- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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McGwire, the onetime single-season home run king, now a Cardinals coach, stood next to former A's teammate and current Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. The two briefly talked about hitting. In the cage for the Red Sox stood David Ortiz.
The Red Sox slugger took his swings with the pair of hitting coaches looking on. There's been something very different about Ortiz this season. He hasn't been his usual jovial self, and when asked about it, he simply said, "I'm laying low, flying under the radar."
That's not how it was for him during the 2009 season.
His early-season struggles are well documented. He hit a lowly .222 (12 homers, 47 RBIs) in the first half of the season before rebounding in the second half with a .258 average (16 homers, 52 RBIs). The first two months of the season were especially awful, but in June, Ortiz broke out of his slump and posted a .320 average for the month with seven homers and 18 RBIs.
The postseason wasn't kind to the Red Sox or Ortiz. The team was swept in three games, and Ortiz went 1-for-12.
It was a long and frustrating season on the field for Ortiz. Off the field, he dealt with adversity, too.
His father was being treated for cancer, and it was up to Ortiz to get him back and forth between the Dominican Republic and Boston for treatment. Then, of course, there was his reported inclusion on a list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.
Ortiz held a press conference last August in New York while the Red Sox were in town to play the Yankees, and he denied that he had ever purchased or taken performance-enhancing drugs.
Fast-forward to 2010.
If there's anyone in the game who understands and can empathize with Ortiz, it was the man watching him in the batting cage March 8.
"Life is a bunch of roadblocks, and it's about busting through those roadblocks and becoming a stronger person," McGwire said Friday of Ortiz's ordeal after a Red Sox-Cardinals exhibition was rained out.
McGwire said he's been a big fan of Ortiz's and was paying close attention last season while he was struggling.
"Well, again, not knowing him, when you have off-the-field problems, that's tough mentally. You know what, it's going to be a good sign to see how tough mentally he is to come back from that," McGwire said. "To separate that stuff is really, really hard to do. It's really, really hard to do. I know I had to do it in 1991. I learned to separate it, and in '92, I had a really good year. That's the year I learned just how powerful the mind is. The mind is the most powerful thing in your body, and hopefully he can learn from all that stuff."
McGwire was still with Oakland in 1991 when he hit .201 with 22 homers and 75 RBIs in 154 games for the Athletics. He bounced back with a .268 average, 42 homers and 104 RBIs in 1992.
Ortiz was a monster at the plate in 2005 (.300/47/148), 2006 (.287/54/137) and 2007 (.332/35/117). His production the last two seasons, however, declined. Not only were the performance issues and off-field distractions having a major impact, but the departure of Manny Ramirez from the Red Sox lineup in 2008 affected him as well.
Ortiz knew that not having Ramirez hitting behind him in the order would have an effect. During the 2008 offseason, Ortiz said he thought the Red Sox needed to go out and find a big bat to replace Ramirez's. Boston thought it had the answer, but then-free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira ultimately signed with the Yankees.
"I've always looked at [Ortiz's] stuff, especially last year when he was going through a tough time," McGwire said. "I think, more or less, that it probably had to do with the realization he didn't have any protection; he was getting pitched around. The thing is, understanding that if you don't have the guy supporting you that you've had over the years, and you're not getting the pitches to hit, you've got to go back and see what you're swinging at. The guy on the mound is getting a lot of money to get you out, so that's how I really turned my career around by looking at it mentally.
Sometimes, it's not you physically; maybe you're just not seeing the pitches you're normally seeing, so take the walk."
Distractions, disappointments and subpar performances kept adding up for Ortiz, and it all came to a head in 2009.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona went as long as he could with Ortiz in the No. 3 spot in the batting order, until something had to be done. The slugger was punchless and posted a .195 average with one homer and 18 RBIs in the third hole.
Francona penciled Ortiz into the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth spots in the order during the season.
"I don't know him personally, and I've never really talked to him, but I can tell you from my experience, yeah, it's a mental thing," McGwire said. "I had my year in '91 when I hit .201 and I was moved up and down the lineup all the time. It's sort of a thing when you're used to [hitting] 3, 4, or 5 and then you're hitting 6, 7, or 8, then people start saying, 'Hey, what's going on? What's wrong?' Instead, you can take it and say, 'You know what? I'm playing the game. I'm in there so I'll see what I can do. I know I'm not hitting the ball as well as I did in the past.' I always went back to the basics -- see the ball and hit it. That's what really turned me around."
Time and again in 2009, Ortiz would remind everyone that he was trying to keep it simple. He was trying the see-the-ball, hit-the-ball method, and it began to work in the second half of the season.
"He's a professional hitter," McGwire said. "The biggest thing that happened to him last year, he didn't have any protection [Ramirez]. It was the first year in a long time Manny wasn't behind him. It's something he'll have to adjust with, but I think he'll be totally fine. He's the mainstay with that lineup and he's got some guys in front of him who can get on base. [The Red Sox] are always going to be a threat, especially at Fenway."
Before McGwire returned to the batting tunnels to work with Cardinals hitters on Friday afternoon, he said he would pay attention to Ortiz in 2010.
"I wish him luck," McGwire said. "I've always liked watching him play."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
Mark McGwire says Big Papi's mental toughness will be tested this year.