David Ortiz retired. He was a Red Sox legend. He was a unifying figure after the Boston Marathon bombing. He was, in some ways, a transformational figure, for a franchise and city known for racial hostility. His huge smile made him a face for MLB and an optimal Dunkin’ Donuts salesman.
Ortiz was a seminal figure in my sports fandom. He was the last, best link to when rooting for the Boston Red Sox did not make me feel like an asshole.
Thinking back two years in the social media era is hard, much less 20. But, Red Sox fandom was once defined by its angst. The Cubs were lovable incompetents. The Red Sox were doomed to fail, against the Yankees. As one curly-haired man would write, they were “cursed.”
Red Sox fandom was throwing an ottoman into your dorm hallway and taking a long, sad walk, because Grady left Pedro in, Aaron Boone hit a home run, and Fox would be replaying it along with Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner for eternity.
Winning in 2004 changed everything. The epic comeback from being down 3-0 against the Yankees. Sweeping to the long-awaited title. If not sports’ greatest moment, it was sports’ greatest catharsis.
The subsequent steroid revelations bounce can’t dim it. Sports will never be that kind and innocent to me again.
Pedro left in free agency. Johnny Damon joined the dark side. Manny made keeping him untenable. Curt Schilling bankrupted a video game company and became a raving Twitter id. Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek faded gracefully. Ortiz stayed on, conjuring whatever remnants of that spirit were left.
His ever-present reminder proved vital, as the Red Sox became the de facto New York Yankees. The Red Sox became the club of chardonnay, capitalized branding, and ludicrously expensive tickets. The Red Sox signed enormous, ill-advised contracts, because they could. Arrogant owners chased away baseball’s best GM, dumped a beloved manager, and dropped a beloved broadcaster.
Winning World Series again in 2007 and 2013 was swell, but never the same. Success became expected and reviled by everyone else.
I cast back for my favorite David Ortiz memory. It’s an amalgamation of them. I’m sitting in Comerica Park on a random, warm Detroit summer evening. The game is close. The Tigers’ starter has worn down. Perhaps we’ve reached the soft underbelly of the Detroit bullpen. Ortiz blasts a three-run home run, one of 23 he hit there.
I celebrate with gusto. 30,000 Michiganders, many of whom can’t remember 1984, collapse inside. I’m a Boston Red Sox fan. Schadenfreude is the only authentic spark I have left.