David Ortiz's at-bat against Jose Fernandez 10 years in the making

Tim Brown

SAN DIEGO – Fair is fair, and Jose Fernandez promised David Ortiz a fastball. Three fastballs, actually, if the at-bat presented itself, which it did in the third inning here Tuesday night during the All-Star game.

If you’ll pardon your this-time-it-counts sensibilities, assuming you are the lone person still attached to them, this is what it looks like when baseball is fun again. A good laugh, a little flair, boys being boys, it’s all a reasonable place for baseball to spend a few minutes, and so 40-year-old David Ortiz, a symbol of a generation, spat in his hands and looked out at 23-year-old Jose Fernandez, a child of the new game.

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But, man, this was so much more than that.

This at-bat sprung from an afternoon in March 2006, 348 home runs and 1,523 hits ago for Ortiz. He was the designated hitter for the Dominican Republic in the first World Baseball Classic, batting cleanup at a cinder block ballpark in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His opponent that day was a reedy right-hander named Jonder Martinez, who pitched for Cuba.

Nine hundred miles to the northwest, a 13-year-old Fernandez sat in a schoolroom in Santa Clara, Cuba. He had never seen a major league baseball game, not even on television. He had not seen a major league player. This classroom had a television, however, and it was tuned to the great Cuban national baseball team and its game against the Dominicans. Presumably, an exception was made so the boys who watched might understand why they had been chosen to attend this school, and why they practiced for long hours, and why their coaches were so hard on them. It would be right there on that small screen, where their heroes were to take on the mighty Dominicans and all of their U.S. big leaguers.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Up stepped David Ortiz, thinner than today, not yet so decorated, and once a champion. He waved his bat and hunched nearer the plate like he still does and brought his hands to his shoulder. Martinez threw a pitch and Ortiz hit it over the fence, and he crossed home plate and was greeted by his teammates, those being Albert Pujols and Miguel Tejada and Placido Polanco and other grown men. But Ortiz, there was something about him, the way he carried himself, the way he got after the game, the way he loved it.

Three years later, when Fernandez arrived in the U.S., the first jersey he bought was red and blue, No. 34, ORTIZ across the shoulders.

“My idol,” he said Tuesday night. “It’s hard to put into words. To see him so close.”

They are friends. They had not, however, faced each other in anything resembling a game, and the All-Star game would do for one night, maybe for one lifetime. They had spoken, laughing, about such an eventuality, the aging and still dynamic Ortiz taking his hacks against the young buck Fernandez, filled with the promise of forever and 96-mph fastballs.

“Be ready,” Fernandez had taunted the day before. “I’m gonna come with my best fastballs.”

Ortiz remembers when the leading men were closer to his age, the age he is now, which is old. Those were the ballplayers people wanted to see. It was their swings people emulated, and their shoes they wore, and their jerseys they bought. Their words they sought.

And maybe Ortiz’s brain is muddied with nostalgia now that he’s decided to go. Doesn’t matter. He’d spent a couple days here gazing at the next generation, having known those faces before but never really grasping the significance of them. Not like this, not while lugging the weight of his decision to leave, not while considering what – and who – he was leaving the game to. They are so young, he thought. And they are so poised. They are so together. They work so hard, young men such as Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., who are his own teammates, and Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and, then, Jose Fernandez, among so many.

“It seems like they’re coming from a factory anyway,” he said with a laugh.

Before he’d met Fernandez and learned the story of that long forgotten home run he hit on March in Puerto Rico, Ortiz had seen a story about Fernandez leaving Cuba and waiting for family members and finally being reunited.

“I was crying like a little baby,” he said.

He thinks about those things a lot, the routes some of them take to get here and the people they leave behind and the struggle to catch up in what he called, “this beautiful country.” And so they stand together as teammates and ballplayers but also as travelers who know and feel the stories of their fellow travelers. Someone stomped that path for Ortiz, and he for the next man, and the next man for whomever is today building the courage to try.

Three fastballs, the young man had said. And, hey, these young guys are so full of courage and confidence and even a couple drops of recklessness, Ortiz stood up there and thought, OK, bring that big ol’ fastball and see what Papi can do to that thing. And Fernandez stood out there and thought, this is David Ortiz, Big freakin’ Papi, my hero, my idol, and I’m gonna throw a …

Changeup.

For ball one. The plate appearance went seven pitches. Ortiz got his share of fastballs in it. He missed one, fouled a couple, took a high one for a ball, and when it came down to the full-count pitch that would decide the moment, Ortiz drew back his bat, and Fernandez went into his windup, and the pitch that arrived was a …

Curveball.

For ball four. Ortiz dropped his bat and laughed and pointed at the kid in a gesture that said, But you said! And Fernandez laughed back and gestured at his catcher, Buster Posey.

“He’s like, ‘The catcher did it!” Ortiz said with a roar afterward.

Fernandez shook his head.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“The first pitch was a fastball,” he said. “An 80-mile-an-hour fastball.”

He smiled.

“At the end,” he said, “It was thinking, you know, I gotta mix in a breaking ball here. It got away from me a little bit. And I’m nervous! I couldn’t believe I was actually pitching to him. It was just great, man.”

Not a single player was thinking of Game 7 of the World Series. None. No matter what they said. No matter what baseball or the network wants you to believe. They want to play the game and do well and have a good time and try not to mess up.

They came to see something like this, a few minutes with some meat on them, and to hug Big Papi farewell in his final All-Star Game, and to remind themselves it doesn’t last forever, even if sometimes it seems it will.

Ortiz went to first base, then, replaced by a pinch-runner, turned to the dugout. Fernandez applauded.

“It was a humbling experience,” he said, “to see how time really flies by.”

Yes, David Ortiz was 23 once, just as Jose Fernandez is now. And Jose Fernandez was 13 once. And, man, was that a day.

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