By JIMMY GOLEN AP Sports Writer
BOSTON (AP) _ Big Papi is in the field.
No, longtime Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz hasn’t decided to play a few more games of defense before he retires. Instead, groundskeeper David Mellor mowed Ortiz’s likeness into the center field grass for the three-time World Series champion’s final regular-season series at Fenway Park.
The image showed Ortiz pointing to the sky with both hands, the way he did when he crossed the plate following one of his 540 career homers.
Ortiz said before the game that he hadn’t seen the tribute but he hoped to visit the top deck at the ballpark to get a better view.
In a wide-ranging discussion in the media interview room before the series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays, Ortiz also spoke about trying to play well for the rest of the regular-season and into the playoffs. Entering Friday night’s game, the Red Sox were in contention for the top seed in the AL but also in danger of being the third-best division champion, which would force them to open the postseason on the road.
The Red Sox won 11 straight games before being swept in New York this week, including a loss on Wednesday night _ the night they clinched the AL East for just the third time since 1995.
“We play to win,” he said.
Ortiz came to bat the first time in the first inning, with two out and a runner on first.
The rain-soaked crowd stood to give him an ovation before breaking into a “Papi!” chant.
Ortiz fouled off the first four pitches from Blue Jays righty Marco Estrada, then watched one in the dirt as Brock Holt took second on the wild pitch. One more foul, and then Ortiz sliced a line drive single to left for career RBI No. 1,766 _ 22nd on baseball’s all-time list.
The rain-soaked pregame ceremony was brief, with bigger celebrations to come over the weekend.
The Red Sox took the time to acknowledge his charitable work, showing pictures of many of those helped by the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, which provides medical care for kids in New England and the Dominican Republic. Ortiz was presented with a painting by artist Peter Max.
The big celebration is planned for Sunday, which barring a rainout would be the final regular-season game for Ortiz. The team is expecting to bring onto the field many of Ortiz’s teammates from his three World Series championships.
The traditional “Play ball!” was delivered by three teens in Ortiz jerseys, who also shouted it in Spanish.
The start of the game was delayed 25 minutes.
THERE IT GOES!
Asked to pick his best moment in the ballpark, Ortiz smiled.
“I had a lot of good at-bats here at Fenway. I’m not going to lie to you,” he said as reporters chuckled. “But I’ve got to go back to 2004 and the walkoffs.”
No one needed any more explanation.
Ortiz had game-winning, extra-inning hits in back-to-back playoff games against the New York Yankees in the ALCS in ’04 as Boston become the first major league team to rally from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series _ their first in 86 years.
“They put us back on track,” Ortiz said, turning specifically to a walkoff homer off Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning of Game 4. “That’s the one at-bat I never forget about. I think about that at-bat like it was yesterday.”
So do Red Sox fans.
In addition to the lawnmower art, the ballpark was decked out with banners featuring Ortiz’s silhouette on the left-field light stanchions.
One said “Thank You”; the other had Ortiz’s No. 34.
It’s a likely preview of when Ortiz’s number is retired and hung from the facade in right field.
The team also wore commemorative patches on their caps and on their sleeves.
It’s not hard to see the seeds of the next great Red Sox teams on this year’s club.
Although Ortiz is retiring at the age of 40, Mookie Betts is an MVP candidate and fellow twentysomethings Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts also figure to anchor the lineup for years to come.
Ortiz also said he thinks the ballclub will find someone to take on the leadership role he has filled for most of his time in Boston.
Comparing it to the military, he said it might not just be one person, but more like a clubhouse hierarchy that will keep things in order.
“You’ve got the generals, and then you’ve got different levels that follow. Everything is kind of lined up,” he said. “What we’re seeing from all the kids, they walked into the organization and they saw what their elders are trying to do. When I watch batting practice, I see myself.”
A day after making the final stop of his farewell tour at Yankee Stadium, Ortiz thanked his longtime rivals for their parting gifts. The team gave him a painting, along with a leather-bound book containing letters from members of the organization past and present.
“Very professional,” Ortiz said. “I really appreciate that all of the organizations took the time to honor me. …. I didn’t expect anything, but everything’s so beautiful.”
FAR, FAR AWAY
Ortiz has climbed the leaderboards in several major categories this season, passing Mickey Mantle to move into 17th on the all-time list with 540 homers and sitting 10th heading into the weekend on the baseball’s career list with 1,191 extra-base hits.
But even with three more games to go, Ortiz conceded defeat on one of the franchise’s more celebrated records: Ted Williams’ 502-foot homer that is the longest ever hit at Fenway Park.
The June 9, 1946, homer is commemorated by a single red seat in the right field bleachers.
“I have been trying for that for 15 years, and I haven’t gotten close to it. So I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said with a laugh. “I give up.”
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