Earlier this week, after another age-defying night, David Ortiz received a text message from a friend: “Man, you’re [expletive] your retirement up!” Ortiz laughed, because what else could he do? He is 40 years old. For the first six weeks of what he said would be his last season, he was the best hitter in baseball. That’s what everyone knew. They didn’t understand that it hurts Ortiz just to walk. And the energy it takes to steel his mind against his own second-guessing, let alone others’. And here was a friend – a Yankees fan no less – telling Ortiz not to go, not yet.
There’s a magnetism about Ortiz, one that developed in 2003 and grew more ferrous by the year. He is outsized and beloved for it. He doesn’t talk; he thunders. He doesn’t hit; he wallops. He is Boston’s and the Dominican Republic’s and the world’s, and as much as the prospect of baseball without Big Papi feels like a donut without coffee to dunk it in, the reality of it is magnified by what he’s doing. It’s like Kobe putting up 60, only every night.
It is May 18, and Ortiz is hitting .311/.395/.674 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs. His 1.069 OPS leads baseball. He’s slugging at a higher clip than Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, getting on base more than Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, walking off games as though it’s October 2004 all over again. Guys doing that don’t euthanize their own careers.
“I’m good with the decision that I’m making because I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Ortiz told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “It’s been a couple years. Because your body, man. Your body tells you. My body, man. My body’s pretty beat up. Remember, if you look at guys my size, they don’t last. I noticed that seven or eight years ago. That’s why I needed to start doing things right. I lost 25 pounds. I started eating better, do things better. But let me tell you: It’s not easy, man.”
He pointed toward the trainer’s room.
“That’s every day,” he said. “I used to love those days when I didn’t have to go. And then the traveling – we don’t catch a break. We travel at night pretty much every getaway day. That’s hard for me. I feel like [expletive] the next day. When you’re younger, you get away with it. When you’re 40, not so much.”
Ortiz looked down and shook his head. His feet feel like giant stones with cracks fissuring through them. The rest of his body works well enough, responds to treatment. His feet, though. They’re why he’s retiring. They’re what vex him.
“My mind tells me some days, ‘Man, I don’t feel like doing [expletive],’ ” Ortiz said. “But I know I need to do [expletive] if I’m going to play, going to compete. So what do I do? I work. And those are my best days, because once I get into the mojo of working out, doing my thing, my body starts feeling better, and that day is a plus instead of being a minus.
“All people talk about is age, age, age, age. Bro, listen. I’m a better hitter now than what I was [expletive] 10 years ago. You know why? Because now I set pitchers up. My mind doesn’t get any confusion. I used to get confused. I’m gonna sit on a slider. Fastball. Boom! Oh, [expletive]. Why’d I take that fastball? My whole program I used to change because of that pitch. Now, I decide I’m gonna sit on a slider. Fastball. I don’t care. Fastball. I don’t care. Breaking ball. I don’t care. Changeup. I don’t care. Slider. Here it is.”
Ortiz wants people to understand how a 40-year-old is doing this, how much he devotes to the craft of baseball, because he knows how many people think it’s steroids. Truth time: Big Papi, the king of confidence, reads what people say. Last week, Ortiz met a young boy named Maverick Schutte. In April, when Ortiz heard the story of Maverick’s illness and the depth of his Red Sox fandom, he promised to hit a home run for him that night – and did. And now Ortiz was guiding the 6-year-old around Fenway Park, showing him the sort of incredible day he deserves, and cameras are there, yes, because it’s 2016 and because moments like that can get co-opted and not because Ortiz is some sort of glory hog. The camera seeks him out, not the other way around.
“So I’m looking through the comments, and right away there are people making negative comments about myself,” Ortiz said. “To me, that’s OK, because that’s how the human race is. That’s how we are built up. You’re not going to make everyone happy.
“We have a lot of people hating. They hate because of the money that you make. They hate because of who you are. There’s a lot of directions, a lot of different ways to hate. Sometimes they hate because you are overrated. It’s [expletive] crazy. It’s crazy. It’s crazy. And like I always say, don’t be mad at me because your dad didn’t take you to the baseball field as a kid. Or he probably took you and you sucked. Don’t get mad at me for that. It ain’t my fault.”
Much of it stems from the specter of the failed PED test in 2003. Only two players before Ortiz hit at least 30 home runs in the last three seasons leading up to their 40s: Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron. Ortiz already is a third of the way to being the second 40-year-old, after Darrell Evans, to homer 30 times. Ortiz is an outlier. Baseball struggles to reconcile outliers. It may keep him out of the Hall of Fame despite the 513 home runs and historic postseasons that more than warrant his inclusion, even with the PED stain.
Over the next five years, perhaps voters will look back upon the candidacy of Ortiz with more fondness because of his final season, his willingness to go out on top, which is the hardest thing any athlete can do. As early as 2009, a sharp decline looked inevitable; the opposite happened. “I’m gonna try to have a monster year even if I’m retiring,” Ortiz said, “because people expect me to do that.”
The Red Sox do hold club options that max out at $16 million for the next two seasons. For now, the organization is respecting Ortiz’s choice to retire with more than $150 million earned and burgeoning businesses he wants to nurture.
“I’m happy with the decision that I made,” Ortiz said, “and my feet are happy with the decision that I made, and my wife is happy with the decision that I made. I’ve got to wait until next year when I ain’t doing [expletive] to see how it’s gonna hit home. Because I’m not gonna lie to you, I don’t know. I think I played enough baseball.”
He laughed again.
“Hopefully,” he said, “nobody comes to me and offers $25 million, either.”
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Ortiz said. “Like I said, I’m good with the decision that I made right now. But would you leave $25 million on the table? I don’t want nobody to offer me that.”
There’s the price, Red Sox, and even at that, Ortiz probably would turn it down. Baseball gets to keep its stranglehold on him for 4½ more months – actually, he hopes, 5½ – and then it’s off to real life, outside of the bubble where for 24 hours a day he must play Big Papi, which he does so well. It’s why he gets those texts from friends and messages from fans begging him not to go.
Thing is, they’re just being selfish. David Ortiz most certainly is not [expletive] up his retirement. He’s doing it how every player wishes he could.
By Jeff Passan