In front of an estimated crowd of 35,000 gathered on the lawn and hills in the cradle of baseball, the 46-year-old Ortiz was enshrined along with 83-year-old Jim Kaat, 84-year-old Tony Oliva, and four baseball legends who have already passed: Gil Hodges, Buck O’Neil, Minnie Miñoso, and Bud Fowler (who actually grew up in Cooperstown). Big Papi’s 21-year-old daughter, Alex Veda, performed the national anthem before the induction program.
Wearing a blue suit and red tie, Ortiz became the fourth player born in the Dominican Republic enshrined, joining Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero Sr., all of whom were seated behind Papi on the stage at the Clark Athletic Center. Dominican flags peppered the fan seating areas.
A gracious Ortiz thanked God, the Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame players, his own family, the USA, his minor league managers, the Minnesota Twins, and a lot of folks who have helped him in his Red Sox years, citing managers Grady Little, Terry Francona, and John Farrell.
“I can’t thank you enough for building me up and supporting me through the years,” said Ortiz. “That [Red Sox] organization made me the man I am today.”
Red Sox lifers Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski were inducted in their first year of Hall eligibility, but Ortiz stands alone as a first-ballot Hall of Famer who won three championships with the Red Sox. He’s one of only four big league players to hit at least 500 homers and win at least three World Series (the others are Yankees Babe Ruth. Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson).
There was a strong Boston flavor throughout Induction Weekend as Red Sox Nation planted a flag and many of Ortiz’s former teammates (Johnny Damon, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell, Trot Nixon, Tim Wakefield, Kevin Youkilis, Kevin Millar, and Jason Varitek, to name a few), made the trek to Cooperstown.
“I don’t think I would have made it without their support and love,” said Ortiz, singling out Pedro, Pedroia, and Varitek as teammates he especially enjoyed.
One couldn’t help but note that Ortiz’s enshrinement came on the same date (July 24) as the Varitek-Alex Rodriguez home-plate dustup in 2004.
That was the year everything changed for the Boston Red Sox. After 86 years of frustration and multiple close calls, Ortiz was the man most responsible for Boston’s biblical, come-from-behind, Curse-busting ALCS against the Yankees.
It all started with the Sox down, three-games-to-zero, trying to stay alive in the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 4 at Fenway.
Ortiz’s after-hours blast into the Yankee bullpen at 1:22 am made the Red Sox 6-4 winners in Game 4 and Fox’s Joe Buck told Baseball America, “We’ll see you later today.”
Exactly 15 hours and 49 minutes later, Pedro threw the first pitch of Game 5, which lasted five hours and 14 minutes over 14 innings and was won when Ortiz (who had already homered earlier in the game) fouled off six pitches before dumping a game -winning single to center off Esteban Loaiza.
Twogames. . . both ending on the same day (Oct. 18) . . . consuming 26 innings over ten hours and 51 minutes. . . both won by David Ortiz.
The Sox went to New York and took two more, then swept the Cardinals in the World Series. Boston’s Señor Octubre had 19 RBIs in 14 postseason games and was suddenly rivaling Tom Brady as Boston’s most popular athlete of the 21st century.
Ortiz went on to win two more championships, rescuing the Sox with his eighth-inning grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS against the Tigers (remember bullpen cop raising his hands as Torii Hunter went ass-over-teakettle?) then hitting an unbelievable .688 in the Fall Classic against the Cardinals.
That was the same year Ortiz personified Boston Strong, telling the world: “This is our [expletive] city and nobody’s gonna dictate our freedom.”
Brady, Ted Williams, Larry Bird, and Bobby Orr are four athletes who owned our town for most of the time they played. Bill Russell played his entire career in Boston and was the greatest winner in the history of professional sports. All five Hub heroes started their careers in New England and enjoyed most of their success here.
Big Papi is different. First signed by the Seattle Mariners, he played parts of six big league seasons with the Twins before putting on a Boston uniform. He was released by the Twins at the age of 27 after hitting .272 with 20 homers and 75 RBI in 2002. That will always be something of a head scratcher, but along with Randy Moss and Kevin Garnett, Ortiz goes down as one of Minnesota’s greatest gifts to boston.
After being released, Ortiz bumped into Pedro Martinez while dining at a restaurant in the Dominican Republic. Seizing an opportunity to take care of his countryman and help the Sox, Pedro called Boston traveling secretary Jack McCormick (the man who would later be knocked down by Manny Ramirez when McCormick couldn’t fill Manny’s ticket request) and McCormick called Boston’s rookie 28- year-old general manager, Theo Epstein.
“We already had David on our radar,” Epstein recalled this weekend. “But over the holidays Pedro ran into David and started calling everybody repeatedly. He had Jack Mack track me down. He tracked down Larry [Lucchino]. He just blew everybody up, going on and on, telling us what a great hitter David was, and how great he would be in our clubhouse.”
“That was unusual,” recalled Lucchino. “I don’t ever remember ever getting a call from a player on behalf of another player. It was pretty powerful stuff.”
On Jan. 22, 2003, the Red Sox signed Ortiz to a one-year contract for $1.25 million. It was not front page news in The Boston Globe. Not even Page 1 of sports. Announcing the signing, Globe reporter Gordon Edes wrote a short news story in which he chided the Sox for not being big spenders (sound familiar?).
“We have a day that. . . cash-strapped Florida Marlins sprang for a $10-million, one-year deal for All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the Red Sox all but completed a winter of shopping at Wal-Mart yesterday, announcing the signing of free agent first baseman, David Ortiz.”
There was a lot of competition for a spot in the Sox lineup in 2003. In addition to Ortiz, Epstein acquired Millar, Bill Mueller, Todd Walker, and Jeremy Giambi. Meanwhile, Shea Hillenbrand was still a starter.
Ortiz played behind Giambi at the start of the season, sitting on the bench next to Doug Mirabelli, appearing in only 31 of the first 54 games. He had two homers at the end of May and teammates were calling him, “Juan Pierre” (a flyswatter outfielder who hit 18 homers in 14 big league seasons). Ortiz complained to Epstein, who told him to be patient. Epstein then traded Hillenbrand, which freed up a spot in the lineup. Ortiz wound up hitting .288 in 128 games with 31 homers and 101 RBI.
A year later, he became Big Papi and broke the Curse of the Bambino. Sox CEO Sam Kennedy has called Ortiz, “the most important player in the history of the Red Sox.”
“When you do the things David did, you become a super hero,” remembered Epstein. “He had authenticity and the way he’s unfiltered brought out the best in everybody. It really connected with the city.”
“When I think about Boston, I definitely think about 2004, 2007, and of course, 2013, when our city was shaken by a Marathon bombing,” Ortiz said during his speech. “I have never seen a community bounce back and reunite like Boston.
“When I think about Boston, I also think about the last game I played [in 2016]. Standing on that field at Fenway Park, it felt like the whole city of New England and each one and every one of you was surrounding me and was showing me all your love.”
Boston baseball’s Santa Claus.
Hall of Famer.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.