AS SOON as David Ortiz announced, in November 2015, that this would be his final season, the conversation began: How should SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover the Red Sox slugger's retirement? When Mariano Rivera stepped away from the game in 2013, senior writer Tom Verducci wrote a beautiful cover story encapsulating the Yankees' closer's unparalleled greatness and grace. Verducci gave similar send-offs to Derek Jeter in 2014 and, last May, to Vin Scully, who this weekend will call his final Dodgers game after 67 years behind the mike.
It felt like our send-off of Ortiz should be different. Verducci had gone deep on Big Papi relatively recently, with a stellar longform piece after he carried Boston to an emotional 2013 World Series victory just seven months after the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing. As that story made clear, Ortiz's well-known affinity for smacking October home runs is equaled—maybe surpassed—by his affinity for bringing people together. His Fenway Park locker is a hub for teammates of all ages and demographic stripes. To borrow a hoops term, he's a glue guy for the larger baseball community, having raised the once verboten activity of pregame fraternization to an art form. Fans across the sport have saluted him at every stop on his retirement tour, and in New England he is a spiritual beacon for reasons that have little to do with baseball. Ortiz's gravitational pull is strong. His tent—as evidenced by the regional cover photo we took with him and a few dozen of his closest friends—is large.
So we asked Ortiz if he'd do something no other athlete has done in SI's 62-year history: guest-edit an issue. We all know his story—signed by the Mariners out of the Dominican Republic at 16, traded to the Twins four years later, scooped up by the Red Sox in 2003 after Minnesota released him, minted as a postseason icon less than two years after that. We wanted to know what other stories Ortiz wanted told. Lucky for us, he agreed.
"The public thinks they know athletes, but they don't really know what some people go through to get to this level," Ortiz says. "The media needs to tell these stories, because some of them are really special." He pointed us toward his friend and new Boston Celtic Al Horford, as a way to explore the brotherhood of Dominican athletes beyond their major league dominance. He asked us to look into exactly what's going on at Patriots headquarters, where his favorite—and quarterbackless—NFL team is somehow off to a 3--0 start. He sat down with Verducci for an extended and candid Q&A on a range of topics and didn't shy away from tough questions about PEDs.
Several other great ideas were forced to the cutting-room floor by tragic news over the weekend. On Sunday morning the baseball community was rocked to hear that 24-year-old Marlins ace Jose Fernandez had died in a boating accident. Twelve hours later word spread that golfing legend Arnold Palmer, 87, had passed.
Each in his own way, Fernandez (see Verducci's elegant tribute on page 44) and Palmer (memorialized beautifully by Michael Bamberger on page 26) embodied Ortiz's big-tent spirit. Palmer may have been known as the King, but his appeal was rooted in his decidedly Everyman persona; Arnie's Army was no patrician brigade. Fernandez appeared to be Ortiz's heir apparent as baseball's charisma king—beloved for his enthusiasm, sun-bright smile and fiery competitiveness, admired for his escape-from-Cuba backstory. "He was an unbelievable human being," Ortiz says. "He was one of the best pitchers I have ever seen, but he was even better as a person. News like this always makes an impact, but especially when it's someone like Jose, loved by everyone."
And so an issue intended to celebrate Ortiz's cheerful exit from the game became something more. It's also an ode to more poignant goodbyes, to spirits who have touched us over decades and to those snuffed out too soon. It's October, so it should be no surprise: A moment came, and Big Papi rose to it.
STEPHEN CANNELLA is the executive editor of SI.