Do mythical creatures exist? David Ortiz pondered as much yesterday afternoon as he sat in front of a laptop in the Red Sox clubhouse, reading an e-mail from a friend who had attached a photo taken in Boca Chica, a seaside village in his native Dominican Republic.
"Look," he said, pointing to what appeared to be a female form, her face covered by a white shroud, washed up onto a beach, except that there was a fishtail where there should have been legs. ``A mermaid. Is it real? I don't know. It was all over the news in the Dominican."
Can you believe your own eyes? That was a question more easily answered for those present last night at Fenway Park when Ortiz, in his first at-bat, did some mythmaking of his own, hitting his 51st home run of the season, breaking the club record set in 1938 by Jimmie Foxx, a Hall of Famer. Boston's designated hitter added his own coda to this historic night by hitting another home run, No. 52, in his last at-bat during a 6-0 Boston victory over the Minnesota Twins before a crowd of 36,434.
"I think it means a lot because people expect me to get up there and jack it out," said Ortiz, one of only 10 players in the 105-year history of the American League to hit as many as 52 home runs in a season.
``A great feeling, especially doing it here at home in front of my fans. I think the whole [Red Sox] nation enjoys when you do something like that at home. It's pretty fun. I mean, people were just going crazy out there."
With nine games to play, Ortiz is a distant nine home runs from the AL record of 61 set in 1961 by Roger Maris, a record that has been eclipsed in the steroid era in the National League by Sammy Sosa (three times), Mark McGwire (twice), and Barry Bonds, who in 2001 hit 73, the current record.
Coincidentally, yesterday afternoon a federal judge in San Francisco ordered 18-month jail sentences, pending appeal, for the two newspaper reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle who refused to identify the sources who provided them secret testimony from the grand jury investigating Bonds's alleged use of performance-enhancing substances.
Last night, Ortiz, unprompted, alluded to the cloud of suspicion that tends to appear whenever a ballplayer, especially a slugger, achieves great things.
``This is something that might change people's minds and let them know that there are still a lot of good athletes still playing the game and still working hard and preparing themselves to play the game the way it's supposed to be," he said. ``A lot of people out there, a lot of players, that have a lot of respect for the game. I know there are some guys that have been caught using illegal things, but people should know that not everyone is like that.
``Somebody does whatever they do for a reason, but the most important thing is knowing that there are guys out there capable of hitting homers and doing everything in the right way."
Ortiz swung his 34 1/2-inch, 33-ounce bat -- the same bat carved of white ash and laminated black that he'd used the night before to hit No. 50 -- at the first pitch he saw from Twins lefthander Johan Santana, with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the first inning. The pitch from Santana, widely considered the best pitcher in the American League and a ``brother" by Ortiz, was a belt-high fastball that did not veer inside enough to interrupt the full violent twist of Ortiz's hips and the upward sweep of his bat.
At the sound of bat meeting ball, and the sight of the ball soaring high into the cool autumn-like night, Ortiz's teammates rushed to the railing of the dugout, and the crowd rose as one, exploding when the ball cleared the Sox bullpen.
With that swing, Ortiz, the son of a humble man, Enrique Ortiz, who sold auto parts in Santo Domingo, etched his name in the Red Sox record book, replacing that of Foxx, the son of Dell and Mattie Foxx, tenant farmers in Sudlersville, Md. Big Papi, trumping Double X, whose record had stood the test of other Sox sluggers, from Ted Williams to Yaz, Jim Rice to Mo Vaughn, for 68 years.
``My phone is full of text messages from my papi," Ortiz said of his father, known as Leo to one and all. ``My papi, he's been one of the best daddies ever. He's had a lot to do with my career."
The sounds of ``The Natural" played over the ballpark PA system as Ortiz circled the bases, and ``51" flashed repeatedly on the video scoreboard. Santana, standing on the grass near the mound, tipped his cap to Ortiz, then removed it in an apparent gesture of respect.
Six times previously, Santana had faced Ortiz, and six times he'd gotten him out, striking him out three times.
The seventh time, history.
``He's a great friend of mine, and he's a great player, and he has overcome a lot of things," said Santana, who came up in the Twins organization with Ortiz. ``I'm very proud of him for everything he has accomplished in his career. It's unbelievable. He's a great guy. He's like the greatest teammate you can have."
As Ortiz crossed the plate, he performed the ritual that follows each of his home runs, gently kissing the tips of his fingers and pointing to the sky, in tribute to his mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who died in a car accident four years ago and whose visage is etched on Ortiz's giant biceps.
He exchanged fist bumps with the Sox' on-deck hitter, Mike Lowell, then returned to the dugout, where one by one, led by manager Terry Francona, teammates engulfed him with hugs and backslaps.
``I think a lot of guys felt bad about the negative press he got the last [week]," said second baseman Mark Loretta, alluding to the fallout from Ortiz's remarks about the MVP race. ``It was pretty brutal the way they treated him in New York.
``Here's a guy that has done everything right, been an ambassador to baseball. He came across in a way that we all know he's not like that. He's not going to [disparage] his teammates. I just don't think it was really what he was intending to do. This is good to give him a good, positive note to end the season on. He was pretty down about that. He was pretty upset."
In the center-field bleachers, meanwhile, a latecomer from Waltham, 29-year-old Joel McGrath, who said he was tardy because police pulled him over somewhere on Route 16 and ticketed him for an illegal left turn, was at the top of the runway, asking an usher to direct him to his seats. That's when he heard a commotion and turned to see Ortiz's ball hurtling his way.
``The crack of the bat, I turned around, and it kind of veered off to the right to a big crowd of people 4 or 5 feet away. Someone had pizza-paddle hands and it went through him and came to me. Right place at the right time."
McGrath, and the 10-year-old boy, Tommy Valerini, from Boxford, who retrieved No. 52, were escorted to the Sox clubhouse by security personnel and returned the balls to Ortiz. They both appeared at the postgame press conference with Ortiz, who was still in full uniform, displaying the warmth and humor that has made him a beloved figure.
When McGrath mentioned their seats were upgraded to the
The deference the Sox accorded Ortiz for his record-breaker was replaced by some traditional baseball mischief when he hit No. 52, a towering drive into the left-center-field seats off 27-year-old righthanded reliever Matt Guerrier with one out in the seventh. Ortiz returned to a dugout that, at Curt Schilling's prompting, collectively ignored him for several moments before abandoning the silent treatment and pounding him anew.
``You married?" Ortiz asked McGrath afterward, who shook his head. ``You got a girlfriend?"
McGrath nodded. ``Oh, boy," Big Papi said. ``You got two now."