Thursday, October 13, 2016

Retirement of a movie character

David Ortiz is the reason I don't like sports movies.

He has to be seen to be believed. He has to be real to be believed.

If someone wrote a movie in which David Ortiz was a fictitious character, I would call bullshit on that movie. He wouldn't seem real.

But David Ortiz is real, making the crazy things he's done all the more wonderful.

For those of you a few steps behind here, David Ortiz is the long-time designated hitter of the Boston Red Sox, my favorite sports team. He began his Red Sox career back in 2003, when he almost vaulted his team into the World Series with an amazing second half and playoff run. He took that not one but two steps further the next year, when the Ortiz-led Red Sox won the World Series, ending an 86-year drought that began in 1918 with the ominous portent of trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees so the Sox owner could dump money into a failing Broadway show. Ortiz didn't care about curses. He helped the Sox win again in 2007 and 2013. And every two years when his contract was up, he signed a team-friendly two-year extension, one that paid him handsomely but nowhere near what he was worth to a team and a city.

We all hoped Ortiz, nicknamed Big Papi, would be able to bring one last ring to the Boston faithful in 2016, as he used perhaps the best statistical season of his career to bring his team back from a last-place finish in 2015 to a division title in 2016. "One last ring" because before the season even started, Ortiz announced that at age 40, this would be his final season as a player.

But the Red Sox had an ignominous finish to an otherwise positive season when they were swept by the Cleveland Indians on Monday. It happened at home, and after the game's final out -- at the urging of a crowd that refused to leave the stadium -- Ortiz came out to the pitcher's mound for a final acknowledgement of his fans, doffing his cap and wiping tears from his eyes.

If it all sounds too good to be true -- all except that ignominious finish, of course -- then that just makes David Ortiz seem all the more like some hack's idea of an epic movie character. That's an insult to that screenwriter, but of course, a compliment to David Ortiz.

He did things no one thought he would do, he could do. He had no fewer than 37 clutch hits that saved games for the Red Sox in the postseason alone. Okay, it was a bit fewer than 37, but Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees both ended on hits by Ortiz (when the Sox were facing elimination), and Game 2 of what was looking like a lost series against Detroit in 2013 was salvaged when Ortiz somehow hit an 8th inning grand slam to tie up the game. Playoff heroics aside, this was a man who announced he was done and then went on to have the greatest final season in the history of baseball, hitting 38 home runs, leading the league in RBIs, leading the league in OPS, batting well over .300, and giving himself perhaps his best shot ever to win a league MVP trophy, something that is utterly unheard of for a designated hitter and in fact has never happened before. In his last season.

If this were a movie, I'd be heckling the screen.

But I lived through David Ortiz. He was real. He is real. (He's still alive, and long live Papi.)

It's why I'll always love sports a lot more than I'll ever love sports movies. Sports movies -- the fictitious ones, anyway -- can't have David Ortizes in them. A David Ortiz in your sports movie is almost like having a deus ex machina in your regular movie. You don't believe a single character can save the day time and time again, yet that's what David Ortiz did. Or maybe you do believe that, but if you do, you know you are willfully suspending disbelief, believing in Harry Potter or Ethan Hunt or Superman or James Bond, someone who is always going to win and that's okay because you've bought into that.

But they don't make series of sports movies with recurring heroes, like David Ortiz, because it just doesn't have the ring of truth to it. Athletes fail more often than they succeed, in almost every venture but especially in baseball, where a successful hitter still only succeeds 30% of the time. Even if they made a really good movie about a fictitious athlete with the touch of gold, you'd be tired of him by the second movie. You'd think "Screenwriters ... what will they think of next?"

We Red Sox fans were lucky to be treated not only to a great first movie in which David Ortiz didn't quite win, but its very satisfying sequel in which he did, and then 12 more sequels of varying quality but always filled with smiles and heroic moments. We would keep watching those movies until Ortiz turned 50, and with the way he hit this year, he might still provide heroic moments for movies to come.

But the best movie series are the ones that quit before you get tired of them, not after. So I'm glad that David Ortiz hasn't decided to give us a bunch of subpar sequels as his skills deteriorate but we love him so much we continue to let him play. Big Papi is leaving baseball as a hero -- not a conquering hero in this case, but the type of hero who won our hearts.

And sure, retirement doesn't always stick. Sean Connery mocked his own supposedly final retirement from the aforementioned role of James Bond by appearing in a movie called Never Say Never Again. To say nothing of how Bruce Willis, who I have enjoyed trudging on this week, has continued sleepwalking through Die Hard movies into his 60s.

But that's not Ortiz. (At least, I hope it isn't -- check back with me next spring.) He knows when to quit. He knows when the feeling is right. Even if the feeling of never playing baseball again is probably so, so wrong. Even if it hurts.

David Ortiz has the memories, and those will sustain him through the peaks and valleys of retirement as he looks longingly out at that field and thinks of saving the day one last time.

I'm so glad he wasn't a figment of some screenwriter's imagination.

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