As he gets ready to exit the game that has brought him international fame and fortune, David Ortiz is the subject of frequent tributes for his exploits on the field and his impact off it. Teams, fellow players, acquaintances and strangers go out of their way to express their gratitude.
The Boston Red Sox icon has maintained an elite level of production — with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.033, highest in the majors — despite the demands on his time from his unofficial role as baseball’s leading ambassador, which he acknowledges has been a challenge.
In a wide-ranging Spanish-language conversation with USA TODAY Sports during the Red Sox’s recent series against the Oakland Athletics, Ortiz touched on his legacy, his plans during retirement and the status of Latinos and immigrants in the USA, an increasingly relevant subject in light of the hardline stance taken by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Ortiz, 40, pointed out that he’s not particularly knowledgeable about politics and typically doesn’t comment publicly on the subject, but he said remarks by Trump, who has vowed to build a wall to seal off the country’s Southern border and have Mexico pay for it and who said Mexico is sending rapists and criminals to the USA, “didn’t sit well with me.”
“When you speak like that about us, it’s a slap in the face,” Ortiz said of Latinos in general. “I walk around sometimes, and I see Mexican people trying to earn a living in an honest way. And to hear somebody make those kinds of comments, it hits you. I think as Latin people we deserve better. Things have gotten much better in that regard. … As Latin people we deserve respect, no matter where you’re from. And especially our Mexican brothers, who come here willing to do all the dirty work.
“Latin people here in the United States are the spark plug of the country’s economy. Whoever opposes that is going to lose. And not just Latin people but immigrants. I’m talking about people who come from Africa, from Asia, other places. All those people come here with one goal, to realize the American dream, and you have to include them in our group.”
Over the course of his 20-year career in the majors, Dominican Republic-born Ortiz has transcended cultures and races. The fans, players and ballpark staffers who approach him cover a range of ages and ethnicities.
When the Red Sox made a brief stop in Cleveland in mid-August, former teammate and current Indians first baseman Mike Napoli gave him a pregame hug. When Boston hosted the Colorado Rockies in late May, Rockies All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado thanked him for pointers Ortiz gave him two seasons ago, telling him, "Papi, I haven't stopped since."
In the weekend’s first game against the A’s, Ortiz spotted rookie second baseman Chad Pinder, playing his seventh game in the majors, and encouraged him to always give his best no matter how he felt so he could have a long career.
“Everybody wants to be like him,” Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez said of Ortiz. “All the players and other people look at him like an idol.”
The duties of spreading goodwill through the game come naturally for Ortiz, whose booming home runs are matched by his booming laugh. He watched the farewell tours of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in 2013 and
2014, respectively, and has been touched by the outpouring of affection during his final season.
It has gone beyond the gifts from teams, signs from fans and his role as the centerpiece of All-Star Game festivities. Ortiz has seen his likeness carved in a corn maze. He saw a life-sized statue of him built out of Legos. He was asked to address the Fenway Park crowd in July after a pregame moment of silence at a time of racial tensions nationally and to record a wake-up call for public school students in Boston.
None of this would have happened had Ortiz not become one of the greatest sluggers of his time, tied for 18th on the all-time list with 534 home runs and a major factor in the Red Sox’s three World Series championships in the 2000s, including the one in 2004 that broke an 86-year drought.
Yet he points to his off-the-field impact as his greatest legacy.
“That matters to me more than any home runs I’ve hit. It may inspire some of the young players coming up to try to emulate the things I’ve done right,” Ortiz said. He added that his kids are into baseball and said, “If they ever get up here, I want people to say to them, ‘I knew your dad, and he was a guy with huge power. But there was something better about him. He was a good person, a good guy.’ That’s what I care about the most.”
His résumé won’t be pristine, considering The New York Times reported in 2009 that Ortiz was among 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during survey testing conducted in 2003. Ortiz has said he never used steroids but was careless in his use of supplements.
Regardless, the final ledger of the future Hall of Famer known as Big Papi will show many more positive contributions than missteps.
He will be forever remembered in Boston for his profane yet inspiring exhortation to the locals shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
Ortiz said he had shared his thoughts on improving and promoting the game with Commissioner Rob Manfred, and there could be a role for him in Major League Baseball down the road. Ortiz also plans to remain connected to baseball through an academy he wants to open in the Dominican Republic with an emphasis on helping prospects manage their finances.
That would fit into his desire to share what he has learned in life and baseball with a younger generation.
“I like doing that. It’s my nature,” Ortiz said. “When I see young guys put some advice you gave them into work and they’re doing well, it makes me feel like I accomplished something.”
Ortiz reported from Oakland
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