By Dakota Randall
BU News Service
“How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
When Brad Pitt as Billy Beane posed that simple, rhetorical question in the 2011 film “Moneyball,” I wondered if the cultural and technological climate of the time made it possible to be romantic about anything, let alone baseball.
But once I watched David Ortiz walk off the field for the last time as a Red Sox player after Monday’s season-ending playoff loss to the Indians, I was able to finally concede that it’s impossible to not be romantic about the greatest game on Earth.
Like romance itself, David Ortiz is far from perfect. The season-long retirement carnival that followed him was annoying and possibly detrimental to his team’s ultimate goal. The three-game celebration to close the regular season was insufferable, and his final wave to the fans after Monday’s game, while refreshingly organic, felt unnecessary. Honestly, he probably brought it all on himself.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel sad and a little shocked that I felt anything at all.
This recent toe-dip I’ve taken into the mosh pit that is sports journalism has made it difficult to remain passionate or fanatic about any of the teams I hold near to my heart. Not only am I starting to be — and look — older than most of these athletes, but it doesn’t take long to realize that they are all just people, and sometimes, not very good ones.
But David Ortiz feels different, even though the same apprehensions apply to him.
I remember the first time I saw him play in person.
My father took me to a game at Fenway Park in August of the 2003 season, Ortiz’s first with the Red Sox. I was 13-years- old at the time. Ortiz had struggled to start the year, but by that point had started to earn more playing time. He hit two home runs that day against the Anaheim Angels, and I can still remember my dad saying, “They need to play him every f***ing day.”
And thank God they did. The following season, in 2004, everyone knows what happened.
My dad taught me how to play baseball. I was never any good at the game, but I tried. He started taking me to Red Sox games after the team’s run to the 1999 ALCS, a welcome distraction from the unnecessary bullying I was going through at my new school. It only took four years for him, and the team, to fill me with the angst and frustration of an 86-year championship drought, even though I wasn’t alive for 75 percent of it.
But in 2004, my father passed away after a battle with brain cancer, just a couple of weeks after the Red Sox won the World Series. Unlike so many before him, he lived long enough to see the team break the curse. He even was buried wearing a “World Series Champions” T-shirt, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t intend to do the same.
I remember where I was when Ortiz broke the team’s single-season home run record, when he led the team to championships in 2007 and 2013, and all the heroics in between. I was in my home office/gaming room, where I spent far too much time during my teens and early twenties, because I wasn’t sure how else to fit into a small town where I’d just moved.
I remember where I was when Ortiz, following the Boston Marathon bombings, reminded everyone that Boston will always belong to those who call it home and no one else. I was in my college apartment in Plymouth, N.H., weeks away from the uncertain abyss that is life after college.
And, though it was uncharacteristically anti-climatic, I’ll always remember where I was when he walked off the field for the final time — in the basement of yet another apartment, fighting like hell to get my first real job.
Ortiz doesn’t make me feel romantic about baseball because of any of his actual accomplishments on the diamond, or for everything his “Big Papi,” larger-than-life persona represents. And it has nothing to do with the perception that he’s one of the truly “good guys” of professional sports, who between his charitable efforts and on-field leadership, seemingly can do no wrong. He could just as easily be none of those things.
It’s because he, like baseball, was there for me to fall back on almost every single day. Through all my sad, happy and truly dark moments of life, he and the game were there to serve as a source of distraction, celebration and even anger.
Sure, the championships and hall-of-fame worthy numbers were all great, but I’m not sure I’d feel any different if all that success was reversed.
I grew up with him and the team, and in a more personal, neurotic fashion than I did with the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics or any other team. As I grow older, a majority of my pre-teen memories have begun to blur, but the ones of Ortiz and the Red Sox remain crystal-clear, solely for their attendance during the pivotal moments of my life.
Ortiz, like 99 percent of life’s romances, eventually will be replaced. His region-wide retirement celebration even may be duplicated by Tom Brady, Patrice Bergeron or perhaps Dustin Pedroia.
And for some fans, those players probably had impacts on them similar to the one Ortiz and his career had on me.
But they will learn, as have I, that life, love and baseball will go on, but they will never be the same.