Commentary

Big Papi: People gave up too fast

David Ortiz says he's moved beyond last year's early-season struggles

Updated: February 25, 2010, 11:24 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Two batting lines from 2009 for your consideration, accumulated from June 1 to the end of the season. Both players were born in the same year, 1975.

Player A: 23 HRs, 83 RBIs, .292 BA, .400 OBP, .520 SGP.

Player B: 27 HRs, 81 RBIs, .264 BA, .356 OBP, .548 SGP.

Player A was voted the postseason MVP by the New York baseball writers and was the toast of Gotham.

Player B, who hit more home runs, drove in nearly the same number of runs, and had a higher slugging percentage, was cast as the bane of Boston, last seen careening down the path of certain decline.

Alex Rodriguez, meet David Ortiz.

Maybe that explains why, when the Red Sox rolled out the sweet confection known as Big Papi at spring training camp on Monday, there was the usual filling of good humor in the middle, but it was layered with more than a little defiance, wounded pride and a sense of ultimate vindication.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Mitch Stringer/Icon SMIDespite not hitting his first home run until May 20, David Ortiz finished last season with 28 homers and 99 RBIs.

"I think people gave up on me too early, too fast," Ortiz said in a media session after his first workout, coming on the day position players were scheduled to report. "[They] started talking about age and all that kind of stuff. You listen to it for a minute. It was the same people that were clapping for you a year before and saying good things about you.

"Change [your mind] that quick? I don't believe in that. It's a one-minute thing. That's the way I see it. I'm strong enough to know how to deal with it and put that in the past."

The ship-jumpers came fast and furious in the first two months of the 2009 season, when Ortiz was beyond awful, inspiring a game more popular than the Mass. Lottery: Guess the number of plate appearances it will take before Ortiz hits his first home run.

If you bet the under, you lost your shirt.

Ortiz did not hit a home run until his 164th plate appearance (136th at-bat), which came in the team's 40th game; he finally connected in the fifth inning off a Toronto rookie named Brett Cecil on May 20 in Fenway Park. Cecil had his own issues that day -- he gave up four home runs in the inning.

But here the season was nearly a quarter over, and the Red Sox's No. 3 hitter had one home run. Kevin Youkilis, the cleanup hitter, was batting over .400 at the time. The place-setters at the top of the order, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, were both over .300. Ortiz, the man with the one dinger and the .210 batting average, was a drag on the entire lineup.

Had the wrist issues that plagued Ortiz the year before become a permanent condition? Did he have Cecil Fielder disease, the scourge of all heavy-set sluggers, and become old overnight?

Red Sox manager Terry Francona admitted Monday that he was blindsided by the slump.

"I can't tell you that I saw something coming," Francona said. "You just don't know. If someone is hurt or slow, everybody can see that, that's one thing. But in spring training, you're not going to see a ton of everyday guys have fantastic stats, because they don't play enough.

"I think it kind of ganged up on him. As we got a month into the season and things started to go from bad to worse, it just kind of multiplied."

Ortiz didn't mention it at the time, but the illness of his father was a concern. On Monday, he offered another possible explanation: The World Baseball Classic had disrupted his preparation.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I wasn't feeling comfortable," he said. "I guess we had a lot of games too early last year -- important games like the WBC. You aren't ready for it. You're putting pressure on yourself just because you want to produce, and you're not ready."

Of course, Ortiz had played in the original WBC in 2006, and hit a Sox-record 54 home runs that season, so that explanation lacked legs.

What was undeniable, however, was this:

"I had a nightmare for two months," Ortiz said. "Even after you wake up, you still feel like you're in a nightmare. But that's not my point right now. My point is to move on. I guess the last four months of the season changed people's mind and that's all I care about."

The turnaround didn't happen overnight. Less than a week after Ortiz's first home run, Francona dropped him to the No. 6 hole in the lineup -- this even before the trade for Victor Martinez. When Martinez came from the Indians, he was immediately installed in Ortiz's old No. 3 hole. Ortiz would bat as high as the cleanup spot only twice the rest of the way.

The pressure on Ortiz escalated in another way, when a New York Times report linked him to the list of 100-plus players who had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Ortiz owned up to the positive test, but while insisting he'd never used steroids, he said he might have been "careless" in his use of supplements. That explanation rang hollow to the cynics in his audience, worn out by the endless lying done by steroid cheats.

The Red Sox, from owner John W. Henry on down, stood by their man. And perhaps because his options were few, Francona decided that patience was the way to go.

"He didn't quit," Francona said. "That was a difficult two months. There's no getting around it. There was no production, he was going through stuff he'd never gone through before, but he gathered himself enough to be a potent bat in our lineup.

"That's why we were patient with him. To run away from David at the end of May wouldn't have helped us. We would have missed what he did. I think there is a difference between loyal and what's the right thing for the ballclub."

But at the end of the season, after a second straight disappointing postseason from Ortiz, general manager Theo Epstein was transparent in letting Ortiz know that the Sox expected much more in 2010, and that they expected Ortiz to make the necessary sacrifices in the offseason.

Ortiz responded, showing up in shape.

"Real good," Francona said when asked about Ortiz's condition. "We'd heard that all year, but it was sure nice to lay your eyes on him and see for [yourself]. Yeah, he looks trim and he looks strong and he looks ready to go."

The playful Ortiz was front and center, discussing his offseason workouts.

"It's pretty much part of the game [that] people worry about your body shape," he said. "I'm not going to look like Ricky Martin right now. I'm going to be the same guy. I might get stronger, I might try to stay away from injuries. I ain't going to look any different. I wish I could look like Ricky Martin."

But there was no dancing around the question that may well hang over this entire season for Ortiz: Will the Red Sox exercise the $12.5 million option they hold on Ortiz for 2011, or will this be Big Papi, hail and farewell?

Like any player, he said, he'd like to know where he stands.

"In my situation, I know I'm an employee here," he said. "It doesn't matter how things are going -- I try my best. This is just another year, just like the others. We have an owner, we have a GM, they are the ones who decide what to do. Like I say, I'm going to try my best and move on."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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