Over the weekend, two of baseball’s all-time greats, both retiring at the end of this season, embraced in the booth at Dodger Stadium. “I must tell you, I have respected with great admiration the human being that you are,” Vin Scully, the legendary baseball broadcaster, told David Ortiz. “We all love you,” the Red Sox slugger replied, wrapping a meaty forearm around his shoulders. “We’re all going to miss you.”
“Well, we’re going to miss you. Unless you’re coming back,” Scully said.
While it’s still technically possible that this won’t be Ortiz’s last year, the prospect that once seemed unfathomable to fans here in Boston is starting to grow closer as the season winds down. Whether or not it will end, like the recently retired Peyton Manning’s did, in storybook fashion—this miserable Sox fan knows it won’t—it certainly won’t be for lack of trying on Ortiz’s part. Now 40, he’s having the type of season that would be a career highlight for many players nearly half his age. But the ravage of time takes its toll (save, perhaps, for Tom Brady, who is the only athlete—human being, really—whose status in New England rivals that of Big Papi). And, as Scully pointed out, that’s in large part due to his humanity. For all of his accomplishments on the field, the World Series victories, the adulation, and the truckloads of cash, it’s his work with the David Ortiz Children’s Fund that makes him proudest, he told Esquire.
The Fund recently launched Big Papi’s Retirement Party, a crowdsourcing initiative hoping to raise $340,000 in donations by the end of the season to help children in New England and the Dominican Republic pay for lifesaving heart surgeries. “As you grow, your heart grows,” Ortiz says. He was talking about the children’s health, but he might well have been talking about himself.
We spoke to the ten-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion about his charity work, his retirement lap this season, some of his favorite memories from over his years in the game, and his plans for life after baseball.
ESQ: Tell me about Big Papi’s Retirement Party.
David Ortiz: People are always asking me what I would like for a retirement gift, and it came to my head, What’s better than the gift of people giving to my foundation, donating money? There are a lot of kids waiting for us to get them taken care of. I’ve been very blessed in life, and helping is where the happiness comes from. I see kids here, and in the Dominican Republic, walking around and having a regular life now because they had surgery. I’m a guy who doesn’t really need much from anybody, but I want to try every day to make sure those kids are safe and get their surgery done.
The foundation is for children’s heart surgery?
Yeah, here in New England and the Dominican Republic, together with Mass General. Every year more than 2,000 kids are born with this situation. Some of them need two, three surgeries because as you grow, your heart grows. The idea came in 2005 when I was visiting a hospital in the Dominican Republic. 2007 was when I first committed myself to provide health care for children back home, and by 2009 I formed my partnership with Mass General for kids in New England who also need care. It’s a wonderful thing, man. If there’s one thing I can be proud of, it’s what we do with my foundation.
You said you don’t need anything, but you’ve been getting lots of retirement gifts from teams. Were there any that were particularly meaningful?
The Dodgers were the first organization to donate money to the children’s fund. And that touched me big time, because it came from the heart. And one of my ex-teammates over there, Adrian Gonzalez, he matched the donation. So we walked out of there with $20,000, which means that four kids are having the surgery pretty soon.
“Baseball is more complicated than people think it is.”
Alex Rodriguez just announced he’s retiring. Were you guys friendly over the years?
Yeah, we’re cool. I know A Rod from when I was with the Mariners.
Do you think he’ll get a warm send off at Fenway, or are Sox fans still too sore?
I don’t know, it will be interesting to see.
Let’s say you become the commissioner of baseball. What’s something you’ll change?
Every getaway day should be a day game. Baseball is more complicated than people think it is. When you have to get up early and play, then travel, then get your rest in to play the following day, you need more than 24 hours. At least the last game of a series should be a day game, so you can get your rest in and perform at the highest level the next day.
People say that the popularity of baseball is flagging with younger people. What do you think we can do to get baseball to be kids’ favorite sport again?
[laughs] You tell them to look up how much money we make!
You’re somewhat of a showman. What do you think about all the talk about bat flips and flashiness? Would you like to see players be able to express themselves more?
If you ask 95% of the players who’ve done it, they’re not trying to embarrass anyone. It’s just the emotions of the moment—when you strike somebody out, or you make a good play, or hit a home run. It’s a lot of emotion. I react differently every time I hit a homer, but I’m not trying to make you look bad. We’re human just like everybody else. If somebody strikes me out and fist pumps or whatever, I don’t get angry. That motivates me to go to my next at-bat and try to get it done better. That is motivation.
“You tell them to look up how much money we make!”
You’re a leader on the Red Sox. Who do you see stepping into that role when you leave?
We have a lot of leaders in the ball club, especially the younger guys. They carry themselves real well. This organization is in good hands for the future. Guys like [Xander] Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, [Jackie] Bradley Jr, with the leadership of [Dustin] Pedroia. This team sees the way we do things around here, and now they feel like it’s their responsibility to maintain it.
When you look back, who are some of the players you’ll remember the most?
I’ve played with a lot of different personalities here through the years. You talk about guys like [Jason] Varitek, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, even Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon. We were successful because we had something in common. They came ready to work. Walking into a group of guys with that attitude helped my career a lot. I had the ability to play the game, but I wasn’t lined up in the right direction until I got here and starting learning from everybody, and boom!
Of all the seasons, is one particular special to you?
I gotta say 2004. 2004 was like the ice breaking. This town waited more than 80 years to win a World Series. It was groundbreaking when we won that one. We started giving signals in 2003 that our team was going to be better, and then we won. Now people expect us to always do better than those past 80 years.
Yeah, why can’t you win every year?
[laughs] If you win every year it won’t be interesting! I would love to win every year but it doesn’t work that way.
What do you envision yourself doing? Is there a second career down the line for you?
I’m a good grass cutter. [laughs]