There’s a classic John Updike essay that appeared in The New Yorker more than 50 years ago. In “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, Updike chronicled the last game that Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter (and pretty much the greatest Red Sox player) of all time, played in.
There were a bit over 10,000 fans bidding The Kid – one of Teddy Ballgame’s many nicknames – adieu that miserable, late September afternoon in 1960. I wasn’t one of them – I was sitting at my desk in the 6th grade classroom at Our Lady of the Angels in Worcester. But I was a big Red Sox fan, and a big Ted Williams fan – that summer, I’d kept a scrapbook that chronicled Williams’ home run production for the season. It was especially exciting when he nipped past Mel Ott’s record of 511. Ted went on to end his career with 521, and I saw one of those homers in July of 1960, when I got to my first game at Fenway Park.
In his perhaps most famous of essays, Updike describes Fenway as “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”
On Friday night, another miserable, late September time for a ballgame, I was at that “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” to see David Ortiz, a.k.a. Big Papi, pretty much the second greatest Red Sox player of all time, for my last time.
I was with my sister – and fellow Red Sox lifer – Trish, and as we sat there shivering and sucking down hot chocolate in what was a light rain that barely let up, we were hoping that Papi would hit a dinger for us, as he’d done so many times before.
The game started late, as each of the final regular season home games was going to begin with a ceremony honoring Ortiz.
It was more of a production number than the one-and-only so-long ceremony for Ted that was held pre-game on September 28, 1960. At that game, a few folks – including Ted – spoke, and Boston’s mayor, John Collins, handed him a $1,000 check for the Jimmy Fund, a still-going childhood cancer charity that Ted was a big part of.
Papi’s main charity is also centered on healthcare for kids, primarily in his home country, the Dominican Republic. So Friday’s ceremony focused there, and included bringing in a bunch of kids from the DR whose lives had been saved thanks to Big Papi. Then there was the Tanglewood Chorale to lead us in the national anthem (and “Oh, Canada,” too, since the Sox were playing the Blue Jays).
Unlike the paltry 10K+ on hand to watch Ted’s last game, for Papi’s third-to-last regular season stand, Fenway, despite the weather, was packed.
The Red Sox are a far better team than they were in 1960, when they ended up in 7th place out of 8 teams. And since 2004 – thanks in no small part to Big Papi – they’ve done what had eluded other Red Sox teams since 1918: they’ve won a World Series. Three times, in fact.
It was thanks to Papi’s clutch hitting that the Sox got to that curse-breaking 2004 World Series, coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I missed seeing most of his clutch hits against the Yankees.
I was too nervous to watch those games where he came through so brilliantly, so I took to my bed and let my husband report on what was going on. In Game 4 and Game 5, Papi won the games with an extra inning walk off homer (Game 4) and an extra inning walk off single (Game 5). And thus a legend was born.
The Red Sox won the ALCS – Papi was MVP – and I did watch Game 7 in full. By this point, it was pretty clear that God was on the Red Sox side. Papi hit a 2 run homer in the first. Game over!
The 2004 World Series itself was something of an anticlimax. Was there ever any doubt that the Red Sox were going to sweep the Cardinals? Even their manager, Tony LaRussa, seemed to give up the ghost by game three.
I can’t remember what Papi did in that World Series. His DR pal Manny Ramirez was the Series MVP, not Papi. But who cares? The Red Sox had won a World Series after, thanks to Papi, putting down the evil empire that was the New York Yankees.
I missed the celebration parade. (I was knocking on doors in NH for John Kerry. It worked, I guess: Kerry won NH. But fat lot of good it did…)
In 2007, the Sox won again. Mike Lowell was the MVP, and I caught a bit of the victory parade up by Government Center. In 2013, Ortiz was the MVP, and the World Series was getting to be old hat. For that parade, Papi didn’t ride in a duckboat, but on a flatbed truck that was exceedingly amped. The parade paused directly opposite of where I was standing outside the Public Garden, and Papi led the crowd in a Papi-sized chorus of “Sweet Caroline.”
This season Red Sox have won their division, but who knows how far they’ll go? And as an aside: I really DON’T want to see a Cubs-Red Sox showdown. How can I root against the Cubs? My mother’s from Chicago, and my 91 year old Aunt Mary was chosen, a few years back, the Cubs greatest fan. So how can I root against the Cubbies? (Other than because they’re owned by some seriously nut-job right wingers, which ordinarily wouldn’t bother me all that much, but this is an existential threat kind of an election we’ve got going on. Meanwhile, in a compare and contrast, the Red Sox ownership team are Democrats. At Friday’s game, they had a slide show of Papi exploits, and one of the songs that accompanied it was “Fight Song”, which is, at it happens, Hillary Clinton’s fight song. This might not have been viewed as a political gesture if Big Papi had not recently and vociferously denounced Donald Trump.)
So how can I root against the Red Sox if they end up in the WS against the Cubs, given that Papi’s retiring and the October games will be his last?
However far into October the Sox are playing, I’m 99.99% sure I won’t be getting to any playoff game. Sure, someone could give me a ticket, but it hasn’t happened up until now. So I’ll be content to watch on TV. Unafraid, by the way. Cured by being a big girl and forcing myself to watch the final seconds of the 2015 Super Bowl when it look like the Patriots were going to lose, and, instead, they quite miraculously won. Not that I care about the Pats the way I do about the Red Sox. There’s no comparison. But I have realized that I can watch the tough, tense games – especially now that the Red Sox have proven they can actually win a World Series or three.
Anyway, last Friday was going to be my last opportunity to see Big Papi in person.
He singled in a run in the first, but Trish and I – like the 37,000+ fans in attendance (minus most of the Blue Jays fans, of which there were surprisingly many) – wanted to see the big man unload with one of his classic dingers.
At his next at bat, he scorched one, but it was caught. (Great catch.)
We headed off to the ladies room to dry our gloves off under the blow dryers and to generally warm up a bit.
But we were back in our (wet) seats in plenty of time to see Big Papi blast one in the seventh, knocking in what turned out to be the game winning run.
Big Papi hitting a home run in the last time we’d see him at bat in person. Ever. Wow!
The place went wild, and that includes me and Trish. We were screaming, high-fiving, and hugging.
Despite the crappy weather, we stayed until the end, singing along with “Dirty Water” as the stands emptied out.
David Ortiz is not to everyone’s liking, I know. He can be a show-boater, and occasionally a whiner. He may or may not have used PEDs at one point. But he’s such a big, joyous, big-hearted presence on the Boston sports scene. And, man, is he entertaining. And, man, does the big man come through in the clutch.
At the first game played at Fenway in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, David Ortiz was asked to say a few words. Among those words were a couple of choice ones for the terrorists: This is our fucking city.
And you’re our kind of fucking ballplayer, my friend.
This Hub fan is sad to bid you adieu, but delighted that I was there to see that blast on Friday night. (By the way, Ted Wiliams’ last at bat was a home run. I hope that Papi’s is, too. How great would a walk-off to win the World Series be? Even if it came at the expense of the Cubs...)
Thank you, Big Papi, for the many years of baseball joy you’ve provided. Our “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” won’t be the same without you.