MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Stay strong: Boston sends off beloved Papi

Ortiz became HOF-worthy as Red Sox collected 3 titles

Stay strong: Boston sends off beloved Papi

They refused to leave their seats until David Ortiz returned for a final curtain call. They could not let him go this easily. They could not grasp that this is how it would end.

Big Papi had disappeared down the dugout stairs at Fenway Park at the end of the game Monday as the Cleveland Indians celebrated. He surely was a swirl of emotions, but he understood this was their moment.

Still, the Fenway faithful chanted his name and waited their turn to say goodbye. And then he popped his head out of the dugout, prompting a thunderclap of cheers.

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 6 CLE 5, BOS 4 video
Gm 2 Oct. 7 CLE 6, BOS 0 video
Gm 3 Oct. 10 CLE 4, BOS 3 video

Ortiz walked to the pitcher's mound, and there he soaked in the cheers again, tipping his cap and allowing the emotions to wash over him. This was a packed house trying to tell him what he'd meant to them.

His eyes swept around the ballpark once, twice, seemingly grasping, maybe for the first time, that this would be the last time he could truly call it his own as a player.

He was beloved, in part, because he was a bundle of emotion, sometimes laughter, sometimes fury. He was real, though, and he was pretty much one of them. He prided himself on that part of the deal.

Emotional scene for Big Papi's final game

Three years ago, he took the microphone one afternoon at Fenway Park and became the voice of a proud, defiant city days after the Boston Marathon bombings.

"This jersey that we wear today, it doesn't say 'Red Sox,'" Ortiz said. "It says 'Boston.'"

He spoke a bit more before finishing with the words that became an anthem for a battered, scared city: "This is our f------- city. And nobody's going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

No, this wasn't just another ballplayer saying his goodbyes. This had been a perfect marriage for the last 14 seasons, the happy, gifted kid from the Dominican Republic and a city passionate about its baseball.

Perfect ending? There are few of those. Ortiz dreamed of going out with one more championship parade, one more trip to the mountaintop.

Instead, his career ended when he drew a walk in the bottom of the eighth inning and was lifted for a pinch-runner as the Red Sox lost to the Indians, 4-3, in Game 3 of an American League Division Series.

Papi walks, exits to ovation

The Indians swept the Red Sox out of the playoffs to advance to the AL Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, which starts Friday in Cleveland.

Ortiz had attempted to prepare for this day, but really that's impossible. On this day, he walked away from the thing he'd devoted himself to for virtually all of his 40 years on earth.

His career stretched 20 years, six with the Twins and 14 with the Red Sox. He leaves baseball with a legacy so rich that wishing for one more deep October run would only be greedy.

He arrived in Boston in 2003 as an unproven 27-year-old who'd just been released by the Twins. He was coming off his best season, 20 homers in 2002, but the Red Sox really weren't sure what they had.

Now, there will never be a discussion of the greatest Boston baseball players without mentioning Big Papi. Is he greater than Ted Williams? Carl Yastrzemski? Jim Rice?

Know this: He's in the conversation. In those 14 seasons, he hit 483 home runs and made the AL All-Star team 10 times. He never won an MVP Award, but from 2003-07, he finished in the top five every season.

His 54-home run, 137-RBI season in 2006 will stand as one of the greatest by any Red Sox player ever. And all those numbers with Boston -- 524 doubles, 1,530 RBIs, .956 OPS -- they're really just noise compared to his real legacy.

Ortiz was the face of the Red Sox at a time when we completely changed the way we think of the franchise.

Was it just him? Of course not. There was Theo Epstein, the brilliant architect. There were two great managers, Terry Francona and John Farrell. There were other great players -- Dustin Pedroia, Curt Schilling, etc.

But it was Big Papi who came to symbolize everything that happened in Boston. When the Red Sox broke an 86-year championship drought with that 2004 World Series win, Ortiz had one of his greatest seasons, with 47 doubles, 41 home runs and 139 RBIs.

Papi introduced at Fenway Park

The Red Sox also won the World Series in 2007 and '13, and along the way, Ortiz delivered a string of memorable October moments. He didn't just hit home runs. He hit homers that changed the course of seasons and franchises.

Incredibly, his 20th and apparently final Major League season was one of his best as he approached his 41st birthday next week: 48 doubles, 38 home runs, 127 RBIs. He led the Majors with a 1.021 OPS and will finish high in the AL MVP voting again.

Hall of Fame? Yes, absolutely. He will be punished by some because he has not played the field in years.

Still, his career 56.4 Wins Above Replacement for offensive players is the 114th-highest in history, sitting above a handful of Hall of Famers, including Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson and Kirby Puckett.

His .931 career OPS is the 35th-highest. His 541 home runs have him 17th on the all-time list.

Beyond the numbers is that he was a full-time designated hitter for most of his career. If the DH is part of the game, shouldn't the best of them -- Edgar Martinez, Ortiz -- be bestowed the game's highest honor?

Ortiz's career numbers are so impressive, along with his All-Star appearances and MVP votes, that he seems close to a slam dunk.

All Red Sox fans know for sure is that they've seldom had a player they loved more than Big Papi. They seldom had one who gave them more sweet memories or one who understood that being a good citizen of the community was almost as important as being a great player.

The Red Sox and their fans have been saying their goodbyes to Ortiz in various ways the past few months. But they'll need awhile to grasp that he has played his final game. They won't have another one like him.

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.