- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's a final scene easily recalled, even though the movie, "Bang the Drum Slowly," is almost 40 years old, the novel even older.
"He wasn't a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably no better than some,'' says pitcher Henry Wiggen, the only player to attend the funeral of his simple-minded and much-put-upon teammate Bruce Pearson (played in the movie by an unknown actor named Robert De Niro).
"And not a bad ballplayer,'' Wiggen says, "not when they gave him the chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in, I rag on nobody.''
That scene came to mind after a conversation Wednesday afternoon with David Ortiz, his anguished words cutting like barbed wire.
"I don't believe in making anyone feel like [expletive],'' he said quietly. "When people make me feel like [expletive], all my anger comes out.''
It had been another long afternoon for the Red Sox designated hitter, who walked once and hit an opposite-field double in Boston's 6-3 win over Minnesota but also struck out twice and looked bad doing so. He waved at a middle-in, 87 mph fastball from Twins starter Kevin Slowey -- a pitch he would have crushed in better times -- and later swung through a breaking ball from Jesse Crain after being pounded inside by hard stuff.
This made it five straight games of multiple strikeouts, including a four-whiff outing Sunday in Kansas City, and a total of 13 Ks in 26 at-bats. When Ortiz walked out of Target Field on Wednesday afternoon, he did so as the major league leader in strikeouts.
It's 10 days into the season, and Ortiz's performance has undergone more scientific scrutiny than the shroud of Turin. The Dow Jones ticker hasn't generated as many numbers as Ortiz, the statistics piling ever higher while hurtling to the conclusion that the 34-year-old slugger was about as useful to the Sox as walleye-on-a-stick, one of the more unique culinary offerings at the Twins' new ballpark.
The numbers -- and the eyes -- bear witness to the fact Ortiz is taking pitches he should be hitting and swinging and missing at pitches he should be hitting, a fatal combination for any hitter.
There is a growing clamor of critics convinced, especially since this April's flailing comes after last season's awful start, that Ortiz has become dead weight in a Red Sox lineup in which he was once its most vital lifeline. Never mind that he hit 27 home runs and drove in 81 runs after June 1. Never mind that he is not the only middle-of-the-order slugger off to a slow start. Mark Teixeira of the Yankees is batting .097 (3-for-31) after his 0-for-4 Wednesday against the Angels, and no one is suggesting he apply for his AARP card.
The Red Sox had another big hitter who looked like he was through when he was batting .225 with just five extra-base hits in his first 116 plate appearances. Ted Williams was 39 at the time, in 1958, and wound up hitting .328 that season. Two years later, he would hit .300 one more time, and walk away after a home run in his final Fenway at-bat. You can be sure back in '58 there were a few people who thought Teddy Ballgame was washed up too.
The criticism, Ortiz admits, has cut deeply, and he has reacted badly, unleashing a stream of expletives to reporters at an early round of questions last week in Fenway, then being ejected by an umpire after questioning a third-strike call in Kansas City.
"I'm not here to hurt nobody, you know what I'm saying?'' he said. "Things aren't good, but I'm still here every day.
"People sometimes talk about you, you know, but they have no idea how badly you're struggling mentally, and how bad you try to do your stuff. It's not like I just come out to the park, sit here, then play the game. It's not like that. It's never been like that.
"So when people come out and start to try to bury your ass, it hurts.''
It was this side of the business Red Sox manager Terry Francona tried to explain in his office Wednesday morning, elaborating on a comment he made the day before in his weekly radio show in which he said players are not "chess pieces."
"I guess I've always felt like that," Francona said. "It's not fantasy baseball, it's not like chess pieces. Certainly you like to have strategy and things like that. I think players, I think they appreciate letting them go play.
"I think if I fall into, you know, whether it's two, five, seven games into a season, pulling the trigger ... any time I've done something like that, I've been pretty sure how I feel. Whether it was the year we moved Pap into the closer's role, I kind of knew how I felt. So we didn't wait around."
"Guys need time, the team needs time to settle in,'' Francona said. "If I do not allow them time to settle in, it's just going to prolong what we're going through."
Someone mentioned how Francona stuck with second baseman Mark Bellhorn during the 2004 ALCS, and was rewarded for his patience when Bellhorn homered in Game 6 against the Yankees.
"I guess I've kind of been asked so many times this week, well, you're loyal to a fault. I'm not really sure -- I'm not perfect, I don't mean that -- but I'm not really sure when that hasn't paid off. If you look back, our patience, I think, has paid off. [Dustin Pedroia] didn't go to Triple-A [after a slow start in '07], we won the World Series.
"Sometimes guys just don't play well all the time. That's just part of it.''
Francona will not continue to play Ortiz out of the goodness of his heart. On Thursday, he will not play him at all, sitting him against left-hander Francisco Liriano. The presence of Mike Lowell on the Sox roster gives Francona an option, one he will exercise Thursday after last week saying he was resisting the idea of platooning with Ortiz.
In the end, Francona cannot put one person ahead of the interests of the team. He understands that. So does Ortiz. But he also realizes that there are times when you have to show some faith in the man, especially one who has carried the Sox on his broad shoulders to two World Series titles.
This is one of those times. It is the right course to take. Someone asked David Ortiz, who for so long in Boston was wrapped in a superhero persona, if he would bleed if cut.
"Right away,'' he said. "Right away.
"But I'm coming out of this. You watch.''
So we will watch. Rag on David Ortiz? Not now. Show a little faith, and let the man determine his own fate.
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.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg