BALTIMORE — Few human beings can alter the elemental composition of a room quite like David Ortiz, whether it’s 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in the Boston Red Sox’ clubhouse when he enters — all leather and denim and Ray-Bans and diamond-stud earrings the size of jelly donuts — and the air is suddenly charged, or a sunny spring morning on the South Lawn of the White House, when he throws a beefy arm around the President of the United States of America, whips out a cellphone, and snaps a “selfie” that will itself become a three-day story.
With Big Papi, neither the size nor the significance of the room matters. There is not a stage he cannot command, a situation he cannot conquer. After the horrific terrorist bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, politicians, officials and columnists tried to make sense of the tragedy in words, but it was Ortiz who captured the sentiments of New England, when he took the microphone, looked out into the stands at Fenway Park and said, on live television, “This is our [expletive] city!”
Early Friday afternoon, Ortiz, 38, will jog back out onto the Fenway Park field to a rousing ovation on another opening day, his 12th in a Red Sox uniform since he joined the team as a 27-year-old castoff from the Minnesota Twins. He will accept his 2013 World Series ring, his third, then spend the top of the first inning on the bench or in the indoor batting cage. He is half a ballplayer, a full-time designated hitter more or less since 2004, but twice the presence of anyone else in a Red Sox uniform.
“Through the years as a player, you build a relationship with the fans [by going] about your business and [doing] what you have to do. That’s how you come to be beloved by the fans,” Ortiz said Wednesday. “It’s an appreciation for myself to the way the fans have embraced me through the years here. [They see] a lot of motivation. A lot of hard work. Plus, being older too.”
There is perhaps no more beloved player to the people of any single major league city, at least this side of the Bronx. In Boston, even Ortiz’s flaws are embraced. His 2003 positive test for performance-enhancing drugs? Well, if it helped the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series that year (and to the World Series title the next year), good for him. His unseemly (but ultimately successful) carping for a contract extension this spring? Well, he deserved the money after providing above-market numbers for below-market prices all those years.
An “ambassador for our game . . . on [the] road to Cooperstown,” Red Sox owner John Henry said of Ortiz on the day the team announced his one-year extension for 2015, at a salary of $16 million, with options that could carry him through 2017, when he would be 41 years old. Though Ortiz doesn’t put up the MVP-caliber numbers he did during his mid-2000s heyday, he still hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 homers and 103 RBI last year .
There was no question as to which Red Sox representative would handle the honors of presenting President Obama with the obligatory No. 44 Red Sox jersey at Tuesday’s White House ceremony honoring the 2013 World Series champs. But few, outside of some smart marketing execs from Samsung, knew what Ortiz was cooking up to capture the moment.
Ortiz’s tweet of his presidential selfie Tuesday afternoon went viral, with some 41,000 retweets as of Thursday afternoon, and became national news after Samsung, with whom Ortiz recently signed a sponsorship deal, revealed it had “worked with” Ortiz on making the selfie happen. Was Big Papi’s charmingly mischievous, seemingly spontaneous seizing of his presidential moment actually a scripted, marketing-driven advertisement?
“It just came out right in the moment when I gave him the jersey,” Ortiz said, denying he had been put up to the stunt. “It was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute — let me see if I can get away with this.’ I was lucky that I was right there. It was fun. It was something I'll never forget. . . . It wasn’t anything promotional [or] anything like that.”
The story, with its perfect-media-storm blend of the president, an A-list celebrity and the full power of social media, carried through another couple of news cycles.
But at the exact instant Ortiz tweeted the fateful selfie — 12:25 p.m. on Tuesday — he was already on his way to another Big Papi moment. He was on the Red Sox’ team bus, which would be making one more stop on its way from the White House to the team’s Baltimore hotel — at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
Papi had one more room to command. At the military hospital, the Red Sox — with Ortiz, as always, their spiritual leader — visited privately with U.S. servicemen wounded overseas, an experience that, understandably, left just as big an impression with the visitors as with the patients.
“This one young guy, he's 26 right now,” Ortiz said Wednesday. “He’s got both of his legs blown off by a bomb. His spirit was so good . . . we were looking at each other, like, ‘Seriously?’ So many people [whining] and complaining about stupid things in life, and look at this guy. I think the best thing that ever happened to me was just to go and look at this guy, because I guarantee that made me a better human.”
At the end of the story, Ortiz, standing at his locker, smiled and sighed. He changed out of his street clothes and into his uniform. That night, the Camden Yards crowd greeted him loudly — some boos, some cheers. Either way, they couldn’t ignore him. He hit a homer, drew a pair of walks and drove in two runs in a 6-2 Boston win — another big room he had walked into and owned.