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Celebrating David Ortiz’s greatest moments: The moment that wasn’t

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It’s easy to forget that Papi’s magic almost started a year early. It would have changed Red Sox history forever if it had.

Ortiz out at second Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

David Ortiz started with the Red Sox in 2003, but “Big Papi” didn’t show up until a year later. It was the 2004 season that cemented Ortiz’s place and nickname in Red Sox history, even if he was still just building a foundation for his career. We didn’t know that he’d continue his amazing ways for more than a decade, but we had hints as early as the year before, in the team’s lowest moment.

Before we get too far, it’s important to remember just how bad Ortiz was in his first half-season with the Sox in 2003. He was splitting time with Jeremy Giambi, who couldn’t hit a lick, and Ortiz matched him whiff for whiff. His teammates took to calling him “Juan Pierre” because of his anemic power stats.

Outside of the fact he looked like the second coming of Mo Vaughn, there was no reason to expect he’d turn into an MVP candidate, leastwise an all-time legend, but he did. He’d end the regular season with 31 home runs and finish fifth in the MVP voting and it felt like a miracle. In reality, of course, the miracles were yet to come. For what it’s worth, Giambi would retire after the season. That settled that.

Fast-forward to the playoffs. October 16, 2003, was not a good night for the Red Sox. The “Grady Little game” was one of Boston’s worst five losses of all-time, and Ortiz was in the middle of it. We’ll get to him, but let’s get to the rest of the list first. It’s easy to make. There’s no point in ranking them in order of pain; each one was absolute torture, given the circumstances, or so the books tell me. I’m old, but I’m not that old.

Here’s the list:

Game 7 of the 1946 World Series

The Red Sox lose to the Cardinals when Enos Slaughter, the Molina-footed star of his day, scores from first base on a late single. To left field. It was more or less a physical impossibility, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Game 7 of the 1975 World Series

One game after Carlton Fisk does his thing, the Sox take a 3-0 lead but eventually fall to the Reds when Cincinnati pushes the go-ahead run across in the ninth inning. It is not fun.

The 1978 playoff against the Yankees

Bucky Dent makes your parents cry.

Game 6 of the 1986 World Series

Bill Buckner’s error caps off a comedy of them at Shea Stadium, though he’s by no means the only goat. The Mets scoreboard briefly congratulates the Sox for winning the World Series, which they don’t do. That’s bad.

Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS

The Aaron Boone game. The game that makes you cry, and the game I want to talk about.

A lot of the pieces in this series will be about games we attended, and I was at this one, wearing a Pedro Martinez shirsey at the back row of the Bleacher Creatures section at old Yankee Stadium. Oops!

It looked good for awhile, then Pedro gave up a bunch of weak hits in the eighth inning, the game got tied up, and Boone won it with a solo home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning against Tim Wakefield. You couldn’t have scripted it much worse for Red Sox fans, but what’s lost is how close Ortiz came to flipping the script -- which he would definitely do over the next dozen seasons -- a year early.

In the top of the 10th inning, Ortiz batted against Mariano Rivera. With a 1-2 count, he came so close to putting the Sox into the lead that it’s a wonder we don’t talk about it all the time. Here’s the play:

The first thing I notice in this clip is how bored Joe Buck sounds while describing what could have ended up as an iconic hit in baseball history. Buck’s dryness is nothing new, and Ortiz’s hit didn’t get far enough off the ground to look like a homer, but even a double in that situation was potentially epoch-changing. My theory is that Buck just assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that the Sox would blow it in the end, and there was no reason getting himself all hot and bothered over what would amount to a historical footnote.

That footnote would turn out to be something of a harbinger of things to come. For years thereafter, Ortiz would hit have big hits in the biggest situations. This was Ortiz-as-savior in previews, where he was still working out the kinks. I mean, look at how close this was:

(That white speck there is the ball)

That’s how close Big Papi came to arriving on the scene in 2003. By extension, it’s also how close we came to, presumably, never hiring Terry Francona, with Little becoming a local hero despite his boner from earlier in the game. Sometimes it really is a game of inches. In this case, it was about 24 of them -- 2 feet, or about the length of your arm.

It was 318 down that left field line, and Ortiz hit it 316 feet in the air. He came up just short, but, if you’ll forgive me, the baseball gods left a clue behind. The number 316 has both religious (you-know-who) and cultural (Steve Austin) significance. For the Sox, Ortiz became both a quasi-religious figure and one whose achievements were so incredible as to seem scripted. He may or may not be the son of God, but he was stunning, and after that October night in the Bronx, Ortiz 3:16 didn’t mean he came up short: It meant he just kicked your ass.