“Let me wear this uniform one more day!”

2019-06-10 DavidOrtiz2004ALCS

David Ortiz hits the winning bomb,  Game Four of the 2004 ALCS.

Baseball was stunned to learn retired longtime Red Sox superstar David Ortiz was ambushed and shot in the back outside a Santo Domingo nightclub Sunday. His father has said Ortiz is in stable condition following surgery to remove parts of his intestine and his colon as well as his gall bladder.

Aside from prayers for his recovery, I can think of no tribute other than to republish the last essay I wrote about Ortiz, who was responsible for so much Red Sox success after the franchise incurred so many surrealistic failures over its long, storied history. This one’s for you, Big Papi . . .

“Let me wear this uniform one more day!”
(12 October 2016)

Both American League Championship Series combatants get there by way of division series sweeps. For the Indians, it had to be a little extra special to get there by sweeping the Red Sox.

Twelve years ago, Indians manager Terry Francona managed an entirely different club of Red Sox to the Promised Land the franchise hadn’t seen since a kid named Ruth was in the starting rotation.

That was then: Francona’s charges had to figure out a way to keep an entirely different gang of Yankees from sweeping them out of the ALCS when they were down to their last out. This is now: His Indians — who haven’t seen the Promised Land since the Truman Administration — will have to figure out ways to keep the Blue Jays’ bats quiet and arms at bay.

It wasn’t supposed to be that simple against the Red Sox, was it? Even as youthful as they’d become?

But who could bargain that the formidable Red Sox youth corps who’d all but carried the Olde Towne Team to the postseason in the first place, pocketing the American League East to get there, would finally run out of fuel?

As adroitly as Francona shepherded his Indians, especially his bullpen, Red Sox manager John Farrell turned out to have his hands full with young players getting their first tastes of postseason play and a grand old man, who’d meant so much to the franchise’s championship revival for three World Series rings worth, finally spent by the time the postseason arrived.

Rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi had a decent first trip, going 3-for-9 overall, but all three hits came in Game One, including a solo home run to lead off the third and give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead that lived for exactly that half inning — before the Tribe hit three homers in a sequence of four plate appearances in the bottom of the inning, before Francona answered a too-close 4-3 Indians lead by going to Andrew Miller when starter Trevor Bauer was spent in the fifth.

But Mookie Betts, a young sprout and a Most Valuable Player award candidate, finished 2-for-10 in the series and found himself struggling to adjust when he realised the Indians plan was to keep pitches out of his reach. Fellow young sprout Jackie Bradley, Jr. struck out in seven of his first nine at-bats and had only one hit all series long, a single to right in the Game Three ninth.

And Xander Bogaerts, first seen in 2013 in brief flashes including in the World Series, finished the set 3-for-12 overall, seeming to spend most of his plate time trying to find the target on sliders all over the place.

The homegrown Red Sox trio learned the hard way that your first trip to the postseason can turn into your worst nightmare.

“It’s a great experience, a lot of pressure,” said Bogaerts, whose brief 2013 Series sightings weren’t quite the equal of being thrown full tilt into the postseason fire. “But we have to learn how to control it, how to think in that moment. Just not overthinking a lot of stuff. Just trying to be in the moment and being focused.”

Veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who’d been there/done that himself, concurred. “I think the tough part is you play every day during the year and then you have a few days off,” he told reporters about the young trio’s initiation. “You wait different times between games. It just throws you out of whack. I think they didn’t know what to expect out of that because it is different. It’s hard to get into a rhythm.”

Manager John Farrell, who shepherded the 2013 Series winner, gets it.

“There’s been a lot of conversation for the first-year guys, for the guys going through it for the first time, and not just with the staff but with their teammates,” he told reporters. “But there’s the old adage: You can’t replace experience. There’s a different feel to it. The fact that we had three days down, a later [Game One] start, five guys in our lineup being their first postseason, there were some things that were firsts, and I’m sure that lent to swinging at far too many pitches below the zone and above the zone.”

“Now we kind of know what to expect,” said Betts, rather thoughtfully, when the sweep was finished. “It’s going to be really important in the years going forward. We’ll know what to expect and how to handle adversity and how to go about the games and whatnot. It’s going to definitely be a positive.”

Attitudes like that should carry this coming generation of Red Sox back to postseason contention next year and for several seasons to come. But they’ll miss the big man.

David Ortiz won’t be retiring as a World Series champion. He won’t even see one more American League Championship Series. He’d never admit it, but just maybe, as much fun as it might have been for him to bask in the farewell tributes other Show teams gave him in his final season, it finally wore him down.

His final plate appearance? A four-pitch walk from Indians closer Cody Allen. It triggered an eighth-inning rally that put Fenway Park on gleeful edge for awhile, at least to the extent that Hanley Ramirez moved him to second as the potential tying run with a bullet single to left. Then Bogaerts lined out just as sharply to Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, one of the Tribe’s Game 1 bombardiers.

He got a final round of twenty-one guns from the Fenway faithful when it was over and the Red Sox were going on winter vacation. And loved it. Tipping his cap, he tried to keep a stone face but his tears betrayed the effort.

“Those moments, they are always going to be special. They are always going to stay with you,” said the man who left Red Sox Nation with about a hundred times more special moments. “I’ve been trying to hold my emotions the best I can, but that last second I couldn’t hold it no more.”

“He’s helped us in so many ways,” Pedroia said. “We wanted to win the World Series and send him out the way we all wanted to, but that didn’t happen.”

He’ll have to step into the next part of his life without a fourth World Series ring. But Ortiz knows how blessed he’s been in baseball terms. Most never get a single Series ring, never mind the love of a city that Ortiz has known.

And he left the younger Red Sox something, too. In the Game Three sixth, with the Indians up 4-1 and Pedroia on third, Ortiz battled Miller, who’s become the Indians’ relief star this postseason thus far. The big left-handed slugger wrestled the big left-handed lancer and finally hit a low-flying line drive to center field. Indians sub centerfielder Rajai Davis caught it practically at his knee.

It was enough to send Pedroia home with the second Boston run. If only it could have been more. When he came off the field for a pinch runner in the eighth, he was heard to holler at his teammates, “Put me back in it! Let me wear this uniform one more day!”

They tried with two gone in the ninth. Bradley singled and Pedroia wrung out a walk off Indians closer Cody Allen, but Travis Shaw wrung a full count for naught as he flied out modestly to right field.

So Ortiz settled for telling the younger team he would now depart to be proud of having gone from last to first in the AL East on the regular season and build on it. Even if he wasn’t going to be there. Except maybe in spirit.

Then, he settled for one more bath of Fenway Park love on a night it seemed to hurt Red Sox Nation less to lose the division series in a sweep to a remarkable club of Indians than to realize the big man with the big heart who often held Boston’s hand when the city needed him most (This is our f@cking city! he bellowed to a city bludgeoned by the Boston Marathon bombing) and wanted him best.

And Francona, who’d never dismiss the meaning of the two World Series rings to which he managed the Red Sox, rings he’d never have won without Big Papi, is probably telling his own youthful enough Indians that right there was the example of what you might do when the rest of the world has its doubts. The Indians will need a big shot of that going forward now.

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