SAN DIEGO — In the fourth inning of Tuesday’s All-Star Game, with baseball memories unfolding all around him at Petco Park, David Ortiz entered a small auxiliary press room with metal lockers and folding chairs. For the next 20 minutes, he held the room in his sway with each cackle and heartfelt reminiscence. He talked about his friendship with Jose Fernandez, his respect for the young players who’ll come after him, and explained for the umpteenth time that he does not expect to be sitting on a beach holding an ice-cold beer a year from now and magically get the itch to return.
It was a wonderfully personal glimpse of the David Ortiz that Major League Baseball will spend an entire summer embracing on his farewell tour of big league parks. But deep down you wondered: Why wasn’t he still on the field?
Big Papi gets walk-off ovation in final ASG
David Ortiz ended his All-Star Game career with a walk-off ovation as he was lifted after his second at-bat for a pinch runner and was greeted on the field by his American League teammates.
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Ortiz’s 10th and final All-Star Game had all the ingredients for a poignant goodbye — except time and exposure. After giving his teammates a pregame pep talk and tipping his cap to the Petco Park crowd along the first-base line, he grounded out on a hard shot to first base against Johnny Cueto in his first plate appearance and walked against Fernandez in his second.
Big Papi’s final line: 0-for-1 on 15 pitches, followed by about twice that many dugout hugs.
And just like that, Ortiz was gone from sight and headed out of town. For fans who might have wanted one more swing or smile to savor, the whole thing was too brief and stage-managed for comfort.
As Ortiz explained in hindsight, this is the way things were mapped out from the outset. He typically gets a couple of at-bats in the All-Star Game, and the plan Tuesday called for him to make two plate appearances before being replaced by Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion at designated hitter. American League manager Ned Yost would stray from the plan only if Ortiz failed to reach base his first two times up.
Ortiz knows how difficult it is to make an All-Star team, and he has too much reverence for this stage to try to hog the spotlight over four or five at-bats and nine innings. In Ortiz’s eyes, the spotlight belonged to everyone Tuesday. That was part of the message he tried to convey in his pregame speech.
“The All-Star Game is a moment that you want to give everybody the opportunity to go out there and play,” Ortiz said. “You don’t get to the All-Star Game just because you have a good name and just because you come from a good family. It’s a lot of hard work.”
There was a tinge of drama beforehand when Fernandez — whom Ortiz lovingly refers to as “my boy” — approached Big Papi the day before the game and suggested some shenanigans might be in store. He might just feed Ortiz three straight heaters and go power against power for the sake of posterity.
The mood quickly changed from drama to slapstick comedy when Ortiz stepped to the plate in the third inning and Fernandez improvised on the script.
“He told me yesterday, ‘You know what? I’m going to come with my best fastball. I want to see if you can hit it,’ ” Ortiz said. “So he throws me a changeup the first pitch. So I’m looking at him, and he was like, ‘It was the catcher’s fault. He called it.’ Then it’s 3-2 and he throws me a slider. I’m like, ‘What’s going on? Do you want me to break my back or something?’ “
Ortiz squawked at Fernandez a little bit on his way to first base, and it was reminiscent of the old days, when the All-Star Game was played strictly for pride, and weirdness could erupt out of nowhere. Those were the days when Barry Bonds could playfully lift Torii Hunter off the ground for stealing a home run from him, or Randy Johnson had the freedom to throw a ball to the screen and nearly send John Kruk into cardiac arrest, or Larry Walker could turn his helmet around and bat from the right side against the Big Unit for laughs.
Now that home-field advantage in the World Series is at stake, impromptu moments in the Midsummer Classic feel conflicted or restrained. In 2012, when Justin Verlander said he threw his fastball as hard as he could and tried to “let it eat” for the entertainment value, the declaration was at odds with the image MLB was trying to convey. And when Adam Wainwright admitted that he grooved a pitch to Derek Jeter in the Captain’s final All-Star Game in 2014, all sorts of outrage erupted on social media.
So now we have Ortiz and his abbreviated goodbye, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense given that he came into the game with 22 home runs and an otherworldly 1.017 OPS. For sake of comparison, when a fading Kobe Bryant appeared in his final NBA All-Star Game in February, he hoisted 11 shots and played more minutes than any Western Conference player not named Stephen Curry. Fans in Toronto saw more of Bryant than they did of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Chris Paul. Fans in San Diego on Tuesday night saw two at-bats from David Ortiz, at which point he headed down a runway and put his larger-than-life personality on display in a glorified locker room.
Marketing experts might say this was a case of baseball failing to seize the moment. For fans who like their departing heroes in more than cameo roles, it felt remarkably like a missed opportunity.