David Ortiz has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot with 77.9% of the vote. He put up huge numbers at the plate, and Big Papi proved to be a larger-than-life presence off the diamond as well, with a boundless charisma that affected teammates and opponents alike. We asked Ortiz’s contemporaries for their favorite stories of the man, and they did not disappoint.
Alex Rodriguez: ‘A Babe Ruth-type savant’
David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez share a desk for the Fox pregame show now, after years of playing against each other in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. But their relationship goes way back to when both began their professional careers as teenagers in the Seattle Mariners organization. Ortiz signed with the Mariners as a free agent in the fall of 1992, and Rodriguez was drafted No. 1 overall by Seattle the following summer.
Rodriguez became a superstar almost immediately, finishing second in the AL MVP voting in 1996 at age 21. Ortiz bounced around, moving to the Twins in a trade in 1996 before Minnesota grew impatient and released him following the 2002 season. Rodriguez recalls working to persuade then-Rangers owner Tom Hicks to sign Ortiz, for $1 million, because he felt that the left-handed hitter would thrive in The Ballpark in Arlington, where the wind mostly gusted to right field. “I don’t know if it was a roster crunch or a budget issue or what,” Rodriguez recalled earlier this week. “But the Red Sox jumped in” — at the prompting of Pedro Martinez, Theo Epstein signed Ortiz for $1.25 million — “and the rest is history.”
Rodriguez would’ve been Ortiz’s teammate in 2004 if the Rangers’ proposed trade of Rodriguez to the Red Sox hadn’t been squelched by the players’ association. Instead, Ortiz and Rodriguez became AL East enemies after Rodriguez was swapped to the Yankees. But they would continue to help each other through troubles.
Rodriguez was struggling early in his tenure with the Yankees, and after a game at Fenway Park, Rodriguez went to Ortiz’s Boston-area house, and the two of them talked about Rodriguez’s swing. Ortiz lobbied for Rodriguez to focus on doing what he needed to do to hit high-velocity fastballs on the inside corner. In this way, the right-handed-hitting Rodriguez would get his front foot down early — his left foot — and if he was able to do this, Ortiz argued, he would be in position to react to anything. Rodriguez had complete respect for Ortiz’s knowledge as a hitter.
“A Babe Ruth-type savant,” Rodriguez said of Ortiz. “A-plus-plus-plus. An A-plus work ethic, A-plus in his video work and an A-plus for playing at a high level.”
As Rodriguez tinkered and Ortiz talked about what he saw as a necessary change, the two of them stood up to swing imaginary bats in the discussion “until three or four o’clock in the morning.” Rodriguez can remember how Ortiz’s wife, Tiffany, reminded them how late it was, and wondered if it was time for everyone to call it a night.
A few years later, it was Ortiz who was struggling, to the degree that he wasn’t always playing against left-handed pitchers and there were industry rumors that the Red Sox might look to move him or dump him altogether. Ortiz went to Rodriguez’s New York home, and Rodriguez remembers talking about the need for Ortiz to adjust his diet, to get away from processed foods. When you go to the grocery store, Rodriguez remembers telling Ortiz, stick to the outside edges — the places where the produce sections, the fresh fruit, are typically located. “He completely changed his nutrition,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got one of the mentally toughest SOBs I’ve ever seen, but what I said to him was, ‘You’ve got to get your body to match your mind.”
Rodriguez predicted to Ortiz that if he was able to do that, well, he would get back to being a huge performer again. “Unfortunately,” Rodriguez said with a laugh, “I was so right about that.” — Buster Olney
Torii Hunter: ‘Hey, whatever you do, be careful when David comes up’
“I knew when I was running that I was ’bout to die. You know when somebody’s walking behind you — you know you’re about to die. And I hung out [with] David. I had a conversation with him the night before. He was feeling good. So I went and told [Joaquin] Benoit, ‘Hey, whatever you do, be careful when David comes up.’
“Man, little did I know, Benoit pitched to him and threw that ball right down the middle. He destroyed it. So I’m like, ‘No way!’ I’m running and thinking about that, what he said to me the night before, how he’s feeling better. So I ran after the ball, and I said, ‘There’s no way I’m not getting to the World Series.’ So I took that extra step that I shouldn’t have taken, and man, I was hurt for three months after that. I had a concussion, my back was hurting. Yeah, I played through the rest of the ALCS. I played well, I did all right, but I was throwing up. I was sick, man.
“When it went over the fence, I didn’t know where I was, really. And they tried to take me out of the game, I said, ‘Hell no. This might be my last time ever playing.’ I was still thinking about retirement in 2013. I waited two more years. So I just kind of stayed with it. Just thinking about David Ortiz hitting that ball, going over the fence — I had to go after it. It was one of my best buddies in the game, and when he hit it, I was like, ‘I gotta go get this ball.’ And it just didn’t work out for me, man. I’m happy it was David, and nobody else. I’m happy for my friend. I wasn’t happy in that moment. But for my friend, I was happy that he was able to do something so great.” — As told to Alden Gonzalez
Dustin Pedroia: ‘There is no one in the game that has done that’
“I played with David the longest of anyone. I was amazed at this: His ability to slow the game down in a big moment was second to nobody. From day one, in a big moment, everything was in slow motion. He found a way to come through in moments where you dream of as a kid. He did it every single time. There is no one in the game that has done that.” — As told to Jesse Rogers
Gabe Kapler: ‘A moment was never too big for him’
It is well-documented, Gabe Kapler recalled, that David Ortiz manufactured an individual handshake with each of his Red Sox teammates. It’s been almost two decades since Kapler and Ortiz played together on the 2004 championship team, but Kapler — now the manager of the San Francisco Giants — is certain that if he and Ortiz bumped into each other today, each of them could replicate that handshake. For Kapler, it’s evidence of how well Ortiz treated all teammates, from superstars like Pedro Martinez to part-timers like Kapler.
“He treated everybody with a high level of respect,” Kapler said. “He was a very normal guy who reached a high level of performance and superstardom that nobody expected.”
Kapler first met Ortiz when both men played in the Florida State League — Kapler for the Tigers’ affiliate in Lakeland and Ortiz for the Twins’ Class A team in Fort Myers. “I got to know him there, and found him to be humble, and down to earth,” Kapler recalled. “Later on, I think his career was kind of in jeopardy, and he was able to draw on some of those challenges [in the minors] and he remained quite down to earth, and [found] resurrections.”
Kapler witnessed the emergence of one of the greatest October hitters of all time when Ortiz batted .400 in the 2004 postseason and led Boston’s historic comeback against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series with multiple walk-off hits. Kapler is a sponge for information, for objective data, and there might have been a time in his life when, like many in baseball’s analytic community, he might’ve been skeptical about the idea of a clutch player.
But he saw Ortiz perform, in the most intense moments, in front of the biggest crowds, on baseball’s biggest stage. “Now, having had the experience of watching [players] as a manager, David has a clutch-performer gene.”
“A moment was never too big for him,” Kapler said. “He was never too wound up… He was a very in-control man, a very thoughtful man. Very measured. That measured, calm heart rate helped him succeed in those moments.” — Olney
Hunter: ‘We thought that was so funny, man’
“When he was in Boston, Corey [Koskie] took his outfit out of his locker and put a Lee County Jail uniform in his locker. David was such a sport — this is who he is — he wore it on the field, in spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, a Lee County Jail orange uniform.”
“David is messing with Corey all day, and Corey’s like, ‘All right, I’m gonna get him.’ David was DH’ing, and Corey came up early, put peanut butter in his underwear. So he put peanut butter in the middle of his underwear … And so all of us, we took showers. David always talking trash, laughing and cracking jokes. The game is over, but he’s cracking jokes. And he gets in the shower. Everybody’s sitting there in their locker and will not leave, because they know what Corey did. David, when he got out of the shower, walks over to his locker, gets his shirt, put his socks on, then he put his underwear on, then he kept going, put his pants on, and tied his shoes up, and he took a couple steps, and we was like, ‘Wow, he hasn’t felt that yet?’ And then in the middle of his stride, he stopped and paused like something wasn’t right. And he turned around and said, ‘You motherf—ers!’ He just started going off on us. We’re falling out of the chair crying, laughing. We was like, ‘Are you used to having something in between your underwear?’ We thought that was so funny, man.” — As told to Alden Gonzalez
David Ross: ‘Be your nature’
“David is so smart. We were talking hitting in the back of the plane once, and I’m thinking ‘I don’t think like this, no wonder I’m a s— hitter.’ His words were ‘be your nature.’ If you’re a fastball hitter, don’t miss the fastball; if you hit breaking balls, crush the breaking ball. Get in the box and know who you are and don’t lose sight of that. If you’re a fastball hitter and they’re throwing you a bunch of bull crap, then lay off it and hit the fastball.”
“He once hit a bomb off a nasty changeup, and I asked about it. He had gone up and watched at-bats against lefties. They threw three changeups to one of our lefties, and he said ‘What do you think they’re going to throw me?’ He was so smart knowing when and what they’re going to throw him. He hammered a changeup out that day.”
“The heart was as big as the baseball skills. He had parties after every playoff win. Everyone was invited. Ownership, his pastor. He’s a special human being.”
“When he stepped out of the dugout, everyone knew he was there to put on a show. Pretty special presence that he brought.” — As told to Jesse Rogers
Alex Cora: ‘He knows the game’
David Ortiz is a rock star, Alex Cora said — all sparkly, with the pricey clothes and the necklaces and the sunglasses. But every time they see each other, Ortiz first asks about Alex’s daughter, Camila, and about his twin sons. “Underneath the stuff he wears,” said Cora, Ortiz’s Boston teammate in their playing days and now Boston’s manager, “there’s a big heart. He’s a very genuine guy.”
Within that sincerity, Cora saw a genuine respect for the input of coaches and scouts, for their information. In 2007, Ortiz batted a robust .332, blasted 88 extra-base hits, drew 111 walks, scored 116 runs and drove in 117. His Adjusted OPS+ that year was the highest of his career. He was peak Big Papi that year. Before the start of Boston’s Division Series against the Angels, the hitters met with advance scouts David Howard and Todd Claus to discuss the tendencies of the Anaheim pitchers. Cora remembers the specific intelligence that one of the scouts presented to Ortiz — Cora believes it was Howard — that if Ortiz got ahead in the ball-strike count with first base unoccupied, he could fully anticipate that the Angels’ John Lackey would throw him a curveball. It was the scouts’ assessment that Ortiz could sell out completely and look for the curve.
That advice ran counter to conventional wisdom of the time, because Ortiz was Boston’s No. 3 hitter. Manny Ramirez batted behind him and typically Ortiz would be challenged with fastballs.
A few hours later, Ortiz was in the batter’s box against Lackey. Kevin Youkilis was on second base, first base unoccupied, Ramirez on deck. Lackey fell behind in the count 1-0. This was the exact situation that the scouts had presented to Ortiz, and as Cora recalled, Ortiz followed their counsel: He looked for a curveball. Lackey threw a curveball. And Ortiz carved it up for a two-run homer, launching the Red Sox to a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of what would be a series sweep.
“He knows the game,” Cora said. “As a baseball player, he’s very committed.”
Ortiz was in his second year of retirement and working for Fox when Cora managed the Red Sox to the World Series in 2018. Cora recalled Ortiz’s exuding Big Papi energy as he waded into the Boston clubhouse before the game, informing the players they were on the verge of a championship. “He was more excited than the players were,” Cora recalled, chuckling. “You know how players are like, ‘try to take it one game at a time.’ Well, (Ortiz) was like, ‘We’re going to finish this s— tonight!”
Big Papi was right, again. — Olney
Jed Hoyer: ‘You expect the heroics’
“There is always that constant debate, does clutch exist? For me, he is my single example that I’ll always use. Yes, it does because I watched David Ortiz for all those years.”
“Being able to watch him night after night is frankly one of the highlights of my career.”
“After we left Boston, I was on a flight with Theo out to the West Coast in 2013 and we were delayed so we were watching Game 2 of the ALCS against Detroit on our phones, when he hit that grand slam to tie it in the eighth inning. Before he got up there, we were figuring out how many players until it was his turn at the plate. We knew if they could just get it to David it would be tied. And of course he ties it. What player would you do that with? There was no one like that. You expect the heroics.” — As told to Jesse Rogers
Theo Epstein: ‘The rest is history’
“That was my first offseason and we really wanted to build a relentless lineup and improve the depth of our roster. We had to cut payroll, so we let Cliff Floyd walk and tried to find impact and value at 1B-DH-3B, knowing if we found quality options we could let it sort itself out during the season. We traded for Jeremy Giambi, claimed Kevin Millar, and signed Bill Mueller and David, knowing we could trade Shea Hillenbrand for pitching at some point. On the teleconference the day we announced David’s signing, I said we thought he could be an impact, middle-of-the-order bat for us, but we also knew things would be crowded early in the season until it sorted itself out.”
“It was tough on David not playing every day the first six weeks or so. He was pressing to get into the lineup and hitting around .200 without any homers. The guys were good-naturedly teasing him, calling him Juan Pierre for the lack of power.”
“David was frustrated and pretty down, though he tried not to let it seep into the clubhouse, where he was already a beloved and unifying personality. He sent [agent] Fern Cuza to see me, and we chatted in the player parking lot at Fenway after a game. Cuza said that David loved it in Boston, but that not being in the lineup was driving him crazy. He said David wanted to be traded unless we could get him in the lineup every day. I told Fern to give me a week and we’d find a way to get David in the lineup. At the end of May, we traded Hillenbrand for Byung-Yun Kim and Grady Little started putting David in the lineup just about every day after that. He started hitting immediately — a .961 OPS in June — and had a monster second half. The rest is history.” — As told to Jesse Rogers