Maikel Franco had not yet made his major league debut in 2014 when he traveled to Fort Myers, Florida, to play in a spring training game. As he recalls, he was taking a few swings in the batting cage, minding his own business, when a familiar, booming voice called out his name.
David Ortiz wanted to chat.
"I was just like, 'Oh my god, this is so weird. He knows me already?'" said Franco, the Philadelphia Phillies' third baseman. "I never even met him, but the first time that I go play Boston, he gives me a big hug, everything. He just told me to work hard and get better every single day. He told me, 'Keep doing what you're doing. I know what you've got. I know you can be able to play here in the big leagues.'"
Franco, 24, laughs at the retelling because he knows his story isn't unique. Dozens, if not hundreds, of players in clubhouses across the majors can tell tales of their brush with Big Papi, that moment when Ortiz offered unsolicited advice, feedback and support to help them advance their careers.
Ortiz chose to end his career last October, even though he led the majors in doubles, slugging percentage and OPS in his farewell season. He is committed to staying retired, so the Red Sox will retire No. 34 in a pregame ceremony Friday night. Ortiz will be the 10th person to have his number memorialized on Fenway Park's right-field facade, joining Ted Williams (9), Joe Cronin (4), Bobby Doerr (1), Carl Yastrzemski (8), Carlton Fisk (27), Johnny Pesky (6), Jim Rice (14), Pedro Martinez (45) and Wade Boggs (26).
But Ortiz's legacy will extend beyond his uniform digits, even beyond the 541 home runs, the three World Series rings and the "This is our f---ing city" speech that helped Boston heal after the 2013 Marathon bombing. It will live on in the impact he made on a generation of younger players. And although Ortiz took an interest in all of his brethren on the field, he kept a particularly close eye on his countrymen from the Dominican Republic.
It's hardly a stretch to think of Ortiz as a Dominican Babe Ruth. Big Papi couldn't go homer-for-homer with the Bambino. In fact, he ranks behind Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols and former Red Sox running mate Manny Ramirez on the all-time home run list among players born in the DR. But when it comes to an outsized personality and colorful flair, Ortiz is downright Ruthian, especially in his native country.
Whether it was spitting on his batting gloves and clapping his hands together before every swing, pointing skyward to salute his late mother while crossing the plate after every homer or wearing enough jewelry to light up a ballpark at night, Ortiz oozed a style that is mimicked by children from Santo Domingo to Puerto Plata. He is such a national treasure that Dominican president Danilo Medina showed up at Fenway last year to throw the ceremonial first pitch before Ortiz's final regular-season game.
"David is bigger than life back home," says Seattle Mariners third-base coach Manny Acta, who managed Ortiz on the Dominican team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. "It would've been very easy for him to grab his money and just move here and never go home. But David has touched so many lives in every class down there, whether you're poor, middle class or rich. That's why people love him to death."
Ortiz isn't without his flaws. He had his share of on-field blowups and media rants, often over his contract and the belief that he was underpaid. In 2009, he was linked to a failed 2003 survey test for performance-enhancing drugs.
But the enduring images of Ortiz will be with a smile stretched across his face and an arm around a fellow player, paying forward all the knowledge and expertise that was passed along to him early in his career by Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, who recommended that the Red Sox take a flier on Ortiz after he was released by the Minnesota Twins.
"When David talks, everybody listens, especially in the Dominican," Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz says. "We saw him as an idol. We saw him growing up playing baseball and being a hero when everybody was expecting it. He's a role model for all the Dominican players."
As a young player, Cruz had a few interactions with Ortiz. But they really got to know each other during the 2009 WBC. Cruz recalls watching Ortiz closely "to find out what he's thinking, what he's doing between at-bats, what his approach is when he's not playing. I just tried to follow everything he did." Even now, after hitting nearly 300 career homers, Cruz said he often reaches out to Ortiz for advice about excelling as a designated hitter.
For Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, the seminal moment with Ortiz came in the winter of 2002, two years before Bautista made his major league debut. They were playing winter ball in the Dominican when Ortiz offered to take Bautista to dinner.
"I was struggling, and he says, 'Listen, I see your talent, but it's not going to happen overnight. It's a process. It takes some time,'" Bautista said a few years ago at Ortiz's charity golf tournament in the Dominican Republic. "Those are exactly the type of tips he's given me since day one."
And it isn't only hitters. When hard-throwing New York Yankees right-hander Dellin Betances was a rookie in 2014, Ortiz spotted a flaw while watching him pitch. Ortiz asked a mutual friend for Betances' phone number, called him up and pointed out the problem. It hardly mattered that Betances, born in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan to Dominican parents, played for the Red Sox's biggest rival and could use Ortiz's advice against him. (Until he took Betances deep last season, Ortiz was 0-for-8 with four strikeouts against him.)
"He legitimately cares about these guys," Acta says. "He didn't do it because of the club the guys were playing for. He was doing it because he cares about these kids. He wants to see them stay up here and compete, like he did."
When Acta was managing the Cleveland Indians, Ortiz would call him and ask if it was OK for him to offer a few words of advice to Carlos Santana, then a young catcher in the early stages of his career.
"He'd say, 'I'm going to talk to this kid and try to help him out,'" Acta recalls. "What am I going to say? No? Who wouldn't want to have David talk to their players."
In 2010, Ramirez received national attention for misplaying a pop fly, kicking it into left field and not running hard to retrieve it. The incident that sparked a feud with then-Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez and gained Ramirez a reputation as a problem child. But he got through it, in large part because of constant encouragement from Ortiz via phone calls and text messages.
"I don't know if you know, but when I signed my first contract with the Marlins, he was the first guy that I called to let him know about it -- everything, every detail," Ramirez says. "David is my big brother that I don't have. He's on me 24/7, every day. I can show my phone. He's texting me every minute. He wants to see what I'm doing. We've got that relationship. He's my mentor. He's my everything."
It's little wonder that Cruz, Bautista, Cano, Ramirez and countless other players return to the Dominican Republic each December to participate in Ortiz's annual golf tournament. The event, which has been held annually since 2008, raises money for the David Ortiz Children's Fund, which provides critical pediatric care to children throughout New England and the Dominican Republic.
Among Ortiz's post-playing projects is the creation of a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic to give children better facilities and a greater opportunity to play.
"If he gets it done, it's going to have a really good impact for all the kids there," Cruz says. "When he goes to the Dominican, you see how many people he helps there. It was not only the way he went about his business on the field and the way he performed that was remarkable. It's also the way he can touch people. It's amazing."
Profound, too. Franco didn't get called up by the Phillies until September 2014. But he carried Ortiz's advice and encouragement with him throughout that season in Triple-A.
"Everybody in the Dominican talks about him. Everybody," Franco says. "Even last year when he retired, everybody talked about David Ortiz. Everybody just had a lot of pride because of all he did for Latin players. He got us hungry to play, got us hungry to get better and get to be, one of these days, like Big Papi."