There is a line from one of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History Podcasts that I love and that I think is particularly relevant thinking about the legacy of David Ortiz. Carlin tells how he once asked a history professor what the biggest challenge to understanding history is, and his teacher replied, "we know their future." We are now at the end of David Ortiz's brilliant career. We know him as the greatest clutch hitter in Boston Red Sox history. We know the Hall-of-Fame-caliber numbers he put up. We know what he did in the 2013 ALCS and the 2013 World Series. Most importantly, we know that he led The 25 back from three games down against the Yankees to the Red Sox' first World Championship in 86 years. Nothing can erase this from our collective consciousness and that presents a challenge for us in understanding the past. It is especially challenging if are trying to understand what might be the greatest game in baseball history and the most important moment of Big Papi's postseason legacy.
From our comfortable vantage point in 2016, Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Game is a watershed moment for the Boston Red Sox franchise. Looking back, Kevin Millar's warning before the game- "don't let us win tonight," looks like prophecy. It is the game that gave us The Steal. It is not really the beginning of David Ortiz's run as the most clutch player in the game (if his 2003 ALCS performance wasn't enough to get that ball rolling, his walk-off in the 2004 ALDS would have to be the liminal moment in that narrative), but it is the moment that his name and clutch became permanently inseparable. We can see this all so clearly now.
Back in 2004, we did not know any of this. In fact, when Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS began, it promised to be nothing more than another brief entry in the annals of pain that made up the history of the Boston Red Sox since 1918. I was just about to turn 25 at the time, living in New York City, just a few congested miles over the Triboro from Yankee Stadium. I remember watching this game in my tiny Astoria apartment without hope for victory in the series. I think my wife even asked why I was bothering to watch it (Mets fans can be fatalistic too, you know). No team had ever come back from 3-0 at this point. Not one. Not a single team in more than a century of baseball. Game 3 had been as demoralizing a blowout loss as any that I can remember. It had also meant using Tim Wakefield, the scheduled Game 4 starter in relief to save a beleaguered bullpen and handing the ball to Derek Lowe, who had lost his place in the playoff rotation. Don't blame us if we ever doubted, as the song says.
Sitting down to watch Game 4, I was hoping only that the Red Sox would delay the end of the season, pushing the inevitable bitterness of yet another heartbreaking loss to the Evil Empire a day further down the road. About five hours and 12 of the most agonizing innings of baseball ever played later, something had changed. It was still too dangerous to let yourself believe the Red Sox might win the next three, but it seemed better than impossible. At the very least, the Red Sox had just won the greatest game I had ever seen and they would play again later tonight (In my mind now, it is like 6:30 in the morning when this game ended, I just rubbed my eyes, finished my beer, made coffee and changed for work. That's an exaggeration of course, but only a small one. All of my memories of joy from 2004 are mixed with the memory of utter exhaustion. Those games took forever)
There are far too many incredible moments in this game for me to recap them all. After the greatest closer in history, Mariano Rivera, faltered just a hair, walking Kevin Millar. After David Roberts stole second with the entire world knowing he was going. After Bill Mueller tied the game with his single up the middle, and after three of the tensest innings ever played, David Ortiz stepped into the batter's box against Paul Quantrill with no one out and Manny Ramirez on first base in the bottom of the 12th inning.
Ortiz had been the extra-innings hero in the final game of the Division series and he had been excellent in the regular season, hitting .301/.380/.603 with 41 home runs. If there was anyone a Red Sox fan would want up in this spot, it was Big Papi. But until the fourth pitch of this at-bat, the average Red Sox fan's psyche was predisposed toward fatalism. Papi had already begun creating his clutch legacy, but his previous at-bats in this game were working against it. With the Red Sox trailing by one in the eighth, Ortiz struck out swinging against Rivera with a man on base. He ended that incredible 9th inning by popping out with the bases loaded. With the count at 2-1, Paul Quantrill delivered the pitch to Ortiz and he took the kind of vicious, windmill swing that is now embedded in the mind of a generation of Red Sox fans.
There is always the temptation to overstate the significance of big moments in sports history and that temptation only grows when we know what follows those events. It would be wrong to say that this one hit ended 86 years of suffering for Red Sox fans. It didn't make the sun shine brighter, the grass grow greener or your beer taste better (it would take seven more wins for that to happen). At that time, it was not yet enough to erase the dread of more moments like Slaughter's mad dash, Lee hangs a curve, Bucky F#%*ing Dent, and Aaron F#%*ing Boone, a dread passed down through generations like some dusty old map in an Amblin movie. Big Papi's blast into the bullpen only carries that kind of significance now that we know how this story ends. But even on that night, it was something special, something that every Red Sox fan could hold close to their heart forever. Even if things had gone differently in the rest of the series, that home run, like Fisk's shot in the 1975 World Series, would have been one of our moments, one of the small but significant examples of pure joy that would keep us coming back through whatever pain might come. It also meant that the season wasn't over. That was enough significance for one (interminable) night.
Watch that beautiful, beautiful clip again. After the ball clears the wall and Big Papi points his finger to the sky, as the team rushes onto the field, look past the players and up into the stands. Look at the Fenway faithful, who have never deserved that name more than on that night. Watch those fans and you will understand (or remember, if you were watching too) everything there is to know about that incredible night. Thank you for this one, Big Papi. Thank you for all of them.