BOSTON — David Ortiz had his number retired Friday night, and once again, we were reminded of his perfect sense of the moment.
During a half-hour pregame ceremony in Fenway Park, Ortiz hit all the high notes. He thanked his former Boston Red Sox teammates, ownership and his family, but saved the fans for last. He even gave a poignant recognition to Kirby Puckett, the late Hall of Famer who inspired him to ask for No. 34 when he arrived in Boston 14 years ago.
A highlight video on the center-field scoreboard replayed Big Papi’s greatest hits, from the postseason walk-offs against the New York Yankees to the American League Championship Series grand slam against the Detroit Tigers and his uplifting “This is our f—ing city” speech after the Boston Marathon bombing.
And in the visiting clubhouse, Albert Pujols said Ortiz was the one peer he would call to help snap a slump.
“He always used to say, ‘Hey bro, take your jersey off and look back at your name,'” Pujols recalled. “He’s like, ‘What’s your name?’ I’d say, ‘Pujols.’ He was like, ‘Remember, you’re Albert Pujols. Don’t worry about the numbers. You’re going to be all right.'”
Indeed, throughout his 20-year career, Ortiz was the slugger who usually had all the right things to say.
It turns out, though, he also knew how best to step away.
Friday night’s 9-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels marked the Red Sox’s 73rd game of the season and their 33rd at home. But it was the first game Ortiz attended since he walked off the field for the final time as a player last October.
That wasn’t by accident.
“I just don’t like to, you know, be in the way of anything,” Ortiz said after the on-field festivities. “I know that me retiring, it was going to have a big impact on what we do around here, so I tell myself [to] give everybody their space.
“Now that I’m not playing, I don’t want to be a distraction, and I know that coming to the field sometimes, it can cause a distraction or something. So, I have been able to keep my distance so I’m not in nobody’s way.”
To be clear, Ortiz wasn’t asked to stay away. If anything, manager John Farrell said he held out hope the franchise icon might show up one day, ask for his No. 34 jersey and unretire. Red Sox players, if they’re being honest, feel the same way.
But Ortiz always has had an acute awareness of the situation. He knew to expect a first-pitch changeup from Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit in that 2013 playoff game. He knew what the nervous fans needed to hear before that first game back in Fenway after the Marathon attack and shelter-in-place. He knew how to prop up Pujols, one of only 16 players in history with more home runs than Ortiz.
And Ortiz knew the Red Sox, still a predominantly young team with second baseman Dustin Pedroia as its primary leader, needed to find their identity without his presence prompting questions about whether he might come back. If any of those young players has a question, they have Ortiz’s phone number. But by staying away, he actually did them a favor.
“There’s always a thought that he might come by, but I wasn’t necessarily surprised,” center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said. “Knowing him, he just wants people to have their space. We’ve come so familiar with him walking in the door that it’s good not to get too comfortable seeing him come in.”
It has taken time, but it seems as though the Red Sox might finally be adjusting to Life After Papi.
They no longer have a consistent home run threat in the middle of the order, although they’re hopeful that Hanley Ramirez, Ortiz’s slow-starting protégé who hammered his 10th homer of the season in the fourth inning against the Angels, might finally start heating up. And after shortstop Xander Bogaerts‘ early-season lament that the Sox missed Ortiz’s thunder, they’re generating runs in other ways and have won 20 of their past 31 games.
Without Ortiz’s booming voice, the leadership alongside Pedroia is still taking shape. But at least that lingering question of whether Big Papi might make a comeback has finally disappeared despite Pedro Martinez‘s best effort to drudge it up again.
No. 34 has been memorialized on Fenway’s right-field facade. It isn’t coming down.
“I think he has a keen awareness that he could potentially keep others from flourishing with the potential thought and the question always being there — ‘Well, he is around. Is he ever coming back?'” Farrell said. “I think it speaks to David’s awareness of himself, the situation, how a team functions. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is at the root of his decision to keep the space that he’s done.”
The Red Sox thanked Ortiz for 14 years of excellence Friday night. They can thank him later for keeping his distance for the past eight months.