The message boomed across the Red Sox' trainers' room one August afternoon.
"Danny-yel! Danny-yel!" echoed a familar voice. "You're screwed!"
Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek, along with 20 or so Red Sox players getting ready for that night's game, had no idea what was going on. But David Ortiz did.
"He comes over, puts his arm around me and says, 'You are really screwed, let me tell you,'" said Dyrek, recounting the moment when he realized the accented name he was hearing was his own.
It turned out the Sox slugger had run into owner John Henry the night before in the players' parking lot. Henry asked his star if he needed anything. "Well," the 40-year-old DH said. "I want Dyrek to travel with the team."
Less than 24 hours later, Dyrek was being serenaded by the player he had kept on the field for the past four seasons, with a phone call from Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski not too far behind. From that moment until the Red Sox were eliminated, the 63-year-old didn't leave Ortiz's side.
Twenty-four years after Larry Bird said he wouldn't participate in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics if Dyrek didn't come along, another Boston sports icon needed Dyrek's help.
The moment punctuated a pivotal four-year piece of Ortiz's historic career.
"We've definitely had some laughs together, some stress together, some worries together going back to when we first started all this treatment," said Dyrek (who spoke with Ortiz's permission). "You never know what that ultimate level of recovery is going to be, so there was a lot of tension in the early days. So we've been through a lot. There is definitely a friendship there and I hope that friendship does continue. I've been friends with Larry for over 30 years and I would love for that to happen with David Ortiz."
The journey was veiled in a layer of secrecy. What exactly ailed Ortiz? How bad was it? What process he would have to endure in order to remain on the field?
There was general knowledge, but few specifics. Many of the guesses were close, but Ortiz wouldn't disclose exactly how the story was truly unfolding.
It turns out we had no idea just how long Ortiz endured the injuries that ultimately forced him into retirement after a walk-off season for the ages. Many point to July 16, 2012, when Ortiz was driven from the lineup by sore heels. That created memorable uncertainty entering the storybook 2013 campaign. It opened our eyes to the agonizing process of reaching the finish line this year.
But the reality is this problem had been building for years. It impacted not just his Achilles' tendons in isolation, but basically every bone, tendon, ligament, and muscle below his ankle. It even affected his skin.
"He was essentially playing on stumps," Dyrek said.
That's not even the half of it. Now that Ortiz has walked into the sunset with a garage full of retirement gifts after an historic farewell season, the story of how he reached that rocking chair can finally be told.
'HE WAS PLAYING IN WARRIOR MODE'
Most everyone became aware Ortiz had a problem when he could barely round the bases on an Adrian Gonzalez homer that July night in 2012. The team labeled it an Achilles injury, and Ortiz missed more than a month before returning for one game in August (he naturally went 2-for-4).
But the renowned physical therapist knew better. The reality hit him immediately.
"He had tremendous problems that were built up over the course of the years," Dyrek said. "It became a situation where one more straw broke the camel's back. The traditional approach was to give him some time off, give him some anti-inflammatory medication and so on. That wasn't gong to come even close to cutting through to what the actual problem was.
"It became more and more apparent that he was in a great deal of pain, so I was asked to get involved with that and examine him. He was in extraordinary pain. He was playing in warrior mode in order to get through it. Once we started talking to him and he opened up, he said his ankles were on fire, and that was a pretty good description of what was going on, clinically. The amount of pain was so intense."
Perhaps the Red Sox and Ortiz never disclosed the extent of the injury out of secrecy, or maybe because his maladies defied simple explanation. As it turned out, this pain wasn't going to be limited to just one page in a medical handbook.
"We essentially had to start a course of breaking down all the pieces in there, taking each piece of his ankle, foot, calf complex and treat them individually," Dyrek said. "It was a situation where, to use an analogy, if you gave him rest it would be like polishing a car, hoping it would start. What we had to do was take the engine out, breaking it down piece by piece and build it back up to get it started again.
"It wasn't his Achilles in isolation. There was certainly pain within the insertion where the Achilles goes into this particular pain. But to say that was his problem is a narrow look at it. There are 26 bones in the foot and ankle complex and they are held together with ligaments and joint capsules and then the tendons come in and muscle attachments allow them to move. He had such longstanding inflammation that he scarred down heavily in multiple joints of the ankle and that created abnormal loading and forces in all the soft tissues. So the joints were restricted from the inflammation that caused the scar tissue over time. And then the muscles and tendons were all being abnormally loaded, and they got scarred down.
"The pain was at the insertion of the Achilles, but that in a sense was a secondary diagnosis. The primary problem was really the scar tissue in the joints, ligaments, capsules, muscle and even his skin affected on two different bones in the area. He had what was inflammatory pain, but at this point it became a magnified pain. The [skin] tries to protect the body in such a way as to say, 'I'm having a problem here. You need to do something about.' And that makes the nerves increasingly more sensitive.
"He was essentially playing on stumps. Instead of having this nice, flexible, foot, ankle, calf mechanism to act as a shock absorber, he was playing on stumps. And you can do that for only so long. He was in warrior mode trying to play through this. Once we diagnosed him and saw what was going on and started explaining things to him, there was actually a sense of relief because now he had an explanation of what he was in such excruciating pain."
It was an extremely complicated diagnosis, but the Red Sox had the right man for the job.
The former collegiate swimmer had become a household name in Boston in the late 1980's, when the Celtics brought him in to help squeeze a few more years of Larry Bird's horrifically bad back. But the list of international and professional athletes extends well beyond Bird. Ortiz simply became the latest to put his career in Dyrek's hands.
'IT WAS DEFINITELY A TOUCH AND GO SITUATION'
With the problem diagnosed, now came the hard part. Dyrek and Ortiz conducted a two-week heart-to-heart in the Dominican Republic that winter. Their goal: getting Ortiz back on the field in 2013.
Though no one let on at the time, Ortiz faced a career-threatening crossroads. A lot had to be done and done right, and even if he followed Dyrek's recommendations to a T, there were no guarantees when he'd return, let alone be the player he once was.
"Once we did shut him down, we began a course of tearing down every piece in there, dissecting it, treating it and putting it all back together. That's why I went down to the D.R.," Dyrek said. "It was definitely a touch and go situation. I felt confident he would do it eventually. But we didn't know exactly when he would be playing in 2013. When we first began, we knew it was going to be months and months and months of treatment.
"We didn't know the timeline. Having been through this multiple times before, you get by the phase of holding your breath because you know the science behind it and how to bring him along appropriately. The team was extremely supportive. There was no push of, 'We have to have him back now.' Once it was explained what was going on, we knew it was going to take time. We had to bring him back at the appropriate speed. Every day we examined him to see if we were going over that threshold. You want to be as close to that threshold as you can so you're not holding an athlete back, and there were times we bumped over that. It flared up and we would give him a couple of lower days of activity and start building him up again."
Looking back, that 2013 season proved make or break for Ortiz.
Athletes returning from ACL injuries can relate. It often takes that first full season back before they're confident of a return to form. Ortiz was no different. It's why that offseason and subsequent spring training -- when Ortiz didn't see a single at-bat -- were so important. That time also forged an important trust.
By the time Ortiz debuted on April 20, 2013, the designated hitter had completely put his faith in Dyrek, who presented a promising scenario that still made no promises.
It was the same kind of process Dyrek had experienced when working with Bird, who proved to be the ultimate proof for Ortiz that this was the way to work out.
"There was that element with David that once he began to trust me, we didn't have to talk about [assurances] anymore," the physical therapist said. "He was just like, 'You're taking care of me. You're making me feel good. You tell me what I need to do and I'm going to do it.'
"Your patients teach you everything. You go to school for seven years and then you continue more and more coursework and so on. So you learn all the academic side of it. But the real, real learning is from your patients. The patients who have taught me the most about the psychology of returning an athlete to sport and keeping them going were the distance runners. There is a very interesting psyche in that group. They taught me a lot about what it takes to keep the athlete going and how to work with them. You have to find out what really motivates each person and be able to keep what is focused on what their motivation is. All of these athletes, Larry Bird and David Ortiz, they get to that highest level on the mountain because they have such a fire in the belly to compete. They live to compete. My job was to give them the hope that they could do that again. So it was a little bit of me, and a lot of them to keep those guys on the floor and the field."
Ortiz didn't just surive that 2013 season, he thrived, playing 153 games by the time the World Series celebration came around. He followed with 142 games in 2014, 146 in 2015, and finally an astounding 154 to cap things this last season. In that span, the DH hit the fourth-most home runs in baseball while totaling a .947 OPS.
But that didn't mean there weren't some cringe-worthy instances within the Ortiz inner-circle, even in the most seemingly innocuous of moments.
"He would always take the baseball bat and hit his heel," Dyrek remembered. "I'm like, 'David, why are you doing that?' He goes, 'I'm doing that?' Or he would slide aggressively. I remember he would go back into the clubhouse and sit at his locker. I remember one time he makes this outrageous slide, so I'm waiting for him when he comes up to the clubhouse. I'm like, 'Come here! Do you have to do all that?' He just said, 'I'm just feeling so good, I'm just out there having fun.'"
Also concerning to Dyrek: talk of Ortiz playing first base. He played one game, against the Dodgers in August, and left with soreness. He didn't play in the field the rest of the season.
"First base activity was also taxing on him," Dyrek said. "The tissue, like the joint restrictions, tendons and scar tissues, they only have a certain amount of tolerance for activities, and they have to learn how to tolerate that activity. If you suddenly spike the activity, they go backward. They lose some of their ground. So playing first base was like a sudden spike of activity. There were times I said there was no reason for him to be playing first base, so at the end of the season he wasn't playing."
The one thing you heard time and time again from Ortiz was how the process of getting ready for these games had become so arduous, even the prospect of making $20 million for another year wasn't option. Dyrek shed light on that process.
"Every day was a re-examination," Dyrek explained. "What you want to do is read the physical signs of an escalating problems. The patient might not be aware that these things are building up. He knew the routine. There would be days where he would say, 'I'm good today. I'm really good.' But then I took a look and do a physical exam where were would say we had to treat this. If we just left it alone, he would have gone backwards. So we would do the interview, do the physical exam and treat the different pieces that needed attention.
"There was no question he was pushing. He felt an obligation to the fans. He would say, 'People come to see me play so I want to get out there and keep playing.' But eventually it took its toll. He had to have treatment essentially every day because the problems that were in there you can't resolve them 100 percent. He was never 100 percent pain-free. He had days of no pain, but over the course of every week there were always a few days he had pain."
Ortiz's battle isn't over. He'll deal with discomfort for the rest of his life, even without the challenge of baseball's routine. But considering where things were four years ago, he has no regrets. He'd make that trade again in a heartbeat.
Ortiz is gone now, and thanks to Dyrek, so is the mystery of his injury.