Commentary

His fight with Father Time leaves scars

Chronicle of Ortiz's first month-plus shows player struggling with baseball mortality

Updated: May 20, 2010, 12:13 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Once, when he was the unquestioned baddest man in town, life was a cheerful exercise in invincibility for David Ortiz. He did not back down -- not from Rivera or Halladay, Sabathia or himself -- and even away from the batter's box he resembled a kind of living altar, fortified by a support so unwavering that the doubt that devoured others somehow seemed unable to penetrate him.

Today, the rhythms once soothing and constant are replaced by a jagged current of emotions that often overwhelm the banks of his control. The easy music has stopped for Ortiz. He stands at the center of a conflict between his status as a charter member of the Red Sox pantheon -- the most important hitter in Boston history since Carl Yastrzemski -- and the jarring, new truth that three years of declining numbers have created a new paradigm: The Red Sox now substitute for him during unfavorable matchups, a striking departure from last year's season of patience when Ortiz remained in the lineup regardless of uneven results -- all in a critical season after which his four-year, $52 million contract expires.

And the only way to reverse the momentum, Ortiz has told me almost daily for the past month, is to do what only he believes he can: reject time.

For the first time in the eight years in Boston that turned Ortiz into a star, doubt and mortality consume him. It is mortality and not the applause, the money, the attention or the famous "Big Papi" moniker that Ortiz is painfully discovering happens to be the real price of the ticket, the actual cost of a professional athlete's golden youth. On a particularly dark day in May, Ortiz stares not only into his eventual career abyss ("I'm 34 years old, and people treat me like I'm 80," he says) but also into the inevitabilities of time's taking precious pieces of life from him -- Mother's Day offers a sober reminder that his mother is gone, and his father's current battle with cancer, he says, affected every at-bat, every swing and every day of 2009.

On good days, he gets back into character, the Big Papi who carried a region, speaking with a regenerative and peppy self-help perspective ("Coming Out of It," he wrote on his fan blog) designed to remind him that if he can will himself again, more cheers await.

Hunter You have to remember how proud David is. He treats people well. He makes you feel good. He makes it fun to come to the ballpark and play this game. Now, he's having a tough time, and it looks like the same people he used to make laugh want him out? How would you feel?

-- Ortiz's former teammate Torii Hunter

"I'm good. Everything is getting better back home," he said recently, more enthusiastic as his average climbs this month. (He is at .224 after ending April at .143.) "My family is set for life. I get to play with my kids. I have 35,000 people on my side, so it's nothing if 1,000 of them boo me."

On bad days, Ortiz sits in the dugout, admitting he now views not only the baseball world but also the entire fame game with a harder, more skeptical eye. For one thing, there's a gnawing disappointment because rapper Jay-Z is suing him over copyright infringement. (Ortiz has a nightclub in the Dominican Republic with the same name -- 40/40 -- as Jay-Z's in New York, a misunderstanding Ortiz says could have been handled "with a phone call.") For another, the satirical website The Onion is piling on. ("Personnel close to the Red Sox front office noted yesterday that Ortiz is being paid one-twelfth of the team's total payroll, adding that they were just saying, is all," according to an article under the headline "David Ortiz Getting Paid $13 Million, By The Way.")

"You have to remember how proud David is," said his former Minnesota Twins roommate Torii Hunter. "He treats people well. He makes you feel good. He makes it fun to come to the ballpark and play this game. Now, he's having a tough time, and it looks like the same people he used to make laugh want him out? How would you feel?"

The signature personality of the past decade is intensely aware of those he believes have betrayed him with disloyalty, and now he keeps a different kind of score. One column exists for the supporters who believe that the deep reservoir of good will that transformed him and the Red Sox has afforded Ortiz the right to play his way out of his struggles. The other is for the people he believes have forgotten the charity work, the welcoming smile that made everyone's job easier, the long home runs late and clutch, the devastating Hall of Fame stretch of offensive numbers now that he has been down. And for him, there is often no middle ground between the two.

Terry Francona
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonAlthough he has pinch hit for David Ortiz and has sat him because of unfavorable matchups on several occasions this season, Terry Francona has insisted he isn't about to give up on his DH.

At its core, it is a young man's game, and they all have to come around this way -- Aaron and Mays at the pinnacle, Yaz, Rice and Pedro from the 617 area code, the sons and daughters everywhere who once were the limitless future but will soon replace the parents. Today represents nothing more than his turn, but how Ortiz and the Red Sox respond to what has been an uncomfortable transition will go a long way toward determining his immediate future and, in the years to come, informing the long-term narrative of the Ortiz story in Boston.

In the season's first six weeks, as he attempts to pull himself out of the abyss for a second consecutive year, Ortiz lives an emotional maelstrom. Some days restore the faded sheen of the big man's swagger (one two-homer game against Baltimore on May 1, another against Detroit this past Friday), but others produce nothing but fury and despair. One was April 27, the day that, according to sources within the organization, he left the ballpark during a game in Toronto after Red Sox manager Terry Francona called him back for a pinch hitter, the day those sources say that Ortiz temporarily ignored Francona's order and kept walking to the plate. (Francona had no comment when asked about the incident.) Or the raucous night against Texas when Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald seemingly single-handedly erased a four-run deficit with a home run and a game-winning double. The team piled on McDonald -- who had just been called up from Pawtucket hours earlier -- at second base, but Ortiz was noticeably not part of the celebration. Earlier in the game, he had been lifted for a pinch hitter for the first time this season.

Mortality, Part 1: The nightmare

Ortiz believed that he had beaten the nightmare, that from this day forward, 2009 would be nothing but old news, ancient history. When all the critics said he was done, he could hold something in his hand to prove that they didn't know jack: He had the numbers.

On June 1, 2009, Ortiz had hit all of one home run, yet he finished the season just two shy of his standard 30. By May 31, he had driven in a measly 18 runs, yet when the final returns were counted, he came one short of 100. All he would say about the cancer that ravaged his father and broke his ability to focus on baseball was, "I'm not going to make excuses, but there's a lot of stuff happening right now."

Ortiz had survived a season that was ruining his present -- since 2007, his batting average dropped like a lead weight from .332 ('07) to .264 ('08) to .238 ('09) -- and that brought severely into question his and the ballclub's recent championship past. Within 60 days, the two most important monuments of the Red Sox legend -- Manny Ramirez and Ortiz -- had been linked to the infamously leaked list of failed drug tests from the 2003 survey testing for performance-enhancing drugs. In the eyes of portions of a skeptical public, that made the Red Sox's championship quest as questionable as the rest of baseball's steroids era.

Yet, Ortiz nevertheless had endured the worst and come through, in the process believing he had earned the right to be allowed time to emerge from a slow start should he struggle to begin 2010.

April 4, 2010, opening night against the Yankees. Fenway Park is aflutter as the place is awash in star power. Rap mogul Dr. Dre takes batting practice. LeBron James is supposed to make an appearance, straight from the TD Garden after a thrilling 115-113 loss to the Celtics. There is even talk that No. 45 himself is in the ballpark.

Dobbs Do you understand that this is killing me? Do you know when I'm going good I cannot sleep because I'm trying to remember everything that I did right so I can repeat it the next day and the next? And that's when I'm going good. When I'm going bad, it's even worse because everybody looks to me to be the guy who comes through for this ballclub. It's like I never sleep anymore.

-- David Ortiz, while going through an April slump

The rumors are true, and as Pedro Martinez walks in from center field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, the price of the ticket reveals itself again. Days later, Ortiz will consider Martinez, swirling around the disparate thoughts in his mouth as though sampling a Riesling for texture. Martinez is 38 years old, a young man by virtually every standard except this one -- yet here he is being cheered as though he is headlining an old-timer's game. Writers can write until the day they die. Mick Jagger will be 67 years old in July but is still on stage. Yet each of them -- Martinez and Ortiz and every athlete -- knows that before he turns 40, he will never again be as good as he was yesterday.

"Damn," Ortiz says with a half-smile. "When you think about it that way, it ain't fair, is it?"

Within two hours, the 2010 season has already turned dark, the Yankees holding a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth and the Boston blogosphere wondering why Francona hasn't pinch hit Mike Lowell for Ortiz to lead off the inning against CC Sabathia. It only gets worse an inning later, when Boston rallies against Sabathia and cuts the lead to 5-4, creating the first Ortiz moment of the season: Kevin Youkilis on third with one out in a one-run game.

Francona doesn't call Lowell's name. Ortiz pops out to third.

Last year was supposed to be old news. He had conquered the bad start. He thought he had proved that last year was not evidence of a trend.

"Do you understand that this is killing me?" he tells me one day. "Do you know when I'm going good I cannot sleep because I'm trying to remember everything that I did right so I can repeat it the next day and the next? And that's when I'm going good. When I'm going bad, it's even worse because everybody looks to me to be the guy who comes through for this ballclub. It's like I never sleep anymore."

The next night, Ortiz goes 0-for-4 in a 6-4 Yankees win. In the eighth, with Youkilis on second as the tying run, Ortiz flies out to center. The night after that, Andy Pettitte is on the mound, and 18 innings into the season, Francona feels as if he's in a time warp, deluged with questions about why he hasn't benched Ortiz in favor of Lowell against left-handed Pettitte.

"When I said it would have been a good night to play Mike Lowell but a bad night to sit David, I meant it," Francona said. "I know David feels like there are some people who haven't been there for him and Mike Lowell is a World Series MVP, so it's a tough call. I've heard it. … But at this time, with 160 games left, is it in the best interest of this ballclub to bury David Ortiz?"

The next few weeks go poorly for Ortiz. He and Francona have the conversation: The Red Sox will settle into a routine; Ortiz will not play against left-handed pitchers, but Lowell will.

[+] EnlargeOrtiz
G Fiume/Getty ImagesScenes like this one have been frequent for David Ortiz this season, but recently he has shown signs of coming out of his slump. He has raised his average from .143 on April 30 to .224.

"I hope very much all this changes. It makes my job easier if he goes out and gets hotter than [expletive]," Francona said. "You can't always tell a player what he wants to hear, and I haven't been able to tell him he'll be the DH every day. My responsibility to the organization is to do the best thing for team."

In a strange coincidence, the low point comes in a home victory against the Angels, the team that, in a sense, erased some of Ortiz's triumph in 2009 by limiting him to a 1-for-12 showing in a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the American League Division Series this past October.

After that game against the Angels in early May, NESN, the Red Sox-owned television network, chose not to highlight Jeremy Hermida, who was the hero, but instead the failures of Ortiz. The network ran a postgame poll asking viewers to vote on whether Ortiz should remain the team's designated hitter.

Ortiz raged, angry that the television network his ballclub owned chose to focus on him instead of on an important team win. Players were upset, as well, and Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia made their feelings known that the network had erred.

The Red Sox are always followed by history, and two years ago, it was NESN's sharpened criticism of Ramirez that had telegraphed the team's eventual trade of him.

"We don't have the influence that David thinks we have," Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said. "I have too much respect for our fans to tell [analysts] Jim Rice, Dennis Eckersley or Peter Gammons -- all in the Hall of Fame -- what they should think about a particular player or game. I'm not always happy myself about what gets said on the air. I went to [Ortiz] and spoke to him just to encourage him, to tell him that in John [Henry] and I, that he didn't have two bigger supporters in the organization."

Red Sox owner John Henry echoed Werner's sentiments.

"The only incident I am aware of on NESN was a poll one night on who should DH. I wasn't happy when I heard about it," Henry wrote in an e-mail Saturday. "The players weren't happy. I don't think anyone was. That was disrespectful of David. That shouldn't happen. But I haven't heard of any other complaint. NESN does a great job overall. In trying to do their jobs in a balanced and complete way media often say and write controversial things. It would be completely inappropriate for the team to manage NESN commentary. David is beloved within our organization and our support of him remains as strong as ever."

Ortiz's rage was followed by wading into a calm eddy. Days later, he reconsidered his anger toward NESN.

"I just want to drop it," he said. "If I hold on to these things while we're trying to win games, I look terrible, and that's not what this is about. It's about us trying to win games and get to the World Series. I don't want to give anyone the impression that I care more about this than the fact that we're starting to put it together. The bottom line with all of it is this: If you rake, you play. I just gotta start hitting."

We looked ridiculous defending him [against performance-enhancing drug allegations] to the level we did, especially because he said he was going to get to the bottom of it and he never did. But that came from John Henry. He pretty much told us directly, 'David is one of us. He said he's innocent, and I believe him.' That was it. No questions asked. That said how loyal John is to David.

-- Red Sox source

Ortiz has perplexed some members of the organization who believe him to be so involved in his batting average that he forgot that the Red Sox defended him when his name was leaked last season as being part of the infamous 2003 positive-test list, even doing so, multiple sources within the organization say, to an embarrassing degree. Ortiz vehemently denied that he ever took performance-enhancing drugs, and the Major League Baseball Players Association held a news conference in New York to defend him, to this day the only player the union has gone out of its way to publicly support in that fashion. The treatment of Ortiz provided a sharp contrast to months earlier, when Alex Rodriguez admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during his career.

"Several people were asking how we could be so supportive of David without all the facts," Werner told me. "My response was that we've always supported him, and if he says the things that are alleged were not true, that was enough for us."

Upon the news that Ortiz was on the list -- Ramirez, his partner in the Red Sox's lineup in the championship years, not only joined Ortiz on the leaked list but also served a 50-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy in 2009 -- sources said Henry, team president Larry Lucchino and Werner called a meeting with key Red Sox employees and announced an edict: Ortiz was innocent. He had done too much, been too valuable to the team and the community, meant too much to the franchise for the Red Sox to not take him at his word.

"We looked ridiculous defending him to the level we did, especially because he said he was going to get to the bottom of it and he never did," a team source said. "But that came from John Henry. He pretty much told us directly, 'David is one of us. He said he's innocent, and I believe him.' That was it. No questions asked. That said how loyal John is to David."

To the Red Sox, such solidarity within the climate of the steroids era represented the ultimate show of support for Ortiz, proof that the demons that haunt him are not emblematic of a larger campaign by the organization to turn the public against him.

"No one got off the steroid hook like he did," said longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy. "No one had the union back them. He did. I wrote that we needed to have the facts about this, just like everyone else, and John Henry was so angry with me that we were finished. I said David Ortiz was dirty because his excuses were the same as everybody else's, and nobody believed them. And that was it between John Henry and me. He hasn't spoken to me in a year."

Mortality, Part 2: Time to face facts?

The story of the declining ballplayer is as old as the game itself. Between 2003 and 2007, Ortiz had a .302 batting average and 1.014 OPS, and he averaged 42 homers and 128 RBIs per season. But since 2008, he has been a different player. In the 2008 and 2009 seasons, he had a .250 batting average and .830 OPS and averaged 26 homers and 94 RBIs per season. In 2010, he is on pace for about 25 homers and 72 RBIs. Versus left-handers, Ortiz hit .223 in 2008 and .212 last year and is .182 so far in 2010.

Yet Ortiz concedes nothing. He doesn't believe that he has faced any moment of decline or reached the point in his career when he needs to play less to produce more -- a situation in which the Red Sox's captain, Jason Varitek, has thrived thus far. Nor does Ortiz believe he now needs to adjust his expectations and his approach.

Weeks after Martinez threw out the first pitch against the Yankees, another of Ortiz's former teammates, Nomar Garciaparra, is being honored before a game at Fenway. In pregame interviews, the price of the ticket looms as Garciaparra fields nearly as many questions about Ortiz as he does about the memories of his own celebrated career.

"My body told me I was done. I would get up and couldn't work out the way I wanted to," Garciaparra said. "My training regimen was not what I needed it to be. Everything hurt all the time. I didn't have to struggle with it the way David may have to because I knew. I couldn't get out of bed without something hurting."

Eckersley, whom Ortiz has dismissed as something of a nemesis because of Eckersley's unvarnished candor on the air, recalled his own moment, back in 1986, when he, at 31 years old and 6-11 with the Cubs, was sent to Oakland.

"I wasn't happy when Tony [La Russa, who was then the A's manager] put me in the bullpen; of course I fought it," Eckersley said. "I was a mop-up guy in the bullpen to Moose Haas, and I thought I was throwing the ball well but wasn't really getting anyone out. The difference was that I could change lanes. I became a closer. There was somewhere for me to go. If Ortiz isn't hitting, where is he going to go?

"You're not trying to be mean, but you have to call it like you see it," Eckersley said. "The guy in Baltimore, [Brad] Bergesen, he threw a cookie. That guy was throwing salad. But on the other hand, that's what makes you a major league ballplayer. You never go out there and say, 'I can't do this,' even if you're only hitting batting-practice fastballs going 70 miles an hour. The minute you do that, you're finished."

There are signs that the worst might be over for Ortiz, that he is rediscovering himself. After he hit two home runs in Detroit, Francona started him against Dontrelle Willis, the first time in weeks the manager had started him against a left-handed pitcher. Ortiz is hitting .375 with two home runs in the past week, and even as his numbers have dropped in the past three years, June still has been a hot month for him. From 2007 to 2009, Ortiz hit .323 in the month with 11 homers and a 1.017 OPS.

The victory, however, is something of a relative one because success for Ortiz cannot come from carrying a .230 average, which would signify his struggle to no longer be a temporary interruption of a beautiful day but rather evidence of something larger, darker, more permanent.

"It wasn't the numbers. You've always been successful, and you think you should be able to find something that can keep you there," Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan said. "You also think that if you're not 100 percent, 80 percent of you is still pretty good. I think he's right that he's earned the right to play through, but you have to remember it is a team game and there are other, capable guys, like Mike Lowell. I think last year David willed himself to come out of it. The question is, Will he be able to do that again?"

But after the two-homer game Friday night, Ortiz felt he had distanced himself from the doubt that characterized the first six weeks of the year enough to throw a hard punch and a challenge.

"There are a lot of people who think they know a lot about baseball," Ortiz said with no small measure of self-satisfaction after the game, a 7-2 Boston win. "But they don't know that a baseball season doesn't end in April. It ends in October."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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