On a winter’s night some years back a large man entered a restaurant in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. He was backlit against the outdoors, a street crowded with, among other things, three flat-bed trucks that carried women dressed as if on a beach, buckets of cold Presidente beer and speakers that bellowed island music. Lights flashed and women danced and horns blared and soon crowds formed just beyond the restaurant’s parking lot. There’d be a national election soon. The campaign trail included a stop on the street just as the large man opened the door to the restaurant.
Even in silhouette, this could be only one man.
The room went silent. David Ortiz smiled. His people.
“Papi,” someone said, composed.
Ortiz stopped, shook the man’s hand, said something to the table.
If anything, he seemed bigger there, in his city, in his country, among friends close and distant, friends he’d not met before, friends he’d never see again. He wore sunglasses though the room was dark. Stones glittered from his ears, his neck, his wrists and fingers. He shone brighter, smiled and meant it, made that small room the only place that mattered.
Out in the street, they were running the wrong guy for president.
On Sunday night, years later, David Ortiz, 43 and in his third summer of retirement, was shot in the back in one of those rooms. By Monday afternoon, following a six-hour surgery, he would be transported on the Boston Red Sox airplane to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital for further care. The doctors said he was stable. They said he should recover.
So, we wait. The people of the Dominican Republic wait, his family, his friends and his teammates wait, his fans wait, baseball waits.
For David Ortiz to walk back through that door.
When Albert Pujols was a boy in Santo Domingo he’d gather his school books and his lunch in the morning, say goodbye to his father and aunt, and rather than go to school walk directly to the neighborhood baseball academy, where prospects of the Montreal Expos and Seattle Mariners trained. There, he’d watch a teenaged David Ortiz lift about the highest and longest fly balls he’d ever seen. He wasn’t Big Papi then. He was an overgrown boy with a big laugh and an uppercut swing, standing shoulder to shoulder with a lot of other boys with a love for the game and hazy futures.
In time, they became friends and for a time were among the ruling class of Major League Baseball and iconic in the Dominican Republic. Like Juan Marichal. Like Pedro Martinez. Like Manny Ramirez. Like Vladimir Guerrero. Like Adrian Beltre. Like Robinson Cano.
They shared an upbringing, a heritage, an outlook on life, and a homeland they taught us about through their baseball and stories of perseverance. They are family, with few exceptions, that extends into the cities and villages and barrios of their island.
And so by Monday morning, they scrounged for information from fellow Dominican ballplayers, from folks back home, Pujols himself calling Cano and Edwin Encarnacion and others, hoping to reach one of Ortiz’s security men, giving Ortiz’s wife some space and wanting desperately to call. They are worried. They are afraid. They wonder how it could be.
“It’s just sad,” Pujols said. “I don’t know any details about what happened, but it’s just crazy.
“David is everything [in the Dominican Republic]. It’s a shocker, man. As a person, a ballplayer, a fellow Dominican, you don’t see that. People really respect players down in the D.R.”
The Red Sox held a moment of reflection for Ortiz on Monday night before their game against the Texas Rangers. Ortiz is in Boston, where he won three World Series championships, nearly what he is in the Dominican Republic. That is, revered for being uniquely him, for playing the game with charisma and proficiency, for being kind and generous. For being the biggest man in the room, every room. Somebody shot that person in the back.
“In the Dominican, it doesn’t matter if you’re Big Papi or it’s your first time in the big leagues or you’re a minor leaguer, they treat you really good down there,” said Jose Vizcaino, who was born and raised in San Cristobal and played 18 big-league seasons. “But, David Ortiz, I mean, it’s hard to compare him with a god, because that’s the biggest thing. But, Big Papi, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Juan Marichal, those people represent everything for our country. You mention his name there, even the little kids who never saw him play know who he is.
“There’s only one Big Papi and it’s like that all the time. Wherever he goes, he’s very special. So, man, the past 24 hours, just trying to find out any information, has been hard. The most important thing is his health.”
Luis Garcia, the 32-year-old relief pitcher for the Angels who grew up in Santo Domingo, a few years back asked Ortiz for a signed jersey. He got that. And a handshake. And a conversation. And, perhaps, the beginnings of a friendship.
“You don’t believe it really happened,” Garcia said. “I will pray for him, for strength. It was really so sad to see that happen. I mean, he’s been an inspiration to all the kids. And it’s sad to see in our country that still happens. It’s so sad. How we’re living right now is crazy.”
So they wait for word. They stay hopeful. They remember all the trouble they got into for skipping school and laugh, because that’s all they wanted to be, that guy in the professional uniform, hitting his way into something more, and then making a life of it. Like him. Like all of them.
“Bro, we’re family,” Pujols said Monday afternoon. “This is family.”
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