There’s a line in the new David Ortiz documentary (Thurs., 8 p.m. EPIX) in which former Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski describes his teammate in the hyperbolic way that teammates come to describe a player who hits .688 in six World Series games.
“I never thought he’d become, almost, like a mythical creature.” says Pierzynski.
I spoke to Ortiz last week ahead of the release of the film, our interview coming some 20 minutes or so after the Sox DFA’d Pierzynski and called up catching prospect Christian Vazquez. The move — and the mood — stood in stark contrast to the subject matter of most of the film, in which Ortiz is lauded for being a hero in 2013 and the hero in 2004.
“Organizations start thinking about filling out expectations at some point,” Ortiz said of Pierzysnki. “Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t. I don’t know what the situation was between the organization and my good friend A.J. Pierzynski, but things didn’t work out the way they expected.”
Ortiz is about as polished an athlete as you’ll find. When I was patched in for the call, he greeted me by name (no NBA player has ever done that in nine years of covering the Celtics). He had diplomatic answers for the Pierzysnki question and others, but there was also a sense that he wanted to get something off his chest. The purpose of our talk was to promote the 70-minute film, “EPIX Presents: David Ortiz In the Moment,” airing Thursday night. The film opens with Ortiz driving from his suburban Boston home to Fenway Park. On the way he listens to the chatter on sports talk radio.
“I like watching TV,” Ortiz tells me. “Sometimes I bump into some show [talking about him]. I don’t drive myself all crazy listening to what some people have to say. Sometimes they make the right comment. Most of the people, they don’t. That’s basically how it’s going to be. That’s what sells newspapers, you can compete against that.”
And then, unprompted, “But I like to stick with the truth. I like people to be honest. I don’t like people making things up.”
Ortiz is as celebrated as any athlete in Boston history, but maybe it’s that chip on his shoulder that makes him great. It probably is. The film examine’s Ortiz’s rise through the majors that almost wasn’t.
“The truth is the Red Sox didn’t jump on him right away.” says Sox GM Ben Cherington
Sox CEO Larry Lucchino tells the story of how he got a call from Pedro Martinez telling him to give Ortiz a shot after his release from the Twins.
“David got a full endorsement from Pedro,” says Lucchino. “It seemed like it was a good idea to invite him to camp.”
Standing in the kitchen of the couple’s Boston-area home, Ortiz’s wife Tiffany says, “In 2004 he got his first multi-year contract. This is home now.”
Those scenes in the house, the car, and the Sox clubhouse are what make the film worth watching. In one scene, Ortiz hands his wife about 20 pounds of jewelry, which he needed to take off to make room for a necklace on which he hangs his previous two championship rings. Ortiz is about to receive his third ring at a ceremony later that day.
When he arrives at the ballpark, Ortiz shifts into public relations mode, hugging everyone in site. When he walks into the clubhouse, he yells to no one in particular, “I’m going to be on TV tonight, motherf*#$ers.” During the ring ceremony for the 2013 championship he is the master of ceremonies. As fans hang on Papi’s every movement, Ortiz’s father sits in the crowd, taking it all in.
“When they see him, it’s always an appreciation,” says Enrique Ortiz. “Those are the kinds of things that make me abundantly happy.”
Watching Ortiz and interactions with everyone from ownership to marathon bombing victims on down makes you realize in part why he is so valued by the franchise. You get the sense none of this could go on without him, at least not with the same verve. By the end of the ceremony, Ortiz seems exhausted.
While the film is largely a big wet kiss to Ortiz and his career here (at one point Peter Gammons calls him the face of the Red Sox all-time), it does touch on some interesting subject matter, like the contract negotiations between Ortiz and the team in spring training. Ortiz’s griping about an extension became public, to some consternation from fans and local media.
“He’s an exception in a lot of different ways, with what he does on the field and how he carries himself within the clubhouse,” says Cherington. “It was important to him to talk about this now as opposed to the end of the year, so when it comes to contract talks, you make an exception for someone like that, because he’s earned that.”
“The way people look at it is it’s you being greedy as an athlete, asking for a contract or whatever,” says Ortiz. “The way I look at it is the only time you have to ask for a contract is a long as you play. When you stop playing there’s not going to be no contracts.”
On whether he’d like to live in Boston after his playing days are over, Ortiz tells me, “It gets too cold for me. But I’ll be coming back. …The organization already told me that when I’m done playing baseball I can stick around and do things like some other players have.”
While the film is rosy, Ortiz wasn’t shy about the issues facing the Sox this season. He refuses to blame the struggles of young players like Xander Boegarts and Jackie Bradley Jr., saying, “This is a season where you can’t blame the way things are going on how they’re playing. That’s not fair to say. Everybody has a lot to do with the way we’ve been playing.”
“We have played horrible in the first half of the season, but things can change. It’s not like we’re too far apart from the other teams. I think if we come back and have a good month, things can change, and next thing you know you are completing for a playoff spot.”
The Sox slugger, who has 20 home runs and 64 RBIs this season, expressed his support for another big bat in the lineup.
“I think it’s going to happen regardless at some point. We need that and everybody knows that. That ain’t a secret. We have a lack of power right now. I know there’s not much power out there right now, but sometimes just the intention of trying to make a move. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Hopefully it will work our way.”
On how he sees his Red Sox days eventually ending, Ortiz says, “It’s been a hell of a ride the last decade. A lot of ups and downs. We have won three World Series. Hopefully before I’m done with baseball, we will get another one.”
For more information on Epix and to watch programming, go to EPIX.com. You can watch a preview of the Ortiz documentary below.