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Must He Go? Big Papi's Big Year, And A Sports Hero For The Ages

A video of Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz is shown on a television during the second inning of a baseball game against Tampa Bay Rays Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they planned in his honor, after the death of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez in a boating accident Sunday.(AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
A video of Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz is shown on a television during the second inning of a baseball game against Tampa Bay Rays Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they planned in his honor, after the death of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez in a boating accident Sunday.(AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
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Say it ain’t so, Big Papi! That’s the reaction many Bostonians have to Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz’s announced plans to retire at the end of this season. At an age when most ballplayers have either hung up their cleats or moved on to second careers in broadcasting or coaching, Ortiz, 40, has wildly defied expectations.

As of this writing, the Dominican Republic native is hitting a robust .321 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs. He is also leading the American League in slugging percentage (.632) and in OPS, the sabermetric statistic that purports to measure a player’s net offensive worth by combining individual slugging percentage with on-base percentage. Not bad for someone who had spent his first six seasons (1997-2002) in the majors with the mediocre Minnesota Twins as a struggling fringe player. In fact, his Minnesota bosses were so unimpressed with his performance -- a .266 average and 58 homers in 455 games -- they decided to release him outright after the 2002 season when their efforts to trade him generated zero interest from other teams. Think about that for a moment. Any club in the majors could have had Ortiz’s services for the baseball equivalent of a ham and egg sandwich, and still no one was willing to take that plunge.

Since being signed in 2003 as a minor free agent by former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, Ortiz has become Boston’s latter day Babe Ruth.

Three World Series championships and 482 homers later, Ortiz is the one now enjoying the last laugh. Since being signed in 2003 as a minor free agent by former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, Ortiz has become Boston’s latter day Babe Ruth. Unlike with the original Sultan of Swat, however, the Sox have wisely held on to their superstar. No sales to the hated Yankees here. And Ortiz has delivered, leading a franchise once believed to be cursed to eight postseason appearances, including the famous 2004 World Series championship, the Sox's first title since Woodrow Wilson lived in the White House.

Ortiz is now poised to add another championship ring to his personal collection as the Sox enter the 2016 playoffs. But even if he doesn’t, his legacy remains secure. And I’m not just talking about his feats on the baseball field. No one will forget, in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, how he rallied a grieving community with a statement of defiance. “This is our f--- city,” he said in an authoritative voice that brought tears of appreciation to even non-sports Beantown fans.

To say he has not been the most influential player in Red Sox team history is sort of like arguing the Beatles were just another musical quartet. Sure, old timers will insist no one can ever top Ted Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter , with his six batting titles, two Triple Crowns, 19 All Star Game appearances and incredible lifetime .481 on-base percentage. But what they can’t say is that he was a winner. Despite playing on some powerhouse Red Sox teams in the 1940s and early 1950s, the surly slugger only got to suit up for one World Series, in 1946. He hit a pathetic .200 with five hits, all of them singles against an inferior St. Louis Cardinals squad. The Sox lost that one in seven games. “I’ve always felt it was one of my biggest disappointments that I didn’t get in another,” Williams later told writer Henry Berry.

Ortiz never had to make such a qualifying statement. In all three of his victorious Series appearances, he has averaged .455, along with a .576 on-base percentage. That’s right. In baseball’s greatest showcase, where the pressure to perform is at its peak, Big Papi has reached base almost six out of every 10 times he’s gone to the plate. Not even Babe Ruth matched such clutch results during his illustrious career.

We in Boston have been privileged to witness athletic royalty these past two decades... Chances are we won’t see it again in our spectator lifetimes.

Carl Yastrzemski? It’s true Yaz played a pivotal role in reviving fan interest in the perennially losing franchise when he strapped the Sox to his back in 1967 and led them to an “Impossible Dream” pennant. Yastrzemski won the A.L. Triple Crown that season by submitting a batting line that read .326, 44 homers and 121 RBIs. But in yet another seven-game World Series against the Cardinals, Yaz came up short. He did lead all Sox regulars with a .400 average, but he went a quiet one-for-three in the deciding seventh game, a 7-2 loss. And who can forget the 1978 A.L. East divisional playoff with the Yankees, where he ended Boston's hopes with a game-ending pop-up with the tying and winning runs on base? As for overall career hitting comparisons, Ortiz also holds the edge. He has a slightly higher batting average --.286 to Yaz’s .285 — and has hit substantially more homers --540 to 452 — despite playing three fewer seasons.

What this all means is that we in Boston have been privileged to witness athletic royalty these past two decades, the kind of greatness that can only be applied to local sports demigods like Tom Brady, Bill Russell and Bobby Orr. Chances are we won’t see it again in our spectator lifetimes.

I repeat: Say it ain’t so, Big Papi! Say it ain’t so!

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Thomas J. Whalen Cognoscenti contributor
Thomas J. Whalen is an associate professor of social science at Boston University, and author of "Kennedy versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race."

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