Big Papi made Boston his city with his bat and charisma

Because Ortiz was truly a transformative figure, the Red Sox broke with precedent

It felt like Opening Day. The playoffs. Dare I say, the World Series. Wherever I went — Yawkey Way, Lansdowne Street, Brookline Avenue — the thoroughfares outside Fenway Park before Friday’s game were buzzing with fans of all ages wearing number 34 jerseys, paying tribute to David Ortiz.

Inside Fenway, the scene was just as electric. It was all so strangely magnificent, my first visit to this historic stadium. The Green Monster transformed into the backdrop for a huge Dominican flag. The Boston Children’s Chorus singing Quisqueyanos Valientes, the national anthem of the Dominican Republic. Multiple generations of families walking in together wearing No. 34 with some version of Big Papi, Señor Papi, or Ortiz across the fronts and backs. Dominicans waving their flags and wearing national team jerseys from the World Baseball Classic, as well as great big smiles.

It’s easy to go overboard in our adulation for athletes, but when the Red Sox made 34 the 10th number retired in their 117-year history, they broke precedent for only the second time. Only in the case of beloved infielder Johnny Pesky had the team retired a player’s number without that player having first been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Everybody else, including Ted Williams and Pedro Martínez, had to wait.

But Ortiz has been a truly transformative figure, a player who grew up when he arrived in Boston and changed not only himself but also a team, an organization and a city.

Changing the Game and A City

Sure, from my outsider’s perspective, Boston fans still love and identify with Kevin Youkilis, Kevin Millar and Dustin Pedroia. And it seems the local press across all platforms still paint the Red Sox as some sort of quintessential working-class Bostonian — white, scrappy, hard-working, lunch-pail types.

As an historian, I am quite familiar with Boston’s racial history at different levels. Red Sox management rejected Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and other black talent in the 1940s and 1950s, stubbornly refusing to integrate until finally signing Elijah “Pumpsie” Green in 1959 — the last club to accept an African-American on the roster. The public schools needed a court order to desegregate from 1974 to 1988, inciting a white flight to the suburbs. Black players from the city’s pro teams, including the legendary Bill Russell of the Celtics and different generations of Red Sox, from Earl Wilson and Jim Rice to Mo Vaughn and Ellis Burks, spoke openly of playing in a region where they were not fully accepted.

The Adam Jones incident this spring — when he was called the N-word by a fan at Fenway Park — and subsequent events and discussions in the media demonstrate there are still racial issues that readily percolate to the surface within sectors of Red Sox Nation.

But Big Papi, along with Pedro Martínez and Manny Ramírez, did something completely unexpected and radical — they all effectively transformed the Red Sox team and clubhouse into one that pulsated with a Latino soul.

As a New York Yankees fan, I must confess that I’m quite envious. Latino Yankee fans have not had a Latino star who became the face, soul and voice of the franchise, one the team and city all readily identify as a rallying figure. Indeed, as central to the Yankees’ success of the late 1990s and 2000s as Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada were, none of these three players became the voice of the team, the figure people looked up to as representing the city. For most Yankees fans, that was invariably Derek Jeter.

Indeed, here I am not talking about the majestic home runs Big Papi crushed at pivotal moments in September and October over his 14 seasons with Boston — and too often it seemed against the Yankees, something that he took much delight in doing. Nor am I talking about the often-discussed claim that the Yankees took a pass when the Twins released Ortiz after the 2002 season, opting instead to go with Doug Mientkiewicz at first base and Matt LeCroy as their DH.

Rather, it’s how David Américo Ortiz, born and raised in Santo Domingo, evolved into the heart and soul of the Boston franchise — a towering figure on and off the field who won games and championships for the Red Sox and elevated the pride and image of the Dominican community.

Something happened in Boston, and Ortiz was right smack in the middle of it all.

DaviD Ortiz’s Dominican Dreams

Big Papi’s story is different from Pedro’s and Manny’s.

Martínez arrived after the 1997 season as a gift from the Montreal Expos, who traded him for two other pitchers, Carl Pavano and Venezuelan minor-leaguer Tony Armas. He would go on to stamp his ticket to Cooperstown with two more Cy Youngs during a magnificent seven-year run in Boston.

Ramírez could mash the ball with the best of them. His hitting personified what we now call plátano power. Yet Manny, who left the Dominican Republic when he was young, was essentially a product of New York City’s Quisqueya, nee, Washington Heights, a first-round draft pick of Cleveland who came to Boston after the 2000 season as a coveted free agent.

For Latino Boston, particularly Dominicans, Ortiz reflects their dreams and aspirations. He arrived in Boston in 2003 before making his mark. His is a story of persistence, how to keep going after others deem you not worthy and not good enough to help achieve the organization’s goal.

Ortiz is the immigrant who needed more than one chance — actually more than two, if you include the fact that his first team, the Seattle Mariners, traded him to Minnesota while he was still in the minors. Since there is a seemingly endless supply of young Dominicans or Venezuelans in the talent pipeline, few Latino players are guaranteed a second, let alone a third, chance.

In fact, Ortiz needed Martínez’s help to get to Boston. Pedro called his boss, general manager Dan Duquette, and insisted that the Red Sox give his friend a chance. Ortiz, who feared his career might be over after being released, was flown in for a physical the day following Martinez’s phone call.

Big Papi’s Stand For Recognition and Representation

When Ortiz arrived in Beantown, he had not yet earned the Big Papi sobriquet. He was simply another Latino in search of a chance on a team that already had several players vying for at-bats as the starting DH.

Yet over the course of his 14 seasons and three World Series championships in Boston, Ortiz’s drive, hard work and confidence is precisely what Dominicans and other Latinos in Boston came to identify with: Give me a chance and I will not only make things better for my family and myself, but also make things better for the organization and community.

The pageantry of the number retirement ceremony was affirmation for Boston’s Dominicans, a powerful demonstration of the imprint they have made on Boston, thanks to Big Papi and their own efforts at many levels throughout the metro area.

“The night for me was a special day because I saw David Ortiz’s number retired. For Dominicans, right now we feel so proud about him,” Nilson “Junior” Pepén, a broadcaster from the Dominican Republic who works for Univision Boston, said in an interview with La Vida.

For Pepén, witnessing Ortiz’s impact on Dominicans, now Boston’s largest minority community, has been amazing.

“He’s very special because he keeps his values from the Dominicans. He right now is the role model for the Dominican community,” added Pepén, who has lived in Boston for more than 20 years. “He changed Boston, changed the Dominican community. Before Pedro Martínez, few [Dominicans] were here at Fenway Park.”

Now, with Pedro’s and Big Papi’s numbers on the upper deck overhang along with Williams’ and those of seven others, Pepén asserted that, “We feel represented, the community.”

Indeed, Boston now bears Big Papi’s imprint. Alberto Vasallo III, CEO of Boston’s El Mundo Media wrapped it up well.

“There’s a drive named after him. There’s a gate at the airport named after him. There’s a bridge,” Vasallo said. “You talk about this being Ted Williams’ town. I think this is David Ortiz’s town now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Ortiz was the first player from the Red Sox to have his number retired before entering the Hall of Fame. He is the second, after Johnny Pesky. The text above has been amended.

Featured Image: Chris Weber / La Vida Baseball