BOSTON -- The Red Sox statues were where they always are outside Fenway Park, not going anywhere, right there at Gate B at the corner of Van Ness St. and Ipswich: First, Ted Williams as you walked up from Yawkey Way, then Carl Yastrzemski, then one for "Teammates": Williams and Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky. Even in the early afternoon, hours before the Red Sox would play and finally win an Interleague game against the Phillies in extra innings after falling behind 4-0 in the first, Red Sox fans and even Phillies fans stood next to the statues and posed for pictures.
Someday, there will be a statue of David Ortiz out here and outside Fenway Park to go with the others. After Williams, Ortiz is the biggest and most important player the Red Sox have ever had, not only winning the World Series Williams never did in Boston, but doing it three times between 2004 and 2013.
In 2016, Ortiz's final year with the Red Sox, he hit .315 with 38 home runs and 48 doubles and had a slugging percentage of .620 and an OPS of 1.021. He knocked in 127 runs at the age of 40. In Williams' last year with the Red Sox, the year he turned 42, he hit .316 in 113 games, with 29 home runs, had a slugging percentage of .645 and an OPS of 1.096. There are the two of them who played here, hitting the way they did until the end, and then everybody else, including Yaz.
I walk back down Van Ness on Monday and talk to a guy behind a ticket window named Jack, and ask him about the inevitable statue for Ortiz outside Fenway.
"I've got just one question," Jack says. "Is it going to be of him holding a microphone, or pointing to the sky?"
He is referring to the day at Fenway after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the first game at home for the Red Sox since the tragedy, when Ortiz took the microphone and said, "This is our f-----g city." And Jack is also referencing Ortiz's famous gesture after crossing home plate, after another home run, where he appears to blow a kiss to the heavens.
What no one knew when Ortiz left the stage for good at Fenway was that he took the home runs with him, at least for now. It is one of the reasons why he remains a big star and a big presence with the Red Sox, even though he is retired. It is all because of the big hole he has left in the middle of the Red Sox batting order. The absence of Ortiz isn't the only reason Boston is running second to the Yankees -- a New York team that is absolutely good enough to go to the World Series and win it this season -- but it is as good a place to start as any.
Ortiz used to hit third in Boston. Lately, Xander Bogaerts, the team's gifted shortstop, has been hitting third for manager John Farrell. Bogaerts had two home runs through Monday night's game. The Red Sox still don't have a player who has hit 10, though they are starting to come on and have three guys now with nine: Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Hanley Ramirez. But in comparison, the Yankees have six guys who have 10 home runs or more so far, starting with Aaron Judge, who hit No. 22 Monday night and who scares people right now in the middle of the Yankee order the way Ortiz used to scare people in Boston.
Buck Showalter always talks about the hitter on the other team you start thinking about in the sixth, wondering when he might come up in the eighth and ninth.
"They make you start counting," Buck says.
The Red Sox are still loaded with talented young players, all those Killer B's: Betts and Benintendi and Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. The Red Sox are going to hit, and have started to hit more lately, and even pulled to within a game of the Yankees last week at Yankee Stadium before the Yanks hit them, and hard, in the final two games of a three-game series. We still have all the makings of a terrific Yankee-Red Sox summer. But even now, a month before the All-Star break, it was the Yankees who were supposed to be chasing the Red Sox, and not the other way around. The Yankees are dangerous and the Red Sox, for now, are not.
Even without the best record in the league, the Yankees are playing like the best team in the league these days, which means like the best team in baseball. Didi Gregorius was out a month after the World Baseball Classic, Gary Sanchez got hurt early, Jacoby Ellsbury has been hurt. And the Yankees' closer, Aroldis Chapman, has been out a month. By Monday night, New York was four behind the Astros, who have so many injury problems with their starting pitchers you get lightheaded trying to keep track of them.
In the middle of June in baseball, the Yanks are the best team in the American League East. And the Red Sox miss David Ortiz more than they ever thought they would. Again: A lot of the Red Sox hitters look like they're ready to get hot. But it's not just that they're not hitting home runs the way the Yankees do. After Monday night's games, here were the four best batting averages on the Yankees: Judge at .347, Gregorius at .344, Starlin Castro at .328, Aaron Hicks (playing like an All-Star) at .313. Bogaerts has the best Boston batting average at .318. None of the other Red Sox stars are above .300.
The Red Sox have a real ace in Chris Sale. The Yankees do not. The Yankees exhale, loudly, when they get the kind of good start out of Masahiro Tanaka, their nominal ace, that they got in Anaheim Monday night. The Red Sox have Craig Kimbrel, who has been the most dominant closer around over the past couple of months. But the Yankees have three starters -- Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino -- pitching better than the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello. If you're sure about David Price, who has made just a handful of starts after being injured in Spring Training, raise a hand.
With all that, the character of this Red Sox team is shaped as much by the guy who's not there -- Papi Ortiz -- as by all the young guys that Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees, compared to the Golden State Warriors before this season started. The Red Sox do miss him more than they ever thought they would. There are a lot of reasons why they're running second. But in a season when we're talking about young sluggers like Aaron Judge, one of the storylines in Boston is about a 41-year-old slugger who doesn't even play anymore.
A lot of baseball left to be played, obviously, in what is essentially now a 100-game season as we enter mid-June. The Yankees can't hit like this forever (or can they?). But for now, the spot Ortiz used to occupy in the middle of the Red Sox order is a lot more significant in Boston than the one he'll occupy someday at the corner of Van Ness and Ipswich.