The Boston Red Sox’s 2016 season ended Oct. 10 at Fenway Park, and after David Ortiz gave his final waves to the crowd, standing on the mound with emotion covering his face, he returned to the clubhouse, his playing career over.
One by one, his teammates walked to his locker to give him a last hug, final congratulations, a goodbye. Ryan Hanigan, a 10-year major leaguer, made a point of asking him to sign a bat. His Boston teammates had shared his last season with him, enjoying the experience right to the finish line.
That was the plan, anyhow, which Ortiz affirmed by formally submitting notice of his retirement to the players’ association. He wrote a piece for the Players Tribune three weeks ago reiterating that, yes, he is stepping away.
And yet, some folks who have played with him privately wonder if he will change his mind, nudged along by his Instagram post last week about coming back after the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale. Ortiz said again two days ago that his career is over, but friends wonder if his decision is actually final — and some of those strongly believe Ortiz should reconsider anyway, while he’s still one of baseball’s best hitters.
Unless Ortiz changes his mind, he will go down as the best and most effective player to walk away since Sandy Koufax retired at age 30 with an arthritic left elbow, following the 1966 season.
But is that a good thing, to cede the chance at excellence while you still have the ability to achieve it?
Last season, David Ortiz had 87 extra-base hits and 86 strikeouts, and accounted for 5.1 Wins Above Replacement. To put that stat into perspective, here are the best WAR totals posted by Hall of Fame players in the final seasons of their respective careers, dug out by Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information:
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Clemente didn’t retire, of course, as he was tragically killed in a plane crash following the 1972 season. The Dodgers traded Jackie Robinson to the Giants after the 1956 season, and Robinson opted to retire, rather than play for despised rivals. No Hall of Famer in his last season came close to what Ortiz accomplished last year.
So maybe this isn’t the right time for him to step away. Only Ortiz knows for sure.
The pain in Ortiz’s feet gnawed at him last season, and like a lot of older players, he can’t stand the grind and travel of baseball. I asked him perhaps a half-dozen times during the 2016 season if he would change his mind, and he would always talk about the pain in response. He would talk about his desire to get off the road.
But Ortiz also talked about his accumulated knowledge and how much he knows now about hitting, and friends add this: He still loves the moment of coming to the plate in a big spot, game on the line, fans screaming for him, or against him.
If Ortiz does consider returning to the Red Sox for the 2017 season, hopefully he doesn’t worry about the initial wave of criticism he would face after announcing a reversal. Yes, he immediately would be compared to Brett Favre, who set a standard for retirement waffling, and sure, Ortiz would be chided for changing his mind after going through so many retirement ceremonies and standing ovations, including a whole weekend of goodbyes at Fenway Park at the very end of the regular season.
You know what? Who cares.
Ortiz was sincere in his intention to retire, and it’s his prerogative to change his mind about his job, just like anybody else in this country.
Red Sox fans would love it, and perhaps even more important, the Red Sox would welcome him back with open arms. There have been all-time greats whose performance has waned so dramatically at the end of their careers, to the degree that privately, their employers are thrilled when they retire, to relieve them of the responsibility of keeping them in the lineup.
That is not the case with Ortiz, who was incredibly important to a Boston lineup that racked up 101 more runs than any other team last season. Mookie Betts finished second in the AL MVP voting, as Boston’s best all-around player, but Ortiz was still the best hitter in the Red Sox lineup. He rated at 163 in wRC+, which measures runs created; the only major leaguer who scored higher in 2016 was Mike Trout.
Ortiz’s teammates would love to have him back to bolster their offense and to share all of his acumen. If Ortiz returned for 2017, he would block no one: Red Sox prospect Sam Travis is working his way back from injury and won’t really be an option until midseason, and Boston signed veteran Mitch Moreland to a one-year deal to help absorb some of the at-bats left behind by Big Papi.
Ortiz is extremely well-liked in the game for his warm personality, which would help him quickly smooth over the issue of the past gifts and retirement ceremonies. He would be the first to poke fun at himself for his change of heart. He could thank everyone again for the way he was treated last year and offer to make donations with some of his 2017 salary to the teams that gave to his foundation. He could make a point of honoring fans with other teams, the way Mariano Rivera did in his last year.
And at Fenway Park, his reversal would be forgotten the first time he came to the plate. They would stand for him, and they would cheer for him again all summer.
There are only a handful of days in the lives of the chosen few who play major league baseball for a living. Cal Ripken can’t do it anymore, nor Al Kaline, nor Derek Jeter, nor Pedro Martinez. They all love baseball the way Ortiz loves baseball, but the game is no longer accessible to them.
But David Ortiz still has time left to play. He could stick with his year-old decision to stay off his feet and stay off the road, and that would be fine. But if he changes his mind, that would be a great call too. He could channel Michael Jordan and post two words on Instagram: “I’m back.”
He could ignore the negative response from a handful of columnists and fans, and would be embraced again, still doing what he does better than just about anybody.
One more note from Langs: Ortiz led the majors in doubles (48), the AL in RBI (127) and the majors in slugging percentage (.620) and OPS (1.021). The only one of the Hall of Famers on the list above to lead in anything notable (countable stats/slash line/etc.) was Hank Greenberg, who led the NL with 104 walks.