Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Big Papi Steps Up To The Plate – Twice in One Night

The phone at my desk rang insistently. As I picked up the receiver I heard the man on the other end of the line blurt out: “Al Chase, you are in big trouble!” The caller did not identify himself, but there was no missing the inimitable West Indian lilt of the voice of my friend, Davey Valdez. Davey and I met several years ago at Fenway Park and we have been friends ever since. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, playing baseball with David Ortiz. The Valdez clan is a baseball-playing family. One of Davey’s older brothers has been a manager in the Cincinnati Reds system, and Davey himself was on a track towards a major league career when a serious knee injury ended that dream.

When Valdez and I first got to know each other, he said to me: “You have to meet my friend, David Ortiz; he would really like you.” At the time, Ortiz was toiling in relative obscurity for the Minnesota Twins. I met him briefly when the Twins visited Fenway Park. Imagine my delight when the Twins decided to let him go and the Red Sox picked him up and signed him as a free agent for the 2003 season. We all know what has happened in the intervening seasons: the once low-profile Minnesota Twin known as David Ortiz has become the darling of Red Sox Nation and is known by all as “Big Papi.” He is now widely considered to be the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history!

“Why am I in trouble, Davey?”

“Because Big Papi wants to know why he has not seen you lately.”

David runs the Valdez Baseball Academy out of Lynn, Massachusetts. He often arranges for boyhood friends, like Ortiz, to drop in to offer hitting clinics, fielding tips, etc. I have a standing invitation to stop by for these special events – which usually culminate in a delicious meal of Dominican specialties. I can recall several occasions when I was the only one at the table who was not born in the D.R.

“Al, I have having a special clinic today. Papi came by. He was just looking at a scrapbook of photos from clinics from last year, and when he saw a picture of you standing with him, he said to me: “I miss Al Chase; where is Al Chase – why isn’t he here today?”

“OK, Davey, please tell Papi I’ll try to see him as soon as I am able.”

* * * * *

Dennis and Callahan – anchor hosts of the eponymous “Dennis and Callahan Show” that airs during morning drive time on Boston’s WEEI – made the announcement yesterday morning. “Today’s fund-raising event at Fenway Park for the victims of Katrina will be David Ortiz and Tony Graffanino posing for photographs at Autograph Alley from 5:30-6:00. Anyone who donates at least $100.00 to the Red Cross relief efforts will be given a chance to be photographed with the two players.”

I got to Autograph Alley early last evening and talked with Rod Oreste as the final preparations were being made for the photo session. Rod is the Red Sox Manager of Publications and Archives, and is the staff person primarily responsible for the operation of Autograph Alley. Since I have been an Autograph Alley volunteer for the past three years, Rod is my “boss” at Fenway Park.

“Rod, this is a great fund-raising idea. Who suggested it – Dr. Charles?” [Dr. Charles Steinberg is the Red Sox visionary Executive Vice-President of Public Affairs, and is the genius behind many of the Red Sox fan-friendly initiatives in recent history.]

“No, this was Varitek’s idea.” In addition to individual contributions (see yesterday’s Blog posting about Curt Schilling), the players wanted to do something as a team to raise money, and turning Autograph Alley into a fund-raising venue seemed like a natural. The players offered to alter their pre-game routine to accommodate this opportunity.

I knew Ortiz and Graffanino would need to make the walk from the Red Sox Clubhouse to Autograph Alley at 5:30, so I headed down in the direction of the Clubhouse entrance. At 5:30 on the dot, the door swung open and out came a cadre of Red Sox front office personnel and security. As Ortiz walked down the ramp, he spotted me and smiled. The phalanx of security parted enough to allow me to fall in step beside Ortiz as the entourage continued the trek to Autograph Alley.

“Davey Valdez tells me you were asking about me, Papi.”

“Yeh, man, I wondered why you were not at the Clinic. It is good to see you.”

The conversation continued until we reached the destination, and a buzz arose from the assembled crowd of fans – hundreds of whom had gladly paid their $100 for a chance to be photographed with Big Papi.

* * * * * *

The game was a classic pitching duel between Tim Wakefield and the Angels’ John Laskey. The game was tied 2-2 going to the 9th inning. The public address announcer called the fans attention to the TV screen high above the Centerfield Bleachers. “In the past few days, Red Sox fans have contributed over $225,000 towards to the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.” A significant chunk of that money was raised by those who paid to sit with “Big Papi” and say “Cheese” for the photographer.

The game was a classic – great pitching, timely hitting, runners left on base, daring base running, plays at the plate, tremendous defense by both teams. It was a game worthy of two Division Leaders. Tim Wakefield completed his masterpiece and walked off the mound at the end the 9th inning to raucous applause and cheers from the crowd. But the crowd was just warming up. The bottom of the 9th brought Big Papi to the plate with one out. Angels’ closer, Scott Shields, had been terrific all season.

Sitting beside me in Section 20 of the Grandstands were two couples that were attending their very first Fenway game. As Ortiz stepped to the plate, I leaned towards them and said: “You are about to experience something special. See that number on the Angels bullpen – where it say 385 feet – watch that spot.”

Shields pitched carefully – starting Ortiz off with three balls away and out of the strike zone. I wondered if they would walk him intentionally and take their chances with Manny. Foul ball – count 3-1. Foul ball – full count, 3-2.

A few hours earlier, Ortiz had posed with fans in Autograph alley for Hurricane Katrina relief. Now, he posed a daunting challenge to reliever Scott Shields. The 3-2 pitch was high and inside – and it returned from whence it had come in a high parabola that carried it over the 385’ sign and into the chasm between Section 1 and the Bleachers – landing 457 feet from home plate and making it the longest homerun of the season at Fenway Park.

Papi rounded the bases and leapt into the waiting scrum of teammates. The crowd roared its approval and adulation. Papi had done it again. He was a hero. He stood tall – yet he never stood taller than he had four hours earlier when he sat to be photographed for the benefit of the thousands from New Orleans who are having a hard time picturing what the future may hold for them.

Papi, thanks for stepping up to the plate and delivering for those in need. You are a true hero on and off the field!

Go Sox!



Anonymous said...

That is so cool that you are actually friends with David Ortiz

Anonymous said...

Al, looking forward to a trip to the park, with you I hope, and if not then with my Brother...
GREAT to know guys like Ortiz and Schilling (big article in my paper here about the homeless family he and his family befriended, after Katrina) are part of our Team.. and our Nation... One family.. one Community.