On June 6th, 2009, David Ortiz hit a home run.
That, in itself, is unremarkable. It was one of 541, after all. Part of an 8-1 victory over the Rangers, Ortiz' homer wasn't even all that important on the day in question. And no, it didn't even seem that important at the time. It didn't go unusually far or happen to hit one of those signs that says “hit it here, Papi” or anything like that. Hell, it’s so unimportant that I can’t find a single video or photo of the thing. Best I’ve got comes from a few days later against New York.
If there was any reason that homer seemed special at all at the time, it's because it was only David Ortiz' second of the year. This interaction from the game thread gives you a pretty good idea of how things stood at the time:
Times were dire. Ortiz was done, cooked, toast. He had endured a mediocre 2008, and then come into 2009 hitting .188/.281/.288 for 50 games. He showed no pop, no bat speed, no signs of life. He found himself missing games on the bench If you go back and watch Ortiz in those games, it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy. At 33, Ortiz’ decline was not exactly coming at an unreasonable time, either, particularly given his physique (though, sure enough, it still got some people whispering he might be older than claimed).
And so, when David Ortiz went deep against the Rangers, it probably seemed more like a sad reminder of what was lost than anything. One for old time’s sake. It most certainly did not seem like the beginning of the second half of David Ortiz’ career.
Alright, so it takes some gymnastics to get to that idea. Yes, Ortiz’ career started in Minnesota. But it’s pretty easy to argue that the story of Big Papi didn’t begin in earnest until 2003, when he came over to Boston. What Ortiz achieved in six years with the Red Sox in many way dwarfs what some legends managed in 20. If that had been the bookend on things, he would have gone down as an all-time great. I’m sure there would have even been talk of retiring 34 even then.
Somehow, though, Ortiz’ horrific start to 2009 was not the end, even coming as it did after a disappointing 2008. The trend line lied and, on that day, it started to head in the other direction. Two games later, he would go deep again, this time in a 7-0 route of New York. He finished that series with another, and the month of June with a total of seven, having hit .339/.440/.726 after that point. He wouldn’t quite finish the season that hot, but he did hit to a .917 OPS from June 6th on. That he came so close to breaking the 30 homer mark again surprises me to this day.
And that was the beginning. The rough years hadn’t been a complete mirage. Ortiz would “only” hit to a .899 OPS in 2010—only his .873 mark in 2014 is lower in Boston outside of the 2008-2010 period. But what started as a strong month for Ortiz became a renaissance year became a whole seven seasons of near-peak performance. From 2010 to 2016, Ortiz hit to a 151 OPS+. That’s three points better than his average with the Red Sox, and 10 points ahead of his career figure. Amazingly enough, that whole “slow start” thing we used to worry about didn’t even last.
With his career having ended on such a high note in his age 40 season, David Ortiz can lay claim to being one of baseball’s most timeless players. We will never know how long he could have kept going for, and perhaps that is for the best. The unknown can be anything we want it to be. In my mind, David Ortiz is 50 years old and still winning games and flipping bats. And just about the only proof that shows otherwise comes from a bunch of players who didn’t last as long as Ortiz did to begin with.
But for a while there, David Ortiz seemed mortal. We saw our hero fall, and at the time, he did not seem likely to get back up. Until on June 6th he got to one knee, then another, and started the climb back up to the same old heights for seven years to come.