Boston Says Goodbye to Big Papi, a Dominican Immigrant Who Became the City’s Unlikely Hero

On the diamond of the historic Fenway Park, a 6-year-old boy has the honor of throwing out the first pitch. He is sick, with a life-threatening heart defect that has caused him to undergo more than 30 surgeries. But on this day, all he can do is smile, because he got the chance to meet his favorite Red Sox player: David Ortiz.

The allure of Big Papi in Boston and much of New England isn’t hard to understand at face value. The Dominican immigrant is one of the main reasons the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought of a World Series victory, and was just as integral in their last two titles in 2007 and 2013.

I was thankful to experience the rise of Ortiz with the rise into adulthood. I was in sixth grade when I saw him and the Red Sox win four straight games against the New York Yankees, two of those wins as a result of walk-off wins courtesy of Ortiz. In 2013, I watched from my college dorm room as his leadership propelled the Red Sox to their first World Series win in Boston since 1918. And miles away from my dorm room, Bostonians went on a pilgrimage to 665 Boylston Street, the sight of the Boston Marathon finish line, where months prior, tragedy struck.

As a baseball player, Ortiz is beloved by his accomplishments as a part of the Red Sox: three World Series titles, countless walk-off home runs and RBIs, becoming one of the greatest Red Sox hitters of all time. But in Boston, Ortiz is mythical, and that was no more apparent than on a spring day in 2013.

“This is our fucking city, and nobody going dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”

Five days after the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured 280 others, Fenway Park was the church for Boston, a site to gather for healing and celebration. No one knew what to expect. No one knew what would happen. But when Ortiz grabbed a microphone, like a priest ready to deliver a homily, Fenway lent their ears.

“This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox,” Ortiz said. “It say Boston.” And as he thanked government officials and police for their work in the following days after the attack, Ortiz delivered a message. “This is our fucking city, and nobody going dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”

He spoke broken English, but it didn’t matter. He used profanity on live television, but it didn’t matter. He was a Spanish-speaking immigrant from the Dominican Republic, but it didn’t matter. While this moment is what cements Ortiz’s legacy as one of the all-time greatest athletes in Boston sports history, it was what didn’t matter in this moment that made Ortiz’s legacy so much more important.

As a child of Dominican parents, baseball was in my blood. I grew up playing and watching the game and learned to love it at an early age. I gravitated towards Dominican players like Pedro Martínez and José Reyes because I could relate based on my culture and the fact that these men, who came from the countryside and poorest communities of the Dominican Republic, made it to the grandest stage of professional baseball in the world.

When Ortiz steps up to the plate, his body language is telling you he is ready to play and ready to do damage.

But when I saw Ortiz grace my television screen back in the 2004 postseason, it was different. Ortiz captivated you and drew you in to the game of baseball in a way like no one else. When Ortiz steps up to the plate, his body language is telling you he is ready to play and ready to do damage. When he is at the plate, you can tell he is at home, comfortable in his stance, moving his bat like an orchestra’s conductor with ease.

Ortiz looks like a menacing giant at the plate, but once the helmet comes off, the friendliest giant you know appears. You see it in videos captured by Kevin Millar in the locker room. You see it with kids who glow and jump with glee at the sight of Big Papi. Even his name, Big Daddy, describes how Boston sees him. They see Ortiz as a father figure to the city, and when the city needed their patriarch, Ortiz answered, saying everything was going to be okay.

These qualities – determination, strength, love, and family – are at the root of Dominican values, and it’s why saying goodbye to Ortiz is so hard for Boston.

I went to my first Red Sox game in April before I was assigned this piece, and as the Red Sox lineup was called, one man got the loudest ovation. Each time he stepped up to the plate, the fans at Fenway roared loudly, waiting with bated breath to see what he would do. Ortiz was the only man to get the kind of reaction that night.

He has provided fond memories for the city of Boston, and that’s why it will be hard for the city when Ortiz says goodbye. Because it will be saying goodbye to the loved one who has been there for you through the good and the bad. It will be saying goodbye to the man who made Boston stay strong.