For My Compadre, Big Papi
I’m gonna tell you something that should be no surprise.
The legend of David Ortiz starts with food.
I know David has told this story before, but he’s an old man now, and I have a much better memory than he does, so I want to tell it from my side.
In December 2002, I was back in the Dominican Republic. We had finished the season 10 ½ games back of the Yankees, and let me tell you something — nobody hated to lose to the Yankees more than me. Nobody. It made me sick to finish behind them.
Our team was pretty good, but we were missing something. So one night, I was out with some friends on the Malecón in Santo Domingo, and we were hungry. Now, there are hundreds of restaurants we could have gone to.
My one compadre wanted steak. Somebody else wanted mangú. It was a debate. But this restaurant called Vesuvio made a lobster stew that was just calling out to me.
I swear it was God whispering to me, “Lobster, Pedro. Go to the lobster.”
So I told my boys, “We’re going to Vesuvio.”
When we walked in the place, David Ortiz was sitting at a back table, talking to somebody on the phone. David was my boy. When the Twins would come to town, I’d have him over my house for dinner and I kind of took him under my wing.
I hadn’t seen David in a while, so I snuck up behind him and gave him a big hug. But he wasn’t smiling. He just kept on listening to the person on the phone. I don’t think I had ever seen David not smiling.
So I left him alone to finish his call and I sat down and had my stew.
When I came back to David’s table later, he still looked depressed.
I said, “Compadre, what happened?”
He said, “Can you believe this s***?”
“I just got released by Minnesota.”
Now, forget everything you know about Big Papi today. Forget the World Series. None of that had happened yet. Put yourself in his shoes, sitting in the restaurant. What I want people to understand is just how low of a place David had to climb out of to get to where he is today.
I was extremely sensitive to what David was going through, because when I was coming up with the Dodgers I didn’t get the chances I deserved.
I was labeled small and fragile.
David was labeled chubby and inconsistent.
I was from a small shack in Santo Domingo and found myself playing minor league ball in Great Falls, Montana.
David was from a little bit bigger shack in Santo Domingo and found himself playing minor league ball in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Destiny had us linked. I knew how hard it was to come to a very, very different culture and try to be understood.
So really try to put yourself in his shoes in that moment at the restaurant. Imagine you had worked your whole life to get one job. Then, a few years into your career, just as you’re getting your chance, you hear the words, “You’re fired.”
You have kids. But you are also carrying the hope of your entire family on your back. You are their only way out. You might have 400 people who eat out of your hands. And now you don’t have a job. You start to see that open door close, and it might be closing forever.
So David was sitting there in Vesuvio barely looking at me, and he said, “I just got released by Minnesota.”
You know what I did? I jumped in the air and clapped. We needed a first baseman in Boston, and I knew that could be David.
David looked at me, and I think it was the only time in my life I’ve ever seen him serious.
He said, “How can that be great? My little girl was born two weeks ago, and I don’t have one cent in the bank. How can that be great, bro?”
“Because now I can take you with me to the Red Sox.”
He said, “For real?”
I said, “For real.”
Man, I’m telling you — his face lit up like a little kid’s.
I pulled out my little flip phone right there and started calling everybody I could think of back in Boston. But nobody picked up, because they were all in the MLB Winter Meetings. Finally I got to the traveling secretary, Jack McCormick, and I said, “Hey, can you get a hold of Lucchino or Theo or somebody?”
Jack said, “Huh? What’s going on?”
“Listen, I’m in the Dominican and I ran into David Ortiz. He just got released by Minnesota. We need to sign him.”
“The first baseman? Well, you know, we got Brian Daubach …”
“Look, I’m telling you. This guy is going to be special. Get Theo on the phone.”
“Alright, I’ll tell them.”
I hung up and looked over at David like: Alright, compadre. Can we have some fun now?
The rest is history.
But I was just a bridge between what God wanted for David, and all the hard work it took to get there.
Where we come from, we had to hustle just for the 50 pesos it cost to take the bus to the Olympic stadium to play baseball. It was 25 pesos each way. If you happened to lose 25 pesos at the ballpark, you were walking back home.
No waters. No Gatorade. No food. Nothing. If you were lucky, somebody would find a hose. That’s how we made it. We are raised by our families to be survivors.
From the time you are a baby, you learn to eat whatever is on the table. You don’t get to pick. You bless those meals and eat them no matter how bad they look. That’s what allows you to go from the Dominican to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Boston and adapt to whatever is in front of you.
The door was closing on David and his family, and he had the power, the will, the soul, to stick his foot in that doorway and say, “Hell no. I’m kicking open this door. I’m going to be great.”
That is a survivor.
That is an example to the world.
David didn’t just get his job back. He didn’t just win a World Series. He didn’t just set a new standard for playing at a high level as an old, old man. (Sorry, compadre.)
No. He did all of that without any bitterness in his heart. He did it all with a smile.
As someone who always took the mound with a lot of hate in my heart, I can’t tell you how amazing that is.
David’s number 34 is being retired on Friday, and that makes everything very real for me. I can honestly say the thing I miss the most about playing baseball is the battles we had with the Yankees. My favorite memories are being at the park with David and Manny Ramirez, trying to figure out how we were going to beat those Yankees pitchers. We spent all of our time together talking baseball.
Some people won’t believe this, but I’ve never seen a harder worker than Manny Ramirez. I’ve never seen someone more dedicated to understanding his body and the rhythm of hitting. If you ask David, he’ll tell you that he learned hitting from Manny.
Manny, David and I worked together like a wolfpack. We’d be looking for the prey. As a pitcher, I could watch the first inning of a game and tell you, within the first four pitches, without any hesitation, what the opposing pitcher had that day.
Posada used to try to play cat-and-mouse games with David and Manny. I was always looking at the sequences that Posada was picking, and I’d tell David and Manny what pitch they had up their sleeves that day.
I remember Mike Mussina getting David over and over again with his curveball. I kept telling David, “If you swing at the first one he shows you, you’re grounding out. Just let it go! If he falls behind in the count, he’s going to go back to the curveball, but this time it’ll be over the plate. Then you can get him.”
It seemed like every time he faced Mussina after that, he’d wait on the curveball and hit a bomb.
The Yankees would do the same thing to us. They would sacrifice an at bat just to get my pitch count up and see what I had that day. They’d try to make me fall into the trap. They were the best I ever faced at those little mind games. I miss it.
There’s a little story behind every single hit you saw David get in that miraculous comeback against the Yankees in ’04. We hunted those hits. Whether it was something we saw when the pitcher was warming up, or something we figured out by watching tape, or something we noticed when we faced that pitcher months before, we hunted every single hit.
David would study his at bats and obsess over them. It’s still the same to this day. He has never let up for one minute in his pursuit of learning. That’s what makes him so impressive, and that’s the thing that a lot of people in baseball don’t understand.
They see the power, but they don’t see all the work that goes into the power. There are a lot of strong guys in this game. There was only one David Ortiz.
When people say, “He’s just a DH,” they are completely missing the point. David is way more than a DH. Ask any teammate he’s every played with and they’ll tell you. It’s not just his dominance at the plate. It’s what he does in the clubhouse, and in his personal life, when the cameras are gone and nobody is there to see it.
We don’t win a World Series in 2004 without David. Period.
We don’t win in 2007 without David. Period.
We don’t win in 2013 without David. Period.
Whether you loved David or hated him, he gave you everything to love or hate. He was a force of nature. He was a big brother to a lot of Latin players.
When I was just a kid at the Dodgers’ academy, they kept saying over and over, “We want to have better men than we have ballplayers.” Nobody — none of the other players from the Dominican, including me — does more for society than David. He’s a better man than he is a baseball player.
I’ll never forget one memory that has nothing to do with baseball.
I just got home from a flight in April 2013, and I turned on the TV and saw the news about the Boston Marathon bombing. I couldn’t believe it. I was so angry and hurt. For a few days, it was like nobody knew what to say.
Five days later, the Red Sox were honoring the victims and the police before the game, and it was still kind of weird. It was like nobody could find the right thing to say.
Then David walks right up to the microphone and says, “This is our f***ing city, and nobody is gonna dictate our freedom.”
It was what everybody needed to hear. The only person who could deliver that message was David Ortiz. A guy from a shack in the Dominican lifted up the hearts of an entire city.
I don’t think baseball realizes how much it’s going to miss Big Papi.
I thank God that he made me hungry for lobster stew that night in Santo Domingo. Because it gave Boston a championship, and it gave me one of my best friends in the world.
David, compadre, this is your f***ing city.