Commentary

Big Papi defined the term sportsman

David Ortiz spoke with his bat, but it was his words that won the World Series

Updated: December 14, 2013, 2:25 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

David OrtizAP Photo/Matt SlocumDavid Ortiz salutes the fans. Big Papi wasn't about to let Boston down.

Boston Red Sox savior David Ortiz's path to World Series MVP and my pick for sportsman of the year began on April 20. During a ceremony before a baseball game in front of his city, inside of his park, he grabbed a microphone and said these five words: "This is our f---ing city!"

From that moment forward, David Ortiz became a symbol of hope, pride, strength and resilience for a city that was in need of something more than baseball to heal the pain it was struggling through.

Now all it needed was a hero.

Bats speak louder than words.

That's what true baseball historians, aficionados, legends and lifers will tell you if you ever get into a real conversation with them about the importance of the game and the role it's played in this country.

The game's association with apple pie and Chevys is minimal and almost degrading. The game, when put in proper perspective, is so much larger. Pies get eaten, cars get driven. Bats create sounds and produce runs. They feed souls and drive spirits. And those who swing bats -- and swing them well -- have always had voices that have the power to go beyond the impact their hits can have inside the diamond.

Somehow, Ortiz used the six months following the Boston Marathon bombing to let his bat speak. To back up the words he spoke on that horrific day.

He was able to take a team (and organization) that had just had one of the worst seasons in its 112-year history and ignite a resurrection rarely seen in modern-day sports.

At 37 years old and in his 16th year in baseball (11th with the Red Sox), his .309, 30 HRs, 103 RBIs, .395 OPB stat line was the omphalos, the center point, of a remarkable turnaround. In 2012, the team finished with 93 losses. In July, the Sox were 20 games over .500 and took back first place in the American League East by the end of the month. They never looked back.

His numbers in the World Series did more than speak for themselves. Still two months after the fact it is difficult to comprehend what Ortiz did between the Wednesdays of Oct. 23 and 30.

Before the final game of the World Series, Ortiz was hitting .733 with a slugging percentage of 1.267 in the first five games. His 11 hits at the time were two shy of the most ever in a World Series and he still had two more possible games to play; they accounted for a third (11 of 33) of the total team hits. And this is without the first-at-bat grand slam that St. Louis' Carlos Beltran robbed him of in Game 1. Add that to the list and Reggie Jackson loses his "Mr. October" nickname and his legacy is no longer as mythical and untouchable as it's been made out to be.

The media dubbed Ortiz "King of October," while his teammates began calling him "Cooperstown."

Ortiz's final World Series math added up to him having a .688 BA, .760 OBP, 1.188 SLG with eight walks (a Series record), two HRs and six RBIs. His final postseason math for 2013 was .353, .500 OBP, .706 SLG. More telling: His World Series OPS was 1.948 while the team's was .484.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAfter scoring the only run in Game 4, David Ortiz used the dugout as his pulpit, and the Red Sox responded with a three-run sixth inning.

When a player hits almost .700 in a championship round and the rest of his team hits below .179 and that team still wins it all, it becomes appropriate to for that moment spell team with an "i."

"I would be doing him a disservice trying to put it into words," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington told reporters after the World Series. "He just keeps writing new chapters. I know great players are great, are more likely to be great in any moment, but it's hard to see him in those moments and not think that there's something different about him. He's locked in. We've seen him locked in before, but to do it on this stage, and do it in so many big moments, I can't add anything more to the legend that's already there, but he keeps writing more chapters on his own."

But it was the chapter he wrote in the dugout of Game 4 that elevated his team, Red Sox Nation and his own stature. It was a pivotal, Series-changing moment. With Boston down 2-1 in the Series, Game 4 was tied at 1 going into the sixth inning and Ortiz -- not his bat -- decided to speak.

"It was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher," said teammate Jonny Gomes, who moments after Ortiz's speech hit a three-run game-winning homer. "He got everyone's attention, and we looked him right in the eyes. That message was pretty powerful."

In his own way, as only he could, Ortiz told his team to just do what he was doing: Play ball. Simple. "I know we are a better team than what we had shown. Sometimes you get to this stage and you try to overdo things, and it doesn't work that way," he remembers saying.

And afterward, whether it was sitting with his son, the World Series MVP trophy and Chris Berman on the field or in a studio chopping it up with David Letterman, Ortiz came off as the one athlete for whom moments like this were born.

A marriage of performance and personality. The mastering of craft and class. All along, when everything was supposed to be about him, about what he had just accomplished, Ortiz never ventured or leaned away from keeping this entire experience about -- and for -- Boston.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Charles KrupaDuring the World Series celebration parade, David Ortiz greets Colin Petty, owner of the Marathon Sports store. One of the deadly bombs was placed in front of the store during the Boston Marathon.

He put the victims and people affected by the bombing ahead of himself. He reminded us all along the way that while the game itself cannot change lives or save them, a sense of freedom can come through the swing of a bat. It can lift the souls of fans and in this case a city.

I'm not the first to suggest Big Papi as sportsman of the year. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci suggested it as well. I hope we are not alone.

The sublimeness of sports rests in the fact that no one sees something like this coming. No one at the beginning of 2013 could have told you that David Ortiz would elevate himself and the Boston Red Sox and the city of Boston (almost) single-handedly within a span of eight months. Especially someone who started off the season on the disabled list.

"Baseball deludes us," Cal Fussman once wrote. "The crack of the bat, the majestic flight of the ball, the slow, regal trot around the bases. We rise to our feet and roar. We think we are seeing power."

He started the next paragraph to open the final chapter of "After Jackie" with, "But we're not."

But sometimes, even in baseball, we witness something more.

After Ortiz released his infamous and FCC excused and approved "f-bomb" on Boston's field of hopes and dreams, the words that followed were this: "And nobody's going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

Sometimes, even when a bat is making a historic amount of noise, words can speak louder.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.