You can’t toss a baseball anymore without hitting a member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox who’s knocking around the MLB world. While the current Red Sox were fighting for their playoff lives on Monday in what proved to be a decisive Game 3 ALDS loss to the Indians, the Dodgers were also engaged in a postseason showdown across the country, with Dave Roberts as their manager and Gabe Kapler as farm director. The 103-win Cubs, a team assembled by the front-office troika of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod — Red Sox veterans all — were warming up in San Francisco for the late game. Across the field at Fenway, former Sox manager Terry Francona had traded the navy and red of Boston for an Indians uniform in the same colors. Pedro Martínez and Kevin Millar have moved on to punditry, and Curt Schilling has moved on from punditry to what might charitably be called multimedia political commentary. We’re up to our necks in the 2004 Red Sox.
David Ortiz isn’t technically the last active member of that team, because Bronson Arroyo is still kicking around, hoping someone will take a flyer on a pitcher who will be 40 next year, and who in the two years since he last threw a pitch in a big league game has torn both his UCL and rotator cuff.
But until last night, Ortiz was the only one who’d been frozen in time, still in the same uniform he’d worn for 14 seasons, through three World Series titles, five straight top-five MVP finishes, 10 All-Star appearances, and 483 of his 541 career home runs. While everyone else moved on to new teams or new careers, Ortiz cut a positively Woodersonian figure, ushering in the next crop of pine-tar-stained sluggers to take up residence in Fenway — the current youngest of whom, Yoan Moncada, was 2 years old when Ortiz broke into the big leagues with the Twins.
From the time Epstein took over in Boston in 2003 until now, through three different front-office regimes, the Red Sox have maintained an almost constant stream of success by continuously rolling over the roster, a few pieces at a time. From 2004 to 2007, Boston replaced six of nine starting position players, three of five starting pitchers, and its closer. From 2007 to 2013, they got rid of everyone but Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester, and after the ’13 title, they tore the whole thing down again. Nowadays, Pedroia is an elder statesman, which Ortiz has been since Pedroia was a rookie.
Part of the magic of Ortiz, who capped off his season-long farewell tour Monday in front of the home crowd, is that for whatever reason he’s been consistent throughout his career, avoiding the early-30s physical breakdown that made Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols into contracts, not players, and forced Prince Fielder out of baseball altogether. In 14 seasons with Boston, Ortiz hit .290/.386/.570. In 2003 he hit .288/.369/.592, and in 2016 he hit .315/.401/.620.
It feels wrong that Ortiz had to go out watching from the bench as his team got swept, because he’s not an emeritus DH along for the ride as a de facto player-coach while the next generation takes care of business — he was the team’s best hitter and took a leg of the AL Triple Crown this season. The similarities between Ortiz in 2016 and Willie Stargell in 1979 — from age to playing style to fatherhood-related nickname — were so obvious they almost weren’t interesting, but there are more narratives than trophies, so someone had to go home early. But it’s not that Ortiz didn’t get his happy ending; it’s that we didn’t get that one last iconic moment on the way out.
Ortiz’s last act on a major league field could’ve been a snapshot from any moment in the past 14 years. On some level, Ortiz has been a part-time player since he arrived in Boston as a 27-year-old; the very body that’s made him one of the best hitters of his generation has also left him unable to do much else — he hasn’t played first base regularly in a decade, and in more than 10,000 plate appearances he has only 19 triples and 17 stolen bases.
So when Ortiz represented the tying run in scoring position with two outs in the eighth, his last act became an almost literal passing of the torch, an embrace with pinch runner Marco Hernández as Ortiz made his way to the bench for the last time.
From now on, Ortiz will be just like his old teammates from 2004: part of the past. He’ll do TV or coach or write a book. Maybe he’ll disappear from public life altogether and sail around the Caribbean for the next 30 years. I doubt it, but anything’s possible. Whatever happens, though, for the first time since 2002, he won’t play baseball for the Boston Red Sox.
For 14 years, Ortiz was the lone indispensable piece of the team, the face of the franchise. He outlasted Epstein, Francona, Manny Ramírez, and Tim Wakefield; he took the microphone after the marathon bombing. As of the moment he tapped on Hernández’s helmet and jogged to the dugout, the Red Sox now have to find another. Maybe that makes Ortiz’s departure more fitting than anticlimactic. When Andrew Benintendi drove in Xander Bogaerts to get Boston back into the game, when Mookie Betts scored to cut Cleveland’s lead to one, when Jackie Bradley singled with two outs in the ninth to keep hope alive just a little longer, you could see the next generation — the last of four that Ortiz shepherded to the playoffs in a Red Sox uniform — finally taking over for good. Finally jogging out to second base, tagging in, and saying, for the first time in 14 years, “You can sit down, Papi — we’ve got it from here.”