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Buckley: With number retirement ceremony, Sox and their fans get a chance to say hello again to beloved Big Papi

June 23, 2017 GMT

It would serve David Price well to pay very close attention tonight as the Red Sox retire the uniform No. 34 of David Ortiz.

It’s true Price once bitterly complained because Ortiz did too much hot-doggin’, stylin’ and slow-trotting after hitting his massive home runs, but it’s also true the two men have much in common.

Ortiz could be pouty, Price is pouty.

Ortiz could be sensitive and insecure, Price can be sensitive and insecure.

Ortiz could go off on sportswriters, Price can go off on sportswriters.

Ortiz was blessed with incredible talent.

Price is blessed with incredible talent.

But what separates the two men — besides the obvious, which is that Ortiz almost always delivered the goods when it counted the most — is the ability to turn the page and leave the past in the past.

Ortiz would grumble about everything from umpires’ calls to lineup changes on one day, and then the next amble through the clubhouse with the clang and clank of a county fair.

He could get mad but not often stay mad. He was big on instant outburst, not big on simmering feuds. He’d say he’d remember, and then he’d forget.

He could be a great, big baby, as when he charged into manager Terry Francona’s pregame media session to rail about a scorekeeper’s decision that he believed cost him an RBI.

He could be a great, big man, a leader, as when he grabbed the microphone on that emotional Saturday afternoon just days after the Boston Marathon bombings and said, “This is our (expletive) city. And nobody is going to dictate our freedom.”

David Price, who too often seems uncomfortable and unhappy with the Boston Baseball Experience, needs to study the other David. Because the other David used the Boston Baseball Experience the way Popeye used spinach.

That’s part of the reason the Red Sox are doing away with protocol and retiring Big Papi’s number right now, instead of waiting for the call from Cooperstown. People want to say hello to David Ortiz again. It’s that simple: They just want to say hi. They miss the big lug.

Remember how it all played out last year? There were too many speeches, too many proclamations, too many gifts . . . and not enough champagne. When Big Papi finally did say his for-real goodbye, it wasn’t just a sad occasion but a crushing one. The tired, in-over-their-heads Red Sox had just been blown out of the Division Series by the Cleveland Indians, and now a teary-eyed Big Papi was on the field and, soon, on the lam.

He’s barely been seen since.

Tonight changes all that.

Tonight, David Ortiz returns to Fenway Park to see his No. 34 affixed to that patch of right field facade where legends take their place for eternity.

Tonight, David Ortiz takes a seat with 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), along with Jackie Robinson, whose No. 42 is retired throughout the game.

And best of all? Tonight, David Ortiz gets a celebration, not a wake.

Last year’s Big Adios Tour began awkwardly and ended abruptly. The good-byes started from the very beginning, with the big fella being weighted down with souvenir seats from spring training ballparks, and soon he was being gifted with tubs of peanut butter, jars of barbecue sauce, bottles of wine and even a 34-pound (yuck, yuck) northwest king salmon as the Sox barnstormed through the big league schedule.

The hope, the dream, was that all this would culminate with Big Papi channeling his inner Teddy Ballgame and bidding the Hub, and the game, adieu via a Fenway Park home run. Only this time it wouldn’t be on a drab weekday afternoon, with Fenway only one-third filled for a game between two teams (Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles) not headed for the postseason.

No. David Ortiz’ last at-bat would be in the playoffs, maybe even in the World Series, and maybe it’d be a home run, maybe a walkoff, and lordy, we’d talk about it forever, the way we do about Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup-clinching goal on that muggy Mother’s Day in May 1970.

Instead, this is what happened: Ortiz drew a walk in the bottom of the eighth inning and then trotted off the field because the game was close and the common-sense move for manager John Farrell was to deploy Marco Hernandez as a pinch runner.

The Red Sox lost anyway, and that was that. Sox fans were reduced to using one arm to wave goodbye to Big Papi while using the other to wave goodbye (among other possible gestures) to a season that held such promise yet ended in disarray and disappointment.

Tonight is the makeup call for what happened last October. Tonight, the standings don’t matter.

Tonight, Sox fans won’t be saying an awkward goodbye to David Ortiz. Instead, this will be a night for a cheery, problem-free welcome back.

The Red Sox signed Ortiz, who had been non-tendered by the Twins, on Jan. 22, 2003. There was no glitzy, live-televised press conference. And had there been one, Ortiz could have taken the Green Line to Kenmore Square and walked to Fenway and not gathered a crowd.

From Danny Cater to Jack Clark, from Carl Crawford to Pablo Sandoval, Sox fans have been hearing for years about this or that new guy and all the greatness that is to come. Yet when Ortiz arrived, newly installed general manager Theo Epstein spoke in hopeful terms when he said, “We think, all the scouts think, he has a very high ceiling.”

We think they were right.

Tonight, say hello to David Ortiz, not goodbye, as he takes his place among the immortals.

And pay attention, David Price.

Pay attention, every member of the Red Sox.

Pay attention, every athlete on every pro team in town.

Pay attention, any future free agent considering a move to Boston.

David Ortiz had more problems, more squabbles, more bruised feelings than every other athlete in this town combined.

And yet tonight, Fenway Park will be packed with people who will want to hug him, buy him a beer, take him home to meet the family.

First David Ortiz figured out Boston.

Now he owns Boston.