The Papi Papers: How David Ortiz endured the most difficult year of his career
- The 2012 season was one of the worst years of David Ortiz's life, and then real tragedy struck. But something powerful came out of all that pain.
The following is excerpted from Papi: My Story by David Ortiz with Michael Holley. Copyright © 2017 by David Ortiz. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. All rights reserved.
I had never met Bobby Valentine before 2011. I’d heard of him, seen him on TV and remembered that he was the guy who’d put on a fake mustache to avoid being recognized and thrown out of a game. But I didn’t know the man, so that left me with an interesting decision at the end of the year: Should I listen to my friends, or pretend that I’d never heard a word they said?
Everyone I knew was unimpressed with Valentine, the new manager of the Red Sox. He was hired in late November 2011, and the negative reaction from my baseball friends was instant. There were the sarcastic “good luck” messages. There were ominous warnings to get ready. Some even suggested that, at 36 years old, I probably wanted to retire rather than play for someone like him.
I’m a person who has been able to get along with a range of personalities, pretty much everybody, so I tried to block out all the information I had. I tried not to think about the fact that the Red Sox never asked my opinion on players they were thinking about signing or managers they wanted to hire. I found out on the news, just like everyone else, that Valentine was our new manager. I did some research and learned that there was basically one person in the organization, team president Larry Lucchino, who really wanted to hire Valentine. That was it. One person. Still, I had to perform regardless of who was managing. How bad could Bobby V really be?
The drama began almost immediately in spring training. I remember fighting the thought, very early, We’re going to have an absolutely terrible year.
It was all about him in the spring. It was as if he wanted to prove how smart he was by running us through all these drills he’d used while managing in Japan, drills we had never done before. Bobby was in his own bubble, and I just wanted to get him out of it and tell him, “F--- you.”
He asked for a lot of changes, including some that were completely unnecessary. One of the more ridiculous ones was having players hit grounders to each other. I thought that was funny, especially for me. The Red Sox weren’t paying me to hit grounders; I was there to hit balls to the moon.
The problem was not that his drills were new. The bigger issue was how he expected players who had been in the big leagues a long time to immediately do things his way without any missteps. There had been a lot of conversations about our team the year before and how our lack of accountability led to our September collapse. Maybe Bobby was told to come in and boss around full-grown men. Maybe the Red Sox wanted to hire a daddy, not a manager.
One day we were doing his drills and the s--- hit the fan. We were hitting pop-ups, and Bobby had said that he didn’t want infielders to say, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it. . . .” He thought that was an unreliable way of calling off a teammate because, in a noisy stadium, the player who’s being called off might not hear his teammate taking control. Well, all players have habits. And in American baseball, most infielders taking the play say, “I got it.”
So when our shortstop, Mike Aviles, got under a ball, he instinctively said, “I got it.” Bobby snapped. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in the majors. He went off on Aviles, cussing and verbally tearing him down in front of everyone. If it had been me, I would have gone up to him, right in front of the fans and dropped a punch.
After that workout, I talked with Dustin Pedroia and Adrián González. We decided to meet with Bobby in his office and attempt to tell him how he was being perceived. It was a waste of time. We tried reasoning with him, and it was like communicating with a wall. All he did was roll his eyes and look everywhere but at us. It could not have been more obvious that he didn’t care what we had to say. We left his office shaking our heads.
I was competitive enough to think that we could win a bunch of games despite Bobby’s ego. It didn’t take long for me to realize I’d been too optimistic. And when I say not long, I mean the first series of the season. We opened in Detroit and were swept by the Tigers. It was impossible to ignore the comments from my teammates about Bobby’s managing, how he made decisions that didn’t make sense and how generally clueless and distant he was. The next stop on our trip was Toronto. On the flight there, I experienced a first in my career.
Bobby’s seat was in the middle of the plane, and the players were in the back. That day I was near the front of our section. I remember looking up and seeing a line of my teammates walking toward me. They were pissed. They said, “We want that mother------ fired before the airplane lands.”
I didn’t know what they might have done if they had gotten to him, but I felt it was way too early in the season for that kind of takeover. He was aggravating as hell, arrogant and disrespectful, but I felt that we needed to try our best to support him.
I wanted to get everyone going, myself included. I admit that I was afraid of having a miserable season, and not just because I wanted to win so badly. If life with my second family, my baseball family, was out of order, then that meant there was no peace anywhere.
My own family life was going through changes. Tiffany and I had been together for 16 years, but we had agreed that we couldn’t keep living the way we were. Somewhere along the way our normal lives had gotten lost in the celebrity life. That wasn’t us, although we didn’t have the perspective at the time to correct the problems. We decided to separate and start the divorce process.
Tiffany is one of the best people I have ever met, an incredible wife, mother and friend. The decision was painful but, we thought, for the best. I still loved Tiffany deeply. But we weren’t getting along well at all, and I moved out. I got a place in Chestnut Hill, on Boylston Street, and either the kids would come there or I’d go to the house in Weston to see them. I made sure I was still a strong presence in their lives.
Tiffany’s character shone through when the lawyers got involved. She was loving, even as we were separating. She had a lawyer who wanted to emphasize my celebrity status, so he went in hard, asking for everything he could. But Tiffany was composed, and she made it clear that she didn’t want anything extra. She wanted a peaceful transition and requested a straightforward split of assets. One of the brighter moments during this dark time was when she commented that she knew I’d continue to be a good father and provider.
Without a doubt, it was the worst season of my career. Each day, nothing got better. Not my separation from Tiffany, and not the tense and irrational atmosphere that Bobby created in the clubhouse. As a team, we had some weeks when it would look like we were turning a corner. Our manager, though, couldn’t help himself. He kept getting in the way.
The simplest way I can put it is that he didn’t treat people well. He didn’t get a chance to hire all his own coaches, and I think he held it against the coaches themselves. He even called a meeting, with the entire team, and accused his coaches of backstabbing him.
Eventually, in July, we all collapsed.
For me, it started with an injury. Despite the instability in my life and in the clubhouse, I was having a great season at the plate. I made my third straight All-Star Game after being called washed up in 2009 and ’10. About a week after the All-Star Game, at home against the White Sox, González hit a home run, and I was on base. As I made the turn at second, I felt a shot in my right foot. I had almost torn my Achilles tendon. The doctors said it would be wise to sit out for a while.
My teammates fought on without me on the field and fought against Bobby off it. There was a meeting with ownership in New York to get him fired. He was terrible, and everyone knew it. Even the owners. But we were told that no changes would be made until the end of the year.
As a man who made a living as a hitter, it was hard to watch my team struggle offensively in my absence. I was out 35 games and we went 13–22 in that span. I couldn’t make it 36 straight games.
I went to Bobby, not the trainers, and told him that I wanted to be out there. I told him that I was no better than 60% and that, while I couldn’t run the bases, I felt I could jog around them. I knew what the risks were, but I didn’t care. I wanted to try.
Bobby said he appreciated the effort, and he put me in the lineup against Kansas City. My first at bat I got a hit. My second at bat I hit a ball to the gap. I was jogging at my 60% and watching Jeff Francoeur, who was playing rightfield. He was a strong-armed outfielder, and if I continued to jog, he would have me out easily. I sped up in an attempt to reach second quickly, and I felt that same pull that I’d felt a month earlier. I knew then that my season was over, and I assumed Bobby understood why. I’d learn later, in a jaw-dropping way, that it was just the opposite.
I thought that I would never have to hear from Bobby Valentine again after ownership fired him one day after the season ended. Of course, Bobby didn’t know how to leave town quietly.
I’d heard that he was going to be on TV with Bob Costas, talking about his time in Boston and other things. I watched the whole thing and was shocked when I saw him tell Costas that I had quit on him and the Red Sox. All season long I was the one who had defended him, who had tried to have his back, even when it was an unpopular stance to take as far as my teammates were concerned. But it was the right thing to do, and now he had the balls to go on national TV and suggest that I quit?
Days later, he tried to call me and apologize. I didn’t want to hear it. We had already made a trade with Toronto to bring back John Farrell to be our new manager. I knew him, kind of. Farrell had been our pitching coach when we won the World Series in 2007. When we traded for him, no one called or texted to say “good luck.” I figured we were in good hands.
A few months later I looked around our clubhouse, reading the faces of players and staff alike, and noticed something that had not been there in more than a year. There was trust in the room. There was peace and respect.
When John Farrell talked with us in Fort Myers for the first time in February 2013, he didn’t waste a lot of time recapping the craziness and disappointment of the last-place ’12 season. He had arrived with a reputation as a good and direct communicator, and I could see why. I liked the way he spoke. He never tried to bull---- us. He was a smart man, but not the type trying to prove that he was smarter than you. He told us that he could sense that we were a hardworking team, and that he had not returned to nitpick and bust balls.
“You guys are adults,” he said. “You know what you should and shouldn’t be doing. I’m here to be a part of the solution, to get us back to where we belong.”
He knew he didn’t have to say much more than that. The chemistry that we had was incredible, even before our first full-squad workout. We were the perfect mix of talented, hungry and a little pissed off. All of us had either been called out, overlooked or flat-out given up on the previous year.
For me the biggest on-field issue was the pain in my right Achilles. That meant no Opening Day, but it did not mean I couldn’t hang out with these guys. I wasn’t sure how good the team would be, but I knew I had never been a part of something like this. These dudes loved baseball. I had never seen a team that sat around and talked about the game so much. One of the cool things we would do was talk about pitching during the game. If one of our hitters got fooled, many players would watch video together to figure out how it happened. It was a close and passionate team.
Going into our annual Patriots’ Day game on the Monday of the Boston Marathon, we were 7–4. One of the many traditions I looked forward to in Boston was Marathon Monday. It was a Massachusetts holiday, and it often seemed like an all-day party. Everything about the day was special, including our game, which always started at 11:00 a.m.
I may not remember the game details of April 15, 2013, but I’ll remember the rest of that day as long as I live. We finished a three-game sweep of Tampa just after 2:00. Shortly after the players walked off the field and into the clubhouse, one of the sweetest sights could be seen on the Fenway lawn. The organization allowed parents and their children to leap the gates and run the bases at the park.
My teammates were preparing for a trip to Cleveland, but I wasn’t traveling with them. My plan was to stay home and rehab so I could be ready to start my season when the team returned to Fenway four days later. Staying in New England rather than taking that trip to Ohio changed me. Those four days told me a lot about where I lived and just how deep my connection was to the city that adopted me.
By the time the players left the park for the airport, everyone had heard the devastating news. Two bombs had exploded, 12 seconds apart, on Boylston Street, near the Marathon finish line. The blasts caused some horrific injuries, with hundreds of men, women and children injured, some losing limbs and having shrapnel embedded in their skin. Three people, including an eight-year-old boy, were killed. Some of the sidewalks were covered with blood. Everyone at the finish line—from doctors to law enforcement officials to everyday citizens—was scrambling to save and protect lives.
It was hard to think about anything else that night, and the next night too. Our organization acted quickly. We put a 617 jersey in the dugout, for the area code of Boston, and we began connecting ourselves to the phrase “Boston Strong.” We were determined to reach out to, raise funds for and inspire individuals and groups affected by the bombing. It was a start, but there was so much work to do. And in the first few days, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, no one knew who was to blame.
That all started to change on Thursday. The terrorists had been identified through surveillance video: two brothers, one 19 and the other 26, who had spent many years living on Norfolk Street in Cambridge. I was overcome with emotion. Maybe I would have still felt things that intensely if I had been in Cleveland with the team, but I doubt it. I did not have the mental escape of doing my job and focusing on something else. No, I was at my house, internalizing the sadness and disbelief of the city.
On Thursday night, the terrorists killed an MIT police officer in Cambridge, about a mile and a half from Fenway. Early Friday morning, in Watertown, there was a shootout between the terrorists and the police. One of the bombers was killed after the confrontation with police, and one was still at large.
It was Friday morning, and I was supposed to be playing my first game of the season that night against the Royals. But I didn’t want to play. I wanted justice. The only way baseball or anything else could be relevant at that time was if it was attached to a plan to help and heal Boston. If it didn’t do that, in my opinion, it didn’t matter. The governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, shut down all public transportation and asked all residents to stay in their houses so officials could have a better chance of catching the terrorist. Our game, thankfully, was canceled. The entire region, and country, turned its attention to catching the bomber. Thank God, on Friday night they arrested him.
On Saturday morning, my body felt fine but my soul was heavy. I thought of all the people who’d just wanted to have a happy Patriots’ Day and instead were attacked with crude pressure-cooker bombs, packed with nails and metal. I thought of all the people who’d been frightened by what they’d seen and heard and were afraid to leave the house, afraid to send their kids to school, afraid of living. I thought of being an American citizen first, not just a baseball player.
As we prepared for the game, I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the players and the team. It was a special day at Fenway, with many of the heroes of the past week present. These were the people who were on the ground, saving lives. They were the spine of the city, with their strength and selflessness. I was proud to wear a white home jersey that day with Boston printed in red block letters. I knew I wanted to say something as I held that microphone, but I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. I didn’t have a script. I just wanted to speak from the heart.
I thought it was important to point out the significance of our jersey because we were trying to represent and play for the city. After that, I said something that I hadn’t planned to. It came from the pressure building up that entire week, finally being released. I looked at the sellout crowd, and to their surprise, and mine, I said, “This is our f------ city. And nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
There was applause. Then there was music. It must have taken me a few seconds to realize, as I was walking off the field, that I’d said “f------.” I began thinking, Oh s---, I think I screwed up. But when I got close to the police and the mayor, they high-fived me hard.
To my surprise, I didn’t get in trouble for what I said. It was the opposite. What I said became a rallying cry for some people. That’s one of the reasons I fit so well in Boston. That’s my personality too. Try to knock me out, and it’s not going to happen. I’ll always take on the fight.
Our team would never be able to take away the pain of the tragedy, but we could honor the city with our play and love for each other. That began in that Saturday game, which we won. It continued into early May. Every day there was a different player doing something, big or small, to help us win a ball game.
In the spring and summer of 2013, I was 37 years old and thinking about what I was doing with my life. I missed my wife. I missed my kids. The kids still came to my games, and I was still involved in their lives, but I missed being a daily presence. We still loved each other, and the time away made me appreciate how powerful our family, at its best, could be. And I was thinking in terms of “our.” It became clearer when my father-in-law, Terry Brick, died that summer. Tiffany was grieving, and so was I. It was becoming a mission season for me: help the city, help the team, help put my family back together again.
We finished the regular season with 97 wins and the division title. We had gone from last place to first, and we won back many fans who had questioned our commitment to winning in 2011 and ’12. We’d been out of the playoffs for four years, and I was more serious about the postseason than at any point in my career. I was a month away from my 38th birthday, and I didn’t know how many more playoff opportunities I’d have in my baseball life.
After beating Tampa in the Division Series and battling past Detroit in the ALCS, we were going to the World Series. The spring had begun so terribly, with so much sadness in the city. Lives had been lost, and survivors had been changed forever. I had wanted to do my part, and have the team do its part, by bringing smiles to as many faces as possible.
There was no doubt that we were going to beat the Cardinals in the Series, and not just because I wanted it to happen. I had looked at some playoff predictions and noticed that the Cardinals were getting a lot of attention for their starting pitching, specifically Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha. I’d studied their entire staff, starters and relievers alike, and I thought I had a good handle on what they did well. They planned to start Wainwright against us in Game 1, although I believed Wacha’s style was much more effective against an American League team.We put three runs on Wainwright in the first inning of Game 1, and two in the second. We also had Jon Lester pitching, so it was an easy night for us. We won 8–1.
Game 2, also at Fenway, was interesting. It was the first time we had faced the rookie Wacha, and I knew what my guys were going through during the game. He was mowing us down, but we were quickly getting a feel for what he liked to do. I knew if it turned into a long Series and we saw Wacha again, he would not have the success he had in Game 2.
In my first at bat against him, I grounded out. I walked my second time up. Before my third at bat, I told one of our pitchers, Jake Peavy, that I was comfortable with my scouting report: Wacha had a good fastball and he liked it, but he really loved his changeup. He’d throw it at any time. It was his best pitch. I told Peavy, “He’s going to keep leaving that thing up, and I’m gonna hit it out. Opposite field.”
That’s what happened in the sixth, and it gave us a 2–1 lead. When I got back to the dugout, Peavy kept looking at me and shaking his head.
It wasn’t a mystery. Just homework. It was why I spent so much time, in and out of season, thinking and dreaming about the habits of pitchers. That was the payoff.
The Cardinals came back to win Game 2, and they won Game 3 in St. Louis as well. In the middle of Game 4, with the score tied at 1, I decided to say something to the team in the dugout. We were down 2–1 in the Series, and we were playing like zombies. Quiet, no emotion, a little stiff.
I gathered my boys around.
“You think you’re going to come to the World Series every year?” I said. “It’s not gonna happen. So do you know what you do when you come to this? You give everything you have, as if it’s your last ride.”
I told them that we were better than the Cardinals, and better than we’d played so far. Then I asked a question that I already knew the answer to: “Are you scared? Who’s scared here?” Nobody raised a hand. After that, it was time for the conclusion: “Then let’s f------ go.”
In the sixth inning we woke up and never looked back for the rest of the Series. Jonny Gomes’s three-run homer gave us the lead and the eventual win. The Series was tied at 2, and we had a couple of things going in our favor.
One was that I was locked in and the Cardinals continued to pitch to me. And I knew the reason. Their manager, Mike Matheny, was a former catcher. And catchers, in their minds, think they can get a mother------ out anytime. They don’t understand that when a mother------ is hot, he’s hot. Then the whole team gets hot. That’s how it works, and that’s eventually what happened to us in Game 6.
The pitcher standing between us and clinching was Wacha. We were ready for him. All of us. The Cardinals walked me four times in the game, but it was too late to be cautious. Our team was relaxed. I knew then that we were going to win the Series that night. I had hit .688 in the Series and would be named Most Valuable Player. Everyone commented on how I had come through, again, in the clutch.
My wife saw it differently. She told me something that I would never forget. She said, “As clutch as you were on the field, you did that and more to win me back and put our family back together.” Let me tell you, it was a miracle. I had been separated from my wife for a year, and I was an autograph away from being divorced. And it didn’t happen. That’s not how those stories usually end.
The final act of our season was just as poetic. We paraded through the city, waving to millions of Red Sox fans who had fallen in love with our team again after some hard times. When we got to Boylston Street, near the Marathon finish line, we stopped and sang “God Bless America.” I’d met some of the survivors throughout the summer and seen up close how their lives had been altered forever. No one could be the same after experiencing that in their city. We’d all been changed somehow.
Winning the World Series helped a lot of people get closer to the normal they once knew. I was proud of that, and even more proud of the way we’d been able to celebrate as a region. Despite what happened in April, we had defended and retained our freedom.
I’m telling you, as I look back on the year and realize how everything ended up, all I can say is that God is great. God is great because we went from a storm to a day like the parade. It went from the worst it could be to the best it could be.
A lot of things went through my head at the finish line, but I kept coming back to the miraculous nature of it all. I couldn’t believe how far we’d come.