Think about the best Christmas present you’ve ever opened.
It must have brought you joy. It probably entertained you. It might have made you the envy of your friends and family. But how long did it last?
Maybe it was a treasured stuffed animal, the kind that lingers in your bedroom for a few years after your other toys were ready for a trip to Goodwill. Seven years, maybe? Eight?
Maybe it was a bicycle, one that made you a little faster and a little more stylish than your friends and took you on countless adventures. You know, until you outgrew it and it started gathering dust in the garage.
Maybe it was technology- a video game console or an iPod or a tablet. All great gifts, but those are planned to be obsolescent after three to five years. If you kept if for six, you probably felt a little embarrassed when your friends saw you playing with it after they had moved on to the newest model.
On January 22, 2003, Red Sox Nation opened a gift that might not have made them jump around the room hugging everyone, when a little-known Twins first baseman named David Ortiz was acquired as a free agent, but 14 seasons later, Big Papi has given Red Sox fans all the joy of a cuddly teddy bear, all the adventure of a new bike and all the entertainment of an Xbox.
And somehow, he never got old.
Ortiz is not only a gift himself, but a spectacular giver of gifts.
On July 23, 2003, for instance, a relatively svelte Papi with more hair on his head and less on his face hit the first walkoff hit of his Red Sox career, a two-out, pinch-hit double off the Yankees’ Armando Benitez that pulled the red Sox to within 2.5 games of first place. After years looking up at the Yankees in the standings, Ortiz gave us the gift of hope.
On October 8, 2004, after two walkoff hits in the rollercoaster regular season, Papi made his presence felt for real with perhaps his most memorable moment, a walkoff two-run home run off the Angels’ Jarrod Washburn in the 10th inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series. Ortiz delivered Boston’s first playoff series win of the new millennium, the gift of bliss.
A week later, in Games 4 and 5 of the American League Championship Series, Ortiz delivered consecutive walkoff hits, first a 12th-inning homer off Paul Quantrill to avoid a sweep, then a 14th-inning single off Esteban Loiaza that pushed the series back to New York. Is there a greater gift than the promise of more baseball?
In August and September, 2005, Ortiz hit three go-ahead, ninth-inning home runs and a walkoff single, staving off a late-season comeback by the Yankees and preserving what would turn out to be a first-place tie. A Boston institution and a must-watch late-inning at-bat by this point, Ortiz helped Boston stave off another collapse and gave the gift of dignity.
Papi’s lone walkoff in 2007 came on September 12 against the Devil Rays, turning a deficit into a victory and maintaining a five-game lead in the division. Boston would hold on to that lead and win a second title in four years, giving a long downtrodden city the rare gift of superiority.
After battling with wrist injuries and slumping through much of 2008 and 2009 and even into 2010, Ortiz came back with a vengeance in 2011, batting .309 with 32 home runs and looking like the superstar who had captivated Boston for most of the previous decade. He stepped it up again in 2012, batting .318 with 23 homers and a .415 on base percentage, giving the gift of recaptured youth.
In 2013, Boston was suffering after the marathon attacks. Ortiz delivered a rousing speech peppered with choice words, assuring the people of Boston that the Red Sox would continue to be a symbol of the city’s resilience and resolve. Throughout another championship run, Ortiz delivered several speeches building on the first one, giving Boston the gift of recovery.
His grand slam into the bullpen in that same year’s ALCS also gave us the gift of an unforgettable image- bullpen cop Steve Horgan’s jubilantly raised arms juxtaposed against Torii Hunter’s desperately flipped legs.
Prior to the 2016 season, Ortiz announced that he would retire at year-end, committing to one last season-long grind. Just another year of smiles and memories would have been a blessing to fans, but Big Papi doesn’t settle. He put together one of the best first half batting lines any of us has ever seen, batting .322 with 22 home runs and a ludicrous 34 doubles. He’s re-imagining what a 40-year-old baseball player can accomplish, playing with youthful joy and skill reminiscent of his prime. The Red Sox are contenders again, full of power and speed and youth and promise.
This fall, Red Sox fans will say goodbye to David Ortiz after 14 legendary seasons.
The gift of Papi.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. For more baseball musings, follow him on Twitter @replevel.