Byline: Adam Kilgore
It is difficult to imagine Major League Baseball or the Boston Red Sox without David Ortiz, and it became unnecessary to imagine Tuesday night. His career ended at Fenway Park in a 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series. It happened in an unfitting manner. He had led the Red Sox to three World Series titles, and in his final act they were swept from the playoffs. He had inspired fear and awe with his black bat, and in his final plate appearance, he never even swung it - a reliever named Cody Allen walked him on four pitches.
Afterward - after the tears and the two-way tribute between him and Fenway's fans - a reporter asked him if the walk hand angered him. He had, after all, stood in the batter's box an extra second or two, something like shock or finality setting in. "No, no, no, not mad," Ortiz said. "That's the game."
Ortiz could have uttered no better epitaph. He played baseball with joy and refused to make it more than just a game. Not always, because no player could remain immune to baseball's failure and frustration. He hacked the bullpen phone to death with a bat in Baltimore. At his nadir, during a portion of the forgettable 2009 season, he was often sullen, almost confused at his struggle.
But for the majority of his career, Ortiz exuded joy. Teammates could almost always hear him before they saw him, either his booming laugh or some profane, playful name-calling. He might have been the only player whose personality could earn him the capital to waltz into Manager Terry Francona's office and shout, "Hey, b---!" and have the manager chuckle.
Sadness remained foreign for Ortiz. He punished baseballs and pointed at the sky and loved his teammates and stood up for his [expletive] city when it needed it. In the immediate aftermath of the Red Sox' loss, the Fenway crowd chanted, "Thank you, Pa-pi!" as he sat in the clubhouse for a team meeting. The Red Sox are not known as a bunch to react to a season-ending sweep with anything other than rage. Now, the power of Ortiz compelled them to opt for gratitude.
A public relations staffer informed Ortiz they were chanting his name. He emerged from the first base dugout one last time and stood on the mound, in the center of the diamond where he had launched so many walk-offs and celebrated so much, where he had saved the 2004 Red Sox and emboldened the city after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
With the game over and his career finished, Ortiz lifted his cap. His eyes filled with tears, and some of them rolled down his cheeks.
"I was talking about the emotions that I went through once I walked to the mound for the last time," Ortiz said. And I was saying that I went through like three different times where emotions popped. But they're different. First one this year was when we heard the bad news about my friend Jose Fernandez, something that impact the whole world, and you never expect anything like that to happen. And when it happens you start thinking, and your mind go all over the place. And that's something that, it was a shock. Nobody was expecting anything like that to happen to such a young, talented player, good kid. And we're going through the ceremony, when that happens, emotion pops. And the other day when we were having the ceremony here about my retirement emotions came back out again.
"But the reality is that there's two times I know that I was going to continue playing baseball. I know there was more games to go. But tonight when I walk to the mound I realize that - I realize that it was going to be - it was over. It was pretty much probably the last time as a player walk in front of a crowd. And the emotion came back out again.
"But like I say, I'm happy, not just for me, not just how my career went down, but for the organization, the step that we took, from going from last place to win the Division this year. Even if things didn't end up the way we were looking for. But I believe that in baseball, especially in the baseball game that we play in today's day, it's a big step because it's like going from bad to good, from day to night. And I told my teammates about it, I want them to feel happy and proud about themselves. And do what I did back in the day. Reflect that in the following year and come back and fight."
Monday night Dustin Pedroia became the longest-tenured member of the Red Sox. His first full season was 2007, when Ortiz was 31, making his fourth all-star team and finishing in the top five of the MVP vote for the fifth time. It's hard to picture the Red Sox without Ortiz in the dugout, waiting to terrify a pitcher.
Ortiz, of course, had a season that would allow him to come back if he wanted. At 40, he produced one of his best seasons, topping the majors in doubles (48), slugging (.620) and OPS (1.021) while drilling 38 homers and posting 127 RBI. But the pain in his feet was unrelenting, and Ortiz is not the kind of person to let emotion change his mind. His exit from baseball as a player did not match his career. It is not something David Ortiz would feel sad or angry about it. It is just the game.