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​Walking Off: A Goodbye to David Ortiz, and to Childhood

By Ethan McCollister, Contributing Writer

A few days ago, I watched David Ortiz, the idol of my youth, walk off into the sunset.

The symbolism was not lost on me, either.

As Big Papi concludes his legendary baseball career, my adult career begins. To me, that means my childhood has hung up its spikes as well.

I was born on April 25, 1998. David Ortiz was beginning his first full big league season, then with the Minnesota Twins. On the 25th, his Twins beat the Mariners in Seattle, the city my parents met in. Ortiz got the night off, unlike my mother.

Big Papi came to the Red Sox in 2003, signing a deal with them in January. Meanwhile, I was preparing to begin my rookie season as a shortstop for the local Little League team. He finished the year with 31 home runs and took fifth place in the American League Most Valuable Player vote. I’d like to think I was just as important to the East Montpelier Roadrunners.

2004 brought success for both of us. I flourished in my first grade classroom, perhaps only struggling on the days which were cursed enough to follow nights of Red Sox postseason baseball. Speaking of curses, Ortiz was in the midst of lifting the infamous Curse of the Bambino, which had kept the Red Sox from ending their season victorious for 86 years.

It was that mythic postseason when all the sins of past teams—the decades of pain and strife wrought upon Red Sox Nation—were forgiven. Those games cemented David Ortiz as an icon, revered by Bostonians, New Englanders, and, of course, me. He became famous for hitting walk-off homers, huge hits that won the game and ended it suddenly (and causing the opponents to “walk off” the field).

Over and over, he sent the ball deep into the night, and I was sent to bed.

The years ticked by. As Ortiz continued his journey into the upper echelons of Red Sox lore, I continued mine through the tiers of the Central Vermont baseball system. He won another World Series; I was elected captain of the high school varsity team.

Finally, the end was nigh. In the midst of my senior year of high school, I applied to Harvard. A few weeks later, Big Papi announced that he would retire after one more year. We both would have one final season.

After much deliberation, I decided to attend the nation’s oldest university. That evening, April 27, was Harvard Night at Fenway Park. David Ortiz hit three doubles in celebration.

A few days earlier, on the 25th, I had turned 18, marking the legal end of my childhood. But no great revelation hit me as I woke up that morning. No fundamental change transpired that day to welcome me into adulthood. After all, Big Papi would put on his uniform and lace up his spikes that night, just as he had done for the past 18 years.

Choosing Harvard meant that my baseball career would come to a close. I accepted that with the understanding that my learning would continue. This past spring, in my final season, I helped bring my team into the playoffs for the first time in years, eventually falling short of the championship game. Now, following Monday night’s loss and elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, Big Papi has done just the same.

I arrived in his city just as he was stepping away from its spotlight. I moved into my dorm, started classes, and began to find my independence. On October 2, I headed to Fenway Park with my dad, just as David Ortiz arrived at the clubhouse, ready to play the final regular season game of his career.

40 minutes prior to game time, he took the field. We took our places in the bleachers, 36,787 strong. He was joined by legions of his teammates, my heroes from three championship seasons marching out of my memories and into centerfield. But it was clear that they weren’t only celebrating his sports feats. The speeches and gifts were reminiscent of a graduation ceremony, celebrating both the end of his baseball career and the continuation of his philanthropy, which he will focus on post-retirement. Eventually, the man of the hour took the microphone himself.

Big Papi stood on the infield grass, and with his father by his side, thanked the fans. I stood in the stands, and with my father beside me, thanked him back.

It didn’t matter that there was still a game to be played that night or that he would play one more game at Fenway during the playoffs. This would be the last time I saw him play in person, and for that reason, this was the end. With that acknowledgement in my mind, David Ortiz came to bat for the final time in the regular season. It was the bottom of the 9th inning. The Red Sox were down by one.

In that moment, I realized: this could be his 542nd home run. It would be an unbelievable moment. The ball would disappear deep into the night, much like the 541 that had preceded it. But unlike those few magical weeks in October of 2004, I would not be sent to bed. I’d go back to my dorm, and with my light on far into the night, I’d read textbooks instead of scorecards, write essays on Plato instead of hitting, and contemplate ideas far beyond the basepaths.

He didn’t hit a home run. He hit a weak ground ball, struck so harmlessly that the catcher picked it up almost immediately. Ortiz labored towards first, his perennially sore feet clearly affecting him. He was thrown out easily, and that was that.

For the past 18 years, he had played a child’s game, I had lived a child’s life, and now we were both walking off.

Ethan McCollister ‘20, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Weld Hall.

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