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Henning: Tigers bid farewell to Big Papi

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Boston's David Ortiz acknowledges fans at Comerica Park as he is honored by the Tigers before Saturday's game, in Detroit. Ortiz has announced his retirement following this season.

Detroit – Baseball’s special sense of sportsmanship isn’t always obvious.

Unlike the NHL, which offers a Stanley Cup handshake as the essence of a sport’s civility and mutual player respect, or even the post-game handclasps and hugs seen on an NFL field, baseball’s appreciation for the common competitor is often less overt.

It is saved for particular moments, some inconspicuous, some necessarily public, as was the case this weekend at Comerica Park when the Tigers said goodbye to an old and steady tormentor, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who in a few weeks will retire even if, at age 40, he continues to wallop opposing pitchers.

The Tigers had a gracious pre-game farewell Saturday as Ortiz was saluted by Detroit’s baseball sphere, which is perhaps bemusing, given that fans regard Ortiz as one of the more cruel villains in team history.

A few Tigers players had their own way of showing Ortiz big-league regard. They bestowed on him a beautifully hand-crafted guitar from Venezuelan artisan Pablo Canela.

Never mind that Tigers fans, still aching from Ortiz’s grand slam in Game Two of the 2013 ALCS, have a tough time marshaling affection for Ortiz or understanding how he could be paid tribute.

It was, after all, Big Papi’s eighth-inning missile on a cold evening in Boston in October of 2013 that ruined what could easily have been Detroit’s, rather than Boston’s, upcoming world championship parade. Overriding that degree of pain, of anguish even, is difficult for a town so gutted by a night as historically sadistic as 2013’s Game Two.

But this is Detroit. We’re bigger than grudges, or so we hope. We’re big enough as a baseball town to applaud true greats. It was this way when another Red Sox superstar, Carl Yastrzemski, bade farewell to baseball and to Tiger Stadium in 1983, 16 years after a ninth-inning September home run all but cost the Tigers the ’67 American League pennant and ultimately delivered it to Boston.

Big Papi’s influence on the game and his singular skill in denting Tigers pitchers has been chronicled neatly. He has unloaded his wondrous, artillery piece of a swing, with those powerful legs and arms driving a deeply and menacingly hitched bat-path, to the tune of 36 career homers against the Tigers in 122 games. He has batted .297. His OPS against Detroit: a fence-rattling .994.

That’s a lot of pain inflicted on one team.

And also, in the process, an immense amount of respect accrued.

Interesting, how often this bow from Detroit has been aimed at a Red Sox star.

Ted Williams loved Detroit and Tiger Stadium, and fans in this town, the few who saw him play and yet remember his artistry, have always held his legacy in rich esteem because of his singular gift to baseball.

It was the same way with Yaz. 

And now, Ortiz, the celebrated Big Papi, is saying goodbye. Those of us who marvel at his explosive swing and amazing eye might wonder why in the devil he’s calling it quits. He’s still so very good. But we’ll leave that decision to the man who better knows that it’s time for a new life.

Enjoy the time off, Big Papi. And enjoy that guitar. You, above all, know from whom it comes, and, best of all, why it was offered.


David Ortiz’s career stats against the Tigers:

Games: 123

Average: .296 (131-for-442)

Home runs: 36

RBIs: 119

David Ortiz’s career stats at Comerica Park:

Games: 59

Average: .330 (72-for-218)

Home runs: 23

RBIs: 60