It’s hard to single out just two moments from his impressive career, but retired Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz has twice uplifted the entire New England region: once with his bat and once with his words.
In 2004’s American League Championship Series against the rival New York Yankees, Ortiz smacked game-winning, extra-inning, elimination-avoiding walk-off hits on back-to-back nights at Fenway Park to lead the Red Sox to the greatest comeback in sports history and their first World Series win in 86 years.
“All right, Boston,” Ortiz said. “This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston.’ We want to thank you, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department, for the great job that they did this past week.”
Then he swung for the fences: “This is our [expletive] city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
“When I said that, it was because I knew Boston felt it,” Ortiz says today. “It wasn’t me thinking of something to say, it was how I knew Boston felt after that happened. You can’t mess with this city, and I just said it for the people.”
For those reasons, and for Ortiz’s extensive charitable work, Boston University will award the retired designated hitter an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Commencement on Sunday, May 21.
In 2005, Ortiz founded the David Ortiz Children’s Fund to help children in New England and the Dominican Republic who lack access to pediatric services. The organization has raised more than $2 million and is credited with saving many children’s lives in the island nation. Ortiz will be roasted by former teammate Dustin Pedroia, comedian Lenny Clarke, and others on June 22 at the House of Blues in Boston to raise money for the fund; tickets are now on sale.
“If you asked me five years ago, did I think I was going to get a degree, I still would have told you no way, man. Now my kids ask about college, and I say, if I can get a doctorate, you can too.” –David Ortiz
Fittingly, Ortiz’s honorary degree will be awarded at historic Nickerson Field, once the home of the Boston Braves and the site where former Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth signed his last professional contract, with the Braves.
A college degree wasn’t something that seemed possible when Ortiz was growing up. “No way, man. College wasn’t even a thought when I was a kid. Growing up in the Dominican I just played baseball,” he says. “If you asked me five years ago, did I think I was going to get a degree, I still would have told you no way, man. Now my kids ask about college, and I say, if I can get a doctorate, you can too.”
Clutch hitting and big home runs quickly became Ortiz’s trademarks after he joined the Red Sox in 2003. Few outsiders could appreciate the depths that Red Sox fans’ hopes had sunk to on the night of October 17, 2004. The team was down three games to none in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, and it was do-or-die time. Then game 4 went to extra innings, and Ortiz blasted a two-run walk-off homer in the 12th to win. Darkened streets all across New England rang with cheers.
Just 24 hours later, again in extra innings, Ortiz hit a walk-off single that gave game 5 to the Sox. The Red Sox went on to win games six and seven at Yankee Stadium, stunning New York four games to three. After that, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series seemed almost anticlimactic. It was Ortiz who turned everything around.
Ortiz says the moment he realized he was truly a Bostonian was the previous year, after the Red Sox catastrophic loss to the Yankees in game 7 of the ALCS. “When New York was chanting, ‘Boston sucks,’ that was when I knew I had to come back and win, and I knew I had to do it with Boston.”
He came up big for the Red Sox over and over from 2003 to 2016, becoming the greatest designated hitter in major league history, with 541 home runs (17th all time) and 1,768 runs batted in (22nd). He is a 10-time All-Star and the owner of 3 World Series rings, from the Sox wins in 2004, 2007, and 2013. What many fans will remember most are his 20 walk-off hits for the Sox—17 in the regular season, 3 in the playoffs, and 12 of them homers. (He also had three walk-offs for the Minnesota Twins before coming to Boston.)
What advice would he give to students who want to come up big in the clutch? What’s the secret of succeeding when the stakes are highest? “You can’t let people get in your head,” Ortiz says. “Look at me—everyone told me Boston was cursed, but Boston was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You gotta just keep your head down, stick with people you trust and your family, and keep going forward.”
Ortiz became an American citizen in 2008, and he and his wife, Tiffany, now divide their time between the Dominican Republican and the United States. To the disappointment of many Sox fans, there is no sign that he will come out of retirement.
Fans can learn much more about David Ortiz in his recently published memoir, Papi: My Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), written with Michael Holley. The Red Sox will officially retire his number, 34, in a ceremony at Fenway Park on June 23, making Ortiz just the 11th Red Sox player to receive that honor.
This year’s other BU honorary degree recipients are Commencement speaker Bonnie Hammer (CGS’69, COM’71, SED’75), NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group chair, Doctor of Humane Letters; Nobel Prize winner and climate change champion Mario J. Molina, who will be the Baccalaureate speaker, Doctor of Laws; BU trustee emeritus and longtime Board of Trustees chair Robert A. Knox (CAS’74, Questrom’75), now an overseer, Doctor of Laws; and Jeanne Knox , BU Parents Leadership Council chair, Doctor of Humane Letters.
More information about Commencement can be found here.