Traded at age 20 and released at 27, David Ortiz will retire this year at 40 as one of the most accomplished players of his generation. The man known as Big Papi is the all-time leader among designated hitters in hits, home runs and runs batted in; one of the game’s greatest postseason clutch hitters; and one of the most beloved players in Red Sox history. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Ortiz are the only players to have hit at least 500 home runs and won three or more World Series titles.
Ortiz recently sat for an exclusive interview with SI senior writer Tom Verducci to look back on his career—including his proudest achievement, his biggest disappointment and the stain of steroids—and to look ahead to what he will do next. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
David, you decided before this season that this would be your last year. But nobody has ever walked away from this game with more than 30 homers and more than 100 RBIs, which you’re doing in your last year—and you’re slugging over .600. So why are you walking away?
Well, like everybody knows, I’ve been dealing with injuries the past four years. Also, [I’m] not getting any younger, man. You look around, everybody’s 20 years old. Also, this traveling thing, it catches up with you.
But you can still hit?
If you wanted to keep playing, you could still hit at this level?
Yeah, I think so. I work extremely hard to accomplish that. The reality is a lot of us give up on chasing things as we get older because our body, our mind, you know. . . . In my case, man, I want to be good. I want to continue being productive. My hitting coaches know that. I chase things still, knowing that I’m going to retire after this season. I’d like to give that to our fans.
Vin Scully, who is retiring this year as well . . .
He said he is going to miss the roar of the crowd. When Mike Schmidt retired, he said he would miss room-service French fries. What is David Ortiz going to miss most about baseball?
I think being around my teammates. Plus, I think I play for the best fans in baseball. I’m going to miss the cheering, the competition. But I don’t think I’m going to miss playing baseball, because I played baseball for so long, so much. Since, like, I can’t remember, [there’s] just been nothing but baseball.
We’ll see how that plays out. I’m not trying to get ahead of the time [when] we end the thing. I’m taking my time. Also, I’ve been so busy, doing things here and there—your mind at some point will need [a] break.
“My biggest disappointment has got to be the way my career started.”
What about the criticism? I remember a lot of people writing that you were done years ago. Are you going to miss that?
Well, to be honest with you, I really appreciated that, because that’s what got me better. As you get older, you start getting mature, you start understanding things better. Looking at the whole picture now, when I was younger I couldn’t understand the reason [for the criticism] if I was a very productive player still. The year they started that up , I ended up with almost 30 homers and 100 RBIs. I went through some struggles, but it wasn’t like it was a bad year completely, you know what I’m saying?
But then, after that season, I worked extremely hard to prove everybody wrong. So if that doesn’t happen, probably my approach wouldn’t have been the way it was from that day until this day.
I announced my retirement after last year, but I also in my mind said I want to give the fans one of my best seasons ever, so let me get prepared for that. So here we are, almost at the end of the season. Having a good year. And I’m very proud of it. And knowing that everybody is going to miss me, that’s something that’s made me super proud of myself.
Speaking of being proud, you’ve done a lot in your career, David. What are you most proud of?
I got to say the relationships that I have built with everybody around. You guys—the media—my teammates, the fans, the opposition. I think people are going to remember me more for that than what I had done on the field.
I think if you look at the whole picture, there’s a lot of good players that have done a lot of good things in the game. But once they’re done, they’re done totally. You know what I’m saying?
In my case, I think, I always take my time to talk to everyone. I would like everybody to feel good about themselves. I want to help, you know. I want to make everybody’s job easier. You and me, we got that relationship. We go back and forth. Whenever you come to me, I’m open. I’m pretty much the same way with everybody. I think at the end of the day that separates [me] from a lot of people.
You help guys on the other team—teams that you’re trying to beat.
All I care about is [making] the game better, man. I want to sit down five, 10 years from now, watch one of those kids and be like, Man!
Last night I was having dinner with [Toronto outfielder] B.J. Upton. That’s my boy. [Blue Jays pitcher Marcus] Stroman was there too. Whole group of kids. B.J. basically came to me and went, like, Man, what you did for my brother [Tigers outfielder Justin Upton] in Detroit the other day, it was like he hasn’t stopped since. See, those are the kinds of things I like to hear. I’m pretty close with B.J. and his family. So we went to play the Tigers the other day. I sit down to talk to my boy [Justin] for a minute about his hitting. And every-thing’s going really good, you know. It might be because of what we talked about. And he’s got the talent, and he’s young, and he swings really good. He was going through some things. I just want to make sure he’s fine. But I do that with a lot of guys in the league. Just because I want the game to get better.
All right. Let’s flip the coin and look at the other side. What is your biggest disappointment?
My biggest disappointment has got to be the way my career started.
Traded once by Seattle, released by Minnesota.
Yeah. Because my career was supposed to begin the way it [will end]. I don’t know if you know what I mean. Like I was a legit power hitter coming through the minor leagues. But you know what? I’m the kind of person that gets the positive side of things out of the negative.
At the beginning of my career, being an inexperienced guy, not knowing how pretty much everything works at this level, I was just a kid that was trying to play baseball, have fun and be who I am. But in those days it didn’t work out that way. Plus, I [had] a manager at the time [Minnesota’s Tom Kelly] that was hard with younger players. And he had his reasons. I don’t really—I probably don’t agree with the way things went down, but it probably was the best thing that happened to me. Like I always say, the reality is that what I ended up doing in my career, that is what I was projected to be like since Day One. And it didn’t happen.
You surprised me because I thought maybe you would bring up that survey test from 2003, the drug test.
“But I don’t think I’m going to miss playing baseball, because I played baseball for so long.”
Because I know you wrote on Derek Jeter’s website [The Players’ Tribune] last year that some people will always look at you as a cheater because of that one report. That was a list of players who were said to have tested positive, although the players’ association and MLB agreed that not all were considered positives. We still don’t know what substance the players were on that list for, including you.
What can you do to convince people, David?
I don’t think I can do anything. A noise comes out, and do you think I’m just going to sit down and believe what somebody I don’t know comes off saying? That came out [in] 2009, [but it was] about 2003. [MLB’s] drug policies started in 2004. I never failed a test. I kept on banging. So, you know, the reality is that it’s a noise that I think was more damaging [to some players’ careers] than anything else, because a lot of guys that were pronounced [as having tested] positive for things or having been caught using things, their careers went away. Yet I am [here]. Let me tell you, there’s not one player in baseball, not one player, that has been drug-tested more than David Ortiz. I guarantee you that. I never failed a test.
Let me ask you this, then, because you mentioned all the other players who did [use]. Back in the day when there was no policy, there was no testing for steroids, why wouldn’t you use steroids, knowing that there were other guys you were competing against who were using them? You could see what was happening in the game.
Why wouldn’t you use them?
Because there’s one thing that I have been afraid of my whole life: chemicals. I don’t like to put chemicals in my body. I’m a happy person. I’m a person that believes in nature. I’m a person that believes in secondary effects when you start using things that you are not supposed to.
And it was something that never came to my attention. Yes, I used to go to GNC and buy supplements like everybody else. I mean, I’m an athlete. I’m a high-performing athlete. So it was legal to go to GNC. [Now] I don’t even know where GNC is, since they told us not to go to GNC to buy any supplement. Now we get [information] from our trainers so you don’t get caught in any kind of trouble.
Exactly. But it was pretty normal for everybody to go to GNC and buy supplements, just like any other athlete. So that’s the reason why I’m not going to sit down and have people pointing fingers at me, because I didn’t go to GNC back in those days to buy steroids. So whatever comes up, or the way these people came out saying that I tested positive for whatever—something that they don’t even know—I don’t feel guilty, because I didn’t go to no place to buy steroids from anybody, because that’s not me.
“Let me tell you, there's not one player in baseball, not one player, that has been drug tested more than David Ortiz. I guarantee you that. I never failed a test.”
No trainer, no friend said, “David, try this”?
No. Hey, if that [had] happened, somebody would have come out to say something. But me personally, David Ortiz, I don’t like chemicals, man. I like to have a simple life.
You know, my dad is diabetic. My dad also had prostate cancer. And that runs in the family. God blessed me with being who I am, and gave me the opportunity to make money in this game so I can put my family on better financial terms. But I also want to be able to enjoy [life] once I’m done.
Everyone who knows me knows how I am when it comes down to that. But I don’t think I can prove nothing else besides what I have done, what I have been doing through the years. And, like I say, not one player in MLB baseball has had more drug tests than David Ortiz, because I get drug-tested all the time. Blood, urine, all kinds of stuff. Never failed a test, man.
So tell me this: Why at the age of 40 are you such a good hitter?
Hey, like Barry Bonds said the other day, Some people got it, some people don’t. I work extremely hard on my hitting, man. Like I’m a psycho when it comes down to hitting. Like I live for that. I always tell our younger hitters . . . I mean, we sit down, batting practice, videos, stuff like that, and we just talk about it.
Like this is not something that just falls out of the sky. We go, and I make sure these kids, [Xander] Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., all the kids on our ball club, I make sure they don’t go to hit with an empty head, because trust me, when you go to hit with an empty mind or when you go to hit with [your] levels of confidence down, you’re not going to get what you’re looking for.
Tell me what you do in between your at bats in a game. Say a home game at Fenway Park. Because we don’t see you a lot in the dugout between at bats. What do you do?
To be honest, my preparation, I do [that] before game time. Once in a while I go into the video room after an at bat. But I like to watch the game on TV more. I feel like I have a better view, especially when a guy is giving me a headache when I’m hitting. Watching a baseball game on TV now, especially the TVs we have in the clubhouse, it’s like being in it.
But it’s not like I watch the whole game on TV, because I go back and forth in the dugout, but I like to see the pitcher’s expression, face, body language, what they do, how they approach. It’s different things that as a hitter you get caught [up in]. It’s hard not to look at it that way if you want to be successful. So when I’m doing that, I’m not just trying to do it for myself; I do it for everybody else on my ball club. We share ideas between at bats. We talk about the guy on the mound.
“The commitment the international players have to their countries and to one another, the brotherhood, that’s what happens when you have continuity, commitment and talent. So many of these countries have that.”
You love that cat-and-mouse between the pitcher and the hitter?
I love it. I love it. I even get caught up sometimes in between pitches.
In the batter’s box?
In the batter’s box, just trying to read the catcher’s mind, stuff like that. I say things here and there. Not all the time. But it’s the experience, man, that brings that up, you know. And I never stop. I never stop.
That will be probably one of the things that I’m going to miss about this game. It’s competition, man. I don’t do this just for doing it. My family can tell you, man. Like this is my life.
Did you know what was coming when you faced Paul Quantrill, Game 4, 2004 ALCS?
Because for me the legend of Big Papi began then. So that home run, you knew it was coming?
Because he threw it to me all the time. When you see him, ask him, What did you throw Papi back then to get him out? Front-door sinker. Because he’s got a good one. It starts at you, and then boom, comes back.
But you know what, to be able to do that, you can’t just go out there with an empty mind. You need to have that hard drive all set. Same thing with [Joaquin] Benoit, when I hit that grand slam against him [in the 2013 ALCS]. He threw me that pitch to strike me out two months before that. So when I saw him coming out of the bullpen, here comes my split again. Same thing. It was the playoffs. That’s how I approach the game. You got to give something to get something.
Your first game was in 1997, correct?
What’s been the biggest difference in baseball since 1997?
Well, I don’t know how a lot of people are going to feel about what I’m going to say, but I think this game right now is at its best. Like I don’t think this game is going to get better, or used to be better than it is right now.
The quality of the game?
Yes. All the way around, starting with you guys, the media, all the way down to where we are, the players. It’s another level.
How about pitching?
The best that I have ever seen.
“When I leave it won't be because of the surgeries [knee, hip, hernia, ankles]. Actually, when you get these replacement parts, it gives you more shelf life, because you're not crooked, you're not in pain, whatever.”
Noticeably different from when you first broke in?
Oh, yeah. A hundred percent. Like when I first got to the big leagues, there was only one Randy Johnson. You know how many Randy Johnsons there are in the game right now?
I see a starter coming out of the bullpen. Got a lot of arms like Randy’s right now from the left side. I face four different angles per game pitchingwise pretty much every day. It’s more matchup right now. And I’m not saying that the game wasn’t good enough back then, because I was part of it. The game always has been one of the greatest. But it has reached a certain level right now that will blow your mind. Like the other day, there were 52 guys in the minor leagues throwing 100 miles an hour.
They keep coming. More Randy Johnsons.
They keep coming. And another thing that I got to tell you: When I first got to the big leagues, the guy that throws 95, you were going to see 95 regardless. Now you got guys throwing 98, 100, with three other pitches. You don’t see them [throw just] fastballs anymore. Like you got to make up your mind to be able to hit right now.
More homework for hitters?
Oh, my goodness, you got no idea. So I think the future of the game is in the best hands ever. Guys at the age of 20 performing like the veterans used to perform at the age of 30. It’s something that’s remarkable.
This time next year, what is David Ortiz doing? What do you want to do?
This time next year? I don’t know, man. Like I got to get through January, February, March, April, May, you know. . . . I don’t know how it’s going to be like by this time next year.
Do you have plans?
Plenty of them. Plenty. Being with the family. My wife, she has been able to keep everything under control through the years, something that I really appreciate. But I’m a family guy. I like to be with my family and do things with them, make sure everything is O.K. My kids are growing. They pretty much are on their own right now. It’s not the same as when they were three, four. When they are 19, 15, it’s a totally different schedule. But you got to keep your eyes on them more closely now than when they were little kids. So I’m up to the challenge: Make sure that their life is straight too.