Hey Papi, just walk off

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Farewell tours are never good. See: KISS. But what’s worse than a bad farewell tour (every farewell tour) is a preordained one for sport. Just a bad fit for something that honors men and women explicitly for skills they have for a very finite period of time in their young, but developed lives. Here Kyle Magin discusses the dark side of marketing good-byes.

Written By Kyle Magin

When David Ortiz buries you, he exalts in the moment. That lefty swing uncurls in a fraction of a second, very likely the only fluid motion a man of 6’4” and 230(40…) lbs ever makes. The ball rockets off the bat into the night sky. He holds both hands high while admiring the follow-through, a pimp’s pimp. It’s all over in less time than you can complete a four-letter-word, but it leaves enough room for total heartbreak. The man knows when a ball is getting out, and you don’t have to see Torii Hunter fruitlessly crash over the bullpen wall to know it’s gone.

Such was the evil beauty of Ortiz’s 8th inning tying grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, who were until that nanosecond up 5-1 in the game and 1-0 in the series. They lost the game and went on to lose the series 4-2.

Saying ‘my heart sank’ implies that it has yet found some bottom. That dinger is the perverse gift that keeps taking. Even though it wasn’t even the end of that particular game, I’d seen enough baseball and specifically enough of the Ortiz-fueled post-curse Red Sox to know the series was over. Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes.

At some point that October night I found myself wandering 15 minutes across town, aimlessly ambling while talking to my dad on the phone.

The conversation sounded like us assuring ourselves that it was just one game, that there was a lot of baseball left to play. The conversation felt like we were avoiding the topic of a terminal diagnosis.

That’s what David Ortiz can do in a moment. Pull your heart from your chest and smile that big wide smile at you while you watch the last few beats. That’s why I’m surprised and disappointed that he’s announced his retirement before playing his final season. The ultimate sprinter is turning his farewell into a marathon, and like most guys his size, he’s not built for it.

Ortiz is liked but not beloved outside of Boston. Big Papi or whatever marketer is hoping to make the Red Sox richer by dragging out his farewell tour obviously hasn’t reviewed his dossier without Beantown-tinted glasses.

In 2009, Ortiz was connected to PED use. Whether you think it was convincing or even relevant or not likely depends on your proximity to Boston and retirement age. No matter your position on whether he used or not, you’re going to hear a hell of a lot about it over the next 11 months because there’s only so much space for triumphant remembrances. Ortiz promised us he wouldn’t rest until he was exonerated of the rumors… and we never heard anything about his search again. Eventually the conversation will turn to Ortiz’s Hall of Fame candidacy, and for a lot of guys who played between 1990 onward that means a discussion of every report that came out, every concentric ring of separation between a ballplayer and Balco.

If the talk doesn’t turn the tour ugly, the marketing machine just might. Derek Jeter’s 2014 farewell is a case study. The ceremonies and gifts every team had to deliver unto the shortstop felt like a tax by the end of the season. The easy ‘Jeter’s last time in X city’ preview stories were a rote exercise by August. The Jordan brand sendoff commercials were a subject of derision–Jeter likely hadn’t walked on a real sidewalk since 1998, and here he was mixing with the peasantry in the Bronx. We got an aggressively stupid hashtag in #re2pect. By the end of the season everybody outside of Yankee Stadium was sick and tired of someone who was pretty much universally respected. His great-but-not-THAT-great career numbers were used as cudgels for the backers of various shortstops snubbed by the Hall of Fame. His diminishing late-career defense became a punchline. Marketing fed its own blaze on that one by giving us one player to talk about for an entire season: all the warts were discussed as well.

Papi, due to his proximity to PED allegations, will go through an even testier trial. Can you really blame an opposing team who forgoes the retirement gift of a painting or a rocking chair or a car because they don’t want it to bite them in the ass down the road?

I’m sure Papi sleeps comfortably on piles of money and none of this is keeping him up at night. But it’s ultimately bad for his legacy as a three-time champion to pretty much make sure the last things we talk about are the unseemly parts of his career. Heaven forbid he experiences a slippage in his still-pretty-stellar play this last season. That sort of thing is known to happen to 40-year olds in the post PED era and would make the sendoff all the more vicious.

It would have been better if Ortiz walked-off after next season in a second with a retirement announcement before the Sox last home stand or after the season. He’s here and then he’s not; and we’re left too shocked to really comprehend things until he’s back in the clubhouse.

Instead, we’ll get to watch a big lumpy dude round the bases one at a time on the way home. It’s where a man who hits bombs for a living is least in his element.

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