Throwback Thursday: An Opening Day Without David Ortiz

Throwback Thursday posts are dedicated to sharing Red Sox pieces I wrote before G@TG…

I sat on the first base line yesterday, gazing up at a beautiful blue sky on a perfect day in one of my favorite places in the universe. It was a day of firsts: my first-ever Opening Day, and Boston’s first Opening Day without David Ortiz since 2003. And in my heart, I didn’t believe that he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup until I heard the words, “the Designated Hitter, number thirteen, Hanley Ramirez.” And it hurt.

I like Hanley. I really do. I think he’s a fun, lively presence on this team, and he has the potential to be a strong DH. But I’ll say what we’re all thinking, what we all know to be true: he’s not David Ortiz. That’s not a critique or an insult; I’m a big fan of Hanley’s. It’s simply a fact that we’re all going to have to accept, as we grieve the end of a very special era. David Ortiz isn’t coming back.

For so many of us, David Ortiz symbolizes the best of Boston, athletically and otherwise. He’s noble, heroic, loyal, a massive and beloved presence for well over a decade. If he’d been alive during the American Revolution, I like to think he’d be dumping the tea into the harbor and riding with Paul Revere. He’s that kind of person, outspoken and determined, with that unique Boston spunk. For adults, he’s the man that healed childhoods filled with seasons of perpetual Bambino heartache. For children, myself included, he inspired a new generation of Red Sox Nation, telling us, “you can win, you will win, anything is possible.”

But to Red Sox Nation, Ortiz means more to us than just being another now-retired baseball player. He was the constant in three championship years, a mainstay, one of the longest tenured players in our franchise. He was no flash in the pan, like so many players we’ve overpaid who disappointed us and then left. Think about his sweet relationship with Sox legend Johnny Pesky. His loyalty to Pedro, without whom he probably never would’ve joined the team. His devotion to mentoring young players like Hanley, whose complete 180 on and off the field last year transformed him from a disgruntled and disliked player to a fan favorite and Ortiz’s successor.

And then there are his exploits on the field. His epic 2004 postseason, when clutch didn’t even begin to cover his habit of coming up big in extra innings and full-count, two-out nail-biters. And perhaps most importantly, in 2013, when his actions and words spoke equally loud, telling us to take our city back from the terrorists and to believe that something as simple as baseball could heal us. As postseason-MVP in 2013, he batted an astronomical .688, going 11–16, and who knows how much more he would’ve done if the Cardinals hadn’t wussed out and intent-walked him three times? Think about all of these things, and ask yourself: is there any other player in franchise history who measures up?

During his last game of the regular season, after a season of being feted by every team in the league, David Ortiz was honored at Fenway, possibly more than any other player in Red Sox history. We’re naming streets, a gate at the airport, even the Mass Pike bridge after him. His fellow teammates from all three World Series championships came out to honor him on the field they once shared. When they announced that no one would ever wear his number 34 again, I wept and was unable to stop for many minutes. When it was finally his turn to take the mic and speak to the people who’d gathered at Fenway to thank him, I saw the tears in his eyes, and it made me cry harder. Bittersweet does not even begin to cover it. I felt like I was experiencing both a personal loss and a collective loss as a citizen of Red Sox Nation. If this sounds a bit like a eulogy, that’s because in a way, it is. Not, God forbid, for the man, but for this golden age of baseball that he gave us, and for the person that he is.

I’ve never met David Ortiz; I don’t even know how I would even function if I did. He’s a legend, an almost mythic figure at this point. But like so many of my fellow members of Red Sox Nation, I feel a strong connection to him and a deep affection, and I’m struggling with this transition, no matter how bright our future with these new young players looks. With Papi’s retirement, I feel as though my childhood is officially over.

I’m almost twenty-four years old; David Ortiz has been my hero since I was twelve. Aside from Ted Williams, his jersey is the only one I’ve ever bought, because unlike so many players, I knew that he was here for the long haul. David Ortiz is one of the biggest and best reasons that I became the Red Sox fanatic that I am. For more than half my life, he was there to win the game, to make me smile, and give me hope. And now that constant is gone, and I’m an adult in a world that feels a little less magical.

When it comes to David Ortiz, it is about more than baseball. It’s about his heart, which he wholly gave to his team, his fans, and the city he proudly made his home. When it comes to the man who over the years has been our MVP, our designated hitter, our mascot almost as much as Wally, even a write-in candidate for Mayor, the heart and skill are irrevocably intertwined, combined into the incredible man we’ve cheered on for years. Hanley might take his job, but he cannot take Papi’s place in our hearts. Players like David Ortiz come around once in a lifetime, if at all. I feel blessed to have seen the Papi Days. I can’t wait to walk in the places bearing his name and feel that magic once again.

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