It was just a year ago that Bobby Valentine came to Boston and couldn’t get through spring training without talking greasy about his veteran players. In a nightmare season, he never connected with the Beantown fans and finished 69-93 AS the AL East's doormat.
It was the culmination of a nightmare stretch that saw them go from AL East royalty and a banner franchise, to a chicken-and beer-drinking locker room of under-achieving veterans.
It all went bad, so fast. After eight years and two World Series titles, the end of skipper Terry Francona's tenure in Boston was secured by his team’s historic collapse in the final month of the ‘11 season as the Tampa Bay Rays made up a nine-game deficit and seized the wild card.
Soon, GM Theo Epstein broke out of the organization and the Red Sox officially entered a promising new era in ‘13.
Despite being picked to finish last by most preseason baseball brains, at 18-7 the Red Sox have the best record in MLB and they are looking like a revamped steam-roller, winning five straight and outscoring squads by 40 runs over that stretch. The Sox haven’t balled-out like this since before the 2011 All-Star break.
The emotional and athletic lynchpin of this Red Sox team, through all its trials and tribulations, has been rapper Drake’s vacation buddy “Big Papi Ortiz.”
Despite his own personal achievements, struggles and redemptions as a player—from leading Boston to its first World Series since 1918 to fighting steroid allegations, to losing and then miraculously regaining his intimidating bat to his comfortable role as a veteran leader and somewhat diminished slugger in this new, dope Red Sox mix—Ortiz has always been about Beantown.
And, obviously, he wasn’t one of the vets sleeping on the job, as the new Red Sox regime basically cleared house of all malcontent, pig-rich vets and kept Ortiz to assist new manager John Farrell in getting the franchise back on point.
He’s Mr. Clutch for Boston. Ted Williams has more homers, but Ortiz turned his into chips. In the stunning Sox playoff-comebacks of ‘04, Ortiz came to bat several times with Boston’s season hanging by a string and he came through like MJ Game 6. From then on, he was money in the bank.
Ortiz’s incomparable value to the Sox organization took center stage with his comments in the aftermath of the recent Boston Marathon bombing tragedy:
“This is our (expletive) city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom,” Ortiz said. Anybody have a (expletive) problem with that?
Ortiz is one of a few “Steroid Era” guys who have managed to dodge the reputation-damaging bullets shot at them from fans, Congress and the entire baseball community. He could have become a malcontent like many veteran superstars who find themselves in the midst of a rebuild, following years of success.
He could’ve run for the hills, but instead chose to further immerse himself in Red Sox lore as an “unconditional” ambassador for the city.
It’s not like he gets nothing but love in return. Valentine straight blamed him for Boston’s tank job in ‘12 and questioned his heart. A large part of Sox Nation thought it was time for Big Papi to hang it up and was pushing him out the door. He’s fought injuries and always rebounded with an impact.
Ortiz may have contemplated bouncing, but he never budged. Now he’s reaping the rare benefits of witnessing another Boston come-up with some new blood, producing old results. This season, he’s a sizzling 16 of 31 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs in eight games since coming off the disabled list.
When you pay dues like that and stay in the cipher when the bank is low, you get to be there when the dice-hand gets hot again.