On Sunday afternoon, David Ortiz came to the plate in the seventh inning with one out and Daniel Nava standing on second base. The scoreboard above the centerfield bleachers had his line for the game along with his current stats.
I was in the standing-room section above Fenway Park’s right field when a fan next to me noticed something.
“Hey, look at that. His average fell to .500 today.”
Within a pitch or two of that quick little comment, Ortiz ripped a pitch into the corner below us. Nava screamed around the bases, and Ortiz trotted into second with a little less vigor. He’s been on a tear since coming back from a heel injury to start the season late, and where he might’ve tried for a triple a few years ago, he had to settle for the double and a 6-1 lead over the Houston Astros.
The place went crazy, relative to a Sunday afternoon crowd that had led for the entire game, anyway. They had been cheering his every move, every stride to the plate and every swing that connected, including two long outs in the middle innings. But that’s nothing new. He’s David Ortiz, Big Papi, and he’s had a clutch on Boston baseball going on 11 seasons now. As far as the fans are concerned and the rest of the league, he is the Boston Red Sox.
He also bumped his average back up to .516.
★ ★ ★
“This is our fucking city.”
“… Did he just say ‘fucking city?’”
I was having lunch with friends about a week before on Saturday, April 20. The day before had been one of weird, cloistered horror while authorities practically strip-searched Boston, Watertown and Cambridge looking for the two men who had set off bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and, three days later, executed a police officer and hijacked a car in an attempt to skip town and continue their campaign of carnage further south in New York City.
Late Thursday and well into Friday, the entire city sat and waited, following along online and on TV while the FBI and police went up and down looking for two monsters who, despite dipping everyone into panic, were still inconceivably stupid enough to have stayed in the city, never realizing that perhaps the hundreds (thousands?) of cameras, both professional and amateur, might have caught them in the act as they nonchalantly strutted away while innocent people bled.
The Red Sox and Bruins games that Friday night were canceled. The next afternoon, the Red Sox played their first game in the city since the attacks. Unlike the Bruins, who played while the city was still in the first emotional throes of grief while defiantly trying to maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives, the Red Sox made their return while the city, still grieving, were celebrating all the brave folks who helped save lives and bring those responsible into custody.
The Sox held their ceremonies before their game with the Kansas City Royals, a typically grand affair for them, tempered by the real emotion of seeing heroes from all walks of life cheered by those in attendance.
Ortiz, as the most tenured member of the team, took the mic at the end to thank everyone who worked to preserve a city so many of us love as much as we do. And then he said, through his unmistakable accent, the most Boston thing anyone had said publicly in a week.
“This is our fucking city! And nobody is going to dictate our freedom.”
Ortiz later said that he got caught up in the emotion and wanted to share that with the fans. The FCC cheered him. Save for a few prudes, his words were applauded as a raw, authentic response to a harrowing week and the desire to live freely and without fear.
Maybe more people outside of Boston had a problem with his language than I realize. I don’t really know, and I don’t care. All I cared about in that moment was what he said, how he said it and who said it. He spoke from the soul, and he spoke like a real Bostonian, because he is. He’s ours.
★ ★ ★
While the fans cheered his double, I thought about his struggles in the 2009 season as he worked to come back from a wrist injury. He had a dreadful April and didn’t hit his first home run until May. There were more than a few writers preparing his obituary, predicting his release and likening his descent to Jim Rice who, one day in his early 30s, lost his fear-inducing ability to destroy a fastball low in the zone.
This is one area where Boston fans would typically turn on a guy. But when he finally hit that first home run on May 20 against the Blue Jays, he was greeted to a standing ovation and a curtain call.
He hit his next home run at home against Texas on June 6, and it happened again — a standing ovation, and a curtain call. Three days later, against the Yankees, he homered and the fans responded again. It got to feel as though they were ready to do it every time he hit one out of the park, and if that’s what was needed to get Ortiz on track, it seemed like they were ready.
As bad as his April and beginning of May was, his June was torrid — he hit seven home runs with a 1.062 OPS. He had seven more home runs in July, and another seven in August, and somehow finished the year with 28 total. Through all that, while doubts mounted, the fans stuck with him, and with good reason. Just a few seasons earlier, he was the face of the team that captured the hearts of baseball fans across New England, hitting walk-off home runs at will and vanquishing years of demons and heartache.
He did it all with style and swagger. He embraced the city, and it embraced him back. When he was struggling, the fans picked him up. When the city was reeling, he wanted to show he cared, because this was his fucking city, too, just as much as it was ours.
A week later, it’s back to baseball. The Red Sox are playing atop the division. David Ortiz is still hitting, and the fans are still cheering. Life seems like it’s coming back on track.