MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Papi's legacy built on HRs, rings, honor

Papi's legacy built on HRs, rings, honor

His 500th home run was a reminder of his greatness. Milestones like this one simply remind us how lucky we were to have watched David Ortiz play baseball.

He became the 27th member of the 500th homer club by hitting a pair of them on Saturday night at Tropicana Field. He's at that point in his career where he flies past another milestone every month or so, and he seems appreciative of every single one of them.

Astros
Big Papi joins 500 Homer Club

His 499th came in the top of the first inning, when Rays starter Matt Moore let a 93-mph fastball catch too much of the plate with the count 1-2. Another hitter might have been thinking defensively, hoping to fight off the tough pitches and maybe put a mistake in play.

Ortiz jumped on the fastball, striding quickly, swinging mightily and taking an instant to watch the ball leave the park. Sometimes, the great ones make it look easy.

In the fifth inning, Moore changed tactics. With the count 2-1, Ortiz barely fouled off a 94-mph heater. And then at 2-2, Moore tried a breaking pitch, a good one that dipped wickedly on the outside half of home plate.

Ortiz reacted as if the pitch had been telegraphed from 10 miles away. And when that one disappeared to right field, he stood at home plate for an instant before circling the bases.

His teammates gathered in front of the visitor's dugout to greet him with bear hugs and laughter.

And that was that.

Ortiz will turn 40 this offseason, but the amazing part is how ageless he seems. To see that beautiful left-handed swing now is to have seen it 12 years ago, when he arrived in Boston.

His .9244 career OPS is the 43rd-best in history, better than that of Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell. His 50.8 Wins Above Replacement calculation for offense places him 158th on the all-time list, ahead of Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez.

This season, he has 34 home runs -- his 9th season of 30-plus long balls. His first was in 2003 -- he hit 31 in his debut season for Boston.

Papi's first Red Sox homer

While that's impressive, he will never be remembered as the face of the Red Sox -- that's an honor he'll always share with Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and others.

But Ortiz's legacy is different, anyway, because he did something most other Red Sox greats never did. He won championships.

That first one, in 2004, was special because it put the ghosts of past failures to rest. Two others -- in 2007 and 2013 -- established that his name will be etched in the hearts and minds of Red Sox fans forever.

He has been at his best on baseball's biggest stage, with a .455 batting average in 14 World Series games. Some of his walk-off postseason home runs -- for instance, an eighth-inning grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS -- rank among the most special moments in baseball history.

Papi's game-tying grand slam

And that's just part of it. He has represented the Red Sox with dignity and grace. In one of Boston's darkest hours -- in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings -- Ortiz became New England's face of defiance and pride.

He also gives time and money to an assortment of charities, beginning with his own David Ortiz Children's Fund. He has raised money for the Jimmy Fund, Make-A-Wish, Red Sox Foundation and various other efforts, both in Boston and in his native Dominican Republic.

Major League Baseball gave him its Robert Clemente Award in 2011, which is the game's highest honor for players who've made charitable work a priority.

Ortiz is such a huge, likable presence on the field and off that he has gone a long way toward putting MLB in the sweet place it's now in. All that remains to be seen is how long he can still contribute at this level.

To imagine the home clubhouse at Fenway Park without Ortiz in the middle of everything is nearly impossible. That seems unlikely for awhile, since Ortiz has been one of baseball's best offensive players since the All-Star Break -- .346 batting average, 19 home runs and 52 RBIs in 50 games.

His larger joy, though, clearly comes from competing and winning. Very few have ever done it better.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.