, he is something like a deity.”