On Jan. 22, 2003, the Boston Red Sox signed a $1.25 million contract with a 27-year-old first baseman who had been released the month before by the Minnesota Twins. They saw in him a potential complementary bat for their high-powered offense, one who was worth the modest financial gamble. Thirteen years, three World Series wins and almost 500 home runs later, David Ortiz retired from baseball as arguably the most important player in the history of the Boston franchise.
The rise of Ortiz from scrap-heap bench player to Hall of Famer is an unlikely and entertaining story, and engagingly told in “Papi: My Story” (by Ortiz with co-author Michael Holley). Starting with his early life in the Dominican Republic, when he looked up to faraway greats such as Ken Griffey Jr., and concluding with his 2016 retirement tour, the memoir is largely a straightforward narrative of Ortiz’s time in baseball. Those looking for a deep dive into the inner life of a baseball star or the intricate strategies of a modern franchise will probably be disappointed. As the unpolished reflections of one of the few ballplayers to redefine a club, though, it works perfectly.
The casual, conversational tone of the book reflects one of Ortiz’s best qualities as an icon of the game: his felicity with his second language when addressing both media members and his fan base. His skill with the blunter Anglo-Saxon elements of English (most famously in the post-Boston Marathon bombing declaration that now graces a million T-shirts throughout New England) is evident throughout the book, which adds a refreshing directness to his voice but is probably worth considering before giving a copy to the 10-year-old Sox fan in your life.
Still, it’s in that voice that the memoir’s true strength lies. Freed of the beat reporters and columnists who normally filter the interaction between player and fan, Ortiz shines when he discusses the unique circumstances of playing baseball in the league’s harshest spotlight. The Boston fan base has a well-deserved reputation for passion verging on extremism, and Ortiz does not shy from talking about everything that involves. His first season in Boston culminated in a legendary playoff series that ended in a devastating extra-inning loss to the archrival New York Yankees. As any New Englander alive at the time can attest, the mood in the region afterward can best be described as funerary. Ortiz took it as the moment he understood his fans: “I never wanted to see faces that sad again.”
A year later, he’d live up to that goal, leading Boston to an unprecedented comeback victory against the Yankees, followed by the franchise’s first World Series win since World War I. Had he retired at that moment, he’d have cemented his legend. But of course, he had a great deal of baseball left, and he grew into one of the best hitters in the league over the remainder of the decade. Injuries and age started to sap this a bit between 2009 and 2011, leading to the grandest of Boston traditions: the moment when “What a player!” turns into “What have you done for me lately?” Ortiz speaks candidly of disrespect from local writers and perceived disrespect from Red Sox management during contract negotiations, as his production dipped: “In a lot of ways, it’s the media in New England who run the ball club. Once they start hounding you, in print, on the radio, on tv, it’s constant.”
It’s in these moments that the memoir lives up to its “no holds barred” billing. Many of the most vivid passages in the book are devoted to addressing slights and grudges, primarily involving former coaches and media members. That so much time is spent on these in what is overall a story of remarkable success is a fascinating window into the motivations of star athletes. It’s clear that even after more than a decade, Ortiz is still rankled by his treatment in Minnesota and that to some extent it fueled his play in Boston.
Of less importance to his career, but perhaps more entertainment to Boston readers, is the chapter summarizing the brief entry of Bobby Valentine into our lives. Valentine’s one-year tenure with the Red Sox is generally accepted as the low point of the past two decades of the franchise, and Ortiz makes it clear that it was even worse inside the clubhouse.
Less gossipy but frankly more interesting are the insights Ortiz offers into the way Boston’s management has worked with star players over the years. Sports fans have become used to stories of the New England Patriots, the Red Sox’s National Football League neighbors, taking a ruthless stance on player negotiations, but Ortiz casts the Fenway ownership as being no less committed to hardball. From his own difficulties in working out long-term deals to his bafflement at Boston letting established veterans such as Pedro Martinez and Jon Lester walk away, Ortiz does very well in describing the bizarre nature of professional sports as both a kids’ game and a billion-dollar entertainment venture.
The intended audience for “Papi” is clearly those of us for whom Ortiz is a defining feature of our baseball experience: the New Englanders who, before 2004, as Ortiz puts it, “looked forward only cautiously” for fear of another heartbreak. For that group, who cried in 2003, cheered in 2004, 2007 and 2013, and still hasn’t fully adjusted to Ortiz not playing every day, this book will provide an engaging few hours of nostalgia. Baseball fans of other loyalties will certainly enjoy its clubhouse vignettes, colorful language and insights on hitting; fans of the Yankees, however, may wish to skip Chapter 7 entirely.
By David Ortiz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
262 pp. $28