In the long history of the Boston Red Sox, not many players transcended borders and languages like David Ortiz. His personality, dedication, skill, and charisma made all of New England fall in love with him. "Big Papi" became a world-renowned figure and one of baseball's greatest ambassadors in many corners of the globe, and he wrote his name in gold letters in the East Coast professional sports marquee next to athletes such as Tom Brady, Bill Russell, and Larry Bird.
Big Papi's career was defined by thousands of key moments on and off the diamond, but that probably wouldn't have happened in Boston if it weren't for Larry Lucchino—the Worcester Red Sox' Principal Owner and Chairman who was formerly the Boston Red Sox' President/CEO—and Ortiz's long-time friend and teammate, Pedro Martinez.
The beginning of Ortiz's career dates back to 1992 when he was signed by the Seattle Mariners. He developed in Minor League Baseball until 1996 when he was traded to the Minnesota Twins, where despite making his debut in Major League Baseball, he experienced ups and downs with the Twins and their Triple-A affiliate. Big Papi's six seasons with Minnesota were plagued by injuries, but he did manage to blast 58 home runs and drive in 238 runs.
To delve into David Ortiz's arrival at Fenway Park and the beginning of the friendship between Ortiz and Lucchino, WooSox President Dr. Charles Steinberg recalls the complexity and main actors who influenced Ortiz's signing with the Red Sox.
"Pedro Martinez is the key to this story. In December 2002, David Ortiz was in a restaurant talking on the phone with Pedro, and with sadness, Ortiz told him that the Twins were not going to extend his contract," Steinberg said. "‘Excellent’, Pedro replied, and Ortiz immediately complained to his compatriot for his coldness, but Pedro told him it was time for him to join the organization he was supposed to be in, the Boston Red Sox."
At the time, Lucchino was in the middle of negotiations for a contract extension with Pedro, and during those talks, the pitcher advised Lucchino to sign Ortiz to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. That way, the risk wasn't too much but offered significant earning potential.
"Larry knew Pedro was one of the smartest people he's ever met in the sport, and he also knew Pedro was a future Hall of Famer, so his trust was complete," Steinberg recalls. In one of their many conversations on the subject, Lucchino told Steinberg, "When your star pitcher, Cy Young Award winner, future Hall of Famer tells you to go on signing someone he knows, in addition to negotiating contract extensions with him, you sign it."
That was enough for Big Papi to join the Red Sox. After Spring Training, David was included on the team roster. However, he didn't really play the first few weeks of the season. Despite the limited opportunities, Ortiz made the most of them, until, in mid-May, it became clear that he needed more playing time.
"When someone rescues you from the bottom of the barrel, when someone kisses the frog that becomes king—you don't forget Pedro, you don't forget Larry Lucchino," Steinberg says. "Larry also has eyes for the heart. Pedro has heart, David Ortiz has heart."
From this moment on, David Ortiz became "Big Papi," a name that would stay with him for life and that he earned in a way not many people think of. The Dominican native always had a hard time remembering people's names, so he called everyone on the team and staff "Papi."
After winning World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, Big Papi was already a living legend in Boston, but in 2010, the press was being harsh with the team, and there were even talks that Ortiz's best years were in the past. However, Lucchino, always defending his team, never had any doubts that there was still gas left in David's tank.
In August 2012, Ortiz ruptured his Achilles tendon and missed the rest of the year, including a portion of 2013, a year that would change Boston history forever. "Ortiz was in Pawtucket, rehabbing his Achilles, the tragedy of the Boston Marathon was on April 15, he wasn't on that team," Steinberg said. "Saturday, April 20, would be the first home game since the Marathon. Larry and I had the same idea."
For that game, talks began about a pre-game ceremony, and as fate would have it, Big Papi would rejoin the team that very day. Larry Lucchino knew that the right thing to do was to give David Ortiz a hot microphone because, he knew what it meant to the fans to hear from him—an idea that also crossed Steinberg's mind.
"Talking to my colleagues, I had the idea of giving the microphone to Ortiz, and my colleagues told me that David would most likely say a bad word. When we told Larry that this was a possibility, his response was ‘Excellent,’" Steinberg recalls. "That day [Big Papi] made history, not with his bat, but with his mouth and his heart. Everyone remembers the famous phrase, but you have to pay attention to what he says afterwards. 'No one can dictate our freedom.' That's a wonderful phrase, speaking in your second language, in your second country."
One of the biggest lessons Larry Lucchino learned is to never distrust the heart of a Hall of Famer, and Ortiz had an excellent second half of 2013 and was instrumental in Boston being crowned World Series champions in the same year as one of the biggest tragedies in the city's history.
David Ortiz was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2022, and in his speech he thanked his coaches, the city of Boston, and of course, Larry Lucchino. "From Mr. John Henry to Linda Henry, to Tom Werner to Larry Lucchino, Phil Morse, who was there when I came to Boston," Ortiz said.
Big Papi also addressed the fans who showed him an immense amount of love for more than a decade.
"When I think about Boston, I also think about the last game I played, standing on that field at Fenway Park," he said. "It felt like the whole region of New England and each and every one of you was surrounding me and was showing me all your love. It will always be Boston and I will always be there for you, Boston. I love you, Boston."
In 2023, Lucchino received the Jimmy Fund Award on September 4 at Fenway Park, and his great friend and confidant, David Ortiz, could not miss this tribute. "I love joking with him, teasing him, pleasing him, and what we accomplished together was incredible," Lucchino said.
After breaking an 86-year curse, winning, winning, and winning again when your city needed it the most—that is a love story.