BOSTON — David Ortiz is the most important ballplayer in Red Sox history, bar none.
“Back home they talk about superheroes without capes,” Alex Cora said. “He’s a superhero without a cape. That’s the way we see him.”
But his three World Series rings weren’t the reason three grown men got choked up talking about him yesterday at Fenway Park. Nor were his 10 All-Star appearances, seven Silver Sluggers or 541 home runs.
Cora, Jason Varitek and Sam Kennedy all paused to keep it together because of the way Ortiz treated them — as he treats everybody — despite his larger-than-life status.
“You can be great in the sport, you can be average, or you can suck,” Cora said. “But at the end you can be a good teammate, a good person, great with the people around you. It gets to a point where you are not a baseball player anymore. You might play three years, five, 13, 20. But when it’s over it’s over. And then life, you have to live.
“With David we know what type of player he was, but we know what type of person he is,” Cora continued. “If he was that good as a player, as a person, he’s way, way better than that. That’s who David is.”
That’s why it was so shocking to learn that Ortiz was shot in the back late Sunday night in the Dominican Republic. The bullet went straight through, and after six hours of surgery, he was in stable-but-serious condition by Monday night. As the situation unfolded, Varitek sent texts to Ortiz and Pedro Martinez trying to get information before his wife finally got in touch with Tiffany Ortiz.
“This is...” Varitek’s voice trailed off as he tried to keep his composure. “He’s a dad. Heart goes out to (Ortiz’s children) Alex and D’Angelo and his wife and the rest of his family. It’s a very scary thing that something like that could happen that easily.”
The Red Sox made it their top priority to get Ortiz back to Boston, where he’ll continue his recovery at Mass General Hospital.
“It’s an emotional time,” Kennedy said, also holding back tears. “I love David Ortiz. We all love David Ortiz. So telling my kids what had happened last night was really difficult. I know the same holds true for everyone up here, for ownership. It’s hard to express what David Ortiz means to the Boston Red Sox. When you love someone and they come in harm’s way, it’s jarring.”
Cora, Kennedy, John Henry and Dave Dombrowski held a team meeting ahead of last night’s game with the Rangers to talk about Ortiz, a former teammate to many.
“Somebody just asked me what my favorite memory was, and it’s not all the home runs and game-winning hits that he’s had, World Series, it’s how he embraces everyone in the room,” Rick Porcello said. “Just that imposing, loving figure that he is that makes everyone feel special. That’s something that you don’t see a lot. It’s kind of what separates him for me.”
For many Red Sox fans, Ortiz’s most memorable moment didn’t come during a game. It was in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, when FCC be damned, Ortiz grabbed a microphone and yelled, “This is our (expletive) city! And nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”
Athletes and friends across the world offered Ortiz support, but the reaction wasn’t any stronger than in the city of Boston.
“I think we all remember in 2013 when we needed David Ortiz the most, he was there for us in late-April,” Kennedy said. “And so, it’s appropriate and expected that this community would rally around David when he needs us the most.”
Assistant general manager Eddie Romero has spent a lot of time scouting in the Dominican, and relayed that Ortiz’s home island feels the same way, ultimately for the same reason: The superstar makes people feel like they matter.
“He’s obviously an icon on the Mount Rushmore of Boston athletes, but he is THE guy in the Dominican Republic,” Romero said. “He is more famous than any president. People think of the Dominican Republic, they think David Ortiz, they think Pedro Martinez. And that’s coming from somebody who has been exposed to the Dominican over the years.
“I’ve been awed by the impact that he has,” Romero added. “Just going to a restaurant or any place he is, everyone loves him. He’s just that guy. It comes from the way he treats people. He treats everyone the same, which is incredible.”
If you’ve listened to Cora enough, you know he’s fond of referring of himself in two ways. There’s “Alex the Manager” and “Just Alex.”
Yesterday, Just Alex fielded questions genuinely during a 10-minute pregame session. Every single one was about Ortiz.
“This is why sometimes I’m brutally honest,” Cora said. “There’s life. There’s more important things than the Red Sox, winning or losing, pitching changes, this and that. It’s life.”
Ortiz lives his life with a joy that few others do. No matter who you are, he’s probably made you smile. And that’s why the thought of losing him has been so damn hard for so many people.
Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Salem News and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason.