Ortiz still commands the spotlight
In winning Home Run Derby, slugger proves again he's not ready to walk off the stage
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- He plopped himself down in a folding chair after pounding his 32nd home run of the evening. And at that special moment, just as David Ortiz was leaning back, taking in his greatest Home Run Derby show of them all, 6-year-old D'Angelo Ortiz had only one question:
"Dad," he asked, "what place are you in?"
Well, kid, the correct answer was: first place. And that's exactly where his dad would finish this night, too. So let the record show that in his fourth shot at Home Run Derby glory, Big Papi finally won himself one of these things Monday night in the home of Mickey, Minnie and Torii Hunter.
But that wasn't the only place Ortiz found himself when this Derby was over. He also found himself in a position to remind the world that he was still around, and that he could still mash, and that he could still light up a ballpark with his charisma and his smile.
"Good for him," said the man Ortiz outwhomped in the finals, Florida's Hanley Ramirez. "He's going through tough times right now. But I know he's going to come back in the second half and do what he gets paid to do -- hit bombs."
Hitting those bombs has been the specialty of Ortiz's house now for eight mostly magical seasons in Boston. And as he reminded us again Monday night, he still has a gift for pounding baseballs a very long way.
He pounded eight of those home runs in the first round, unleashed 13 more in the second round and then finished off this extravaganza with 11 in the final round. And for all the monstrous homers his competition deposited in assorted rock piles, waterfalls and Hunter's favorite spot of all -- "the drink" -- they couldn't keep up with Big Papi. And they didn't even mind.
Asked afterward whether it was a little intimidating to watch Ortiz scrunch 11 homers in the final round before he'd even taken a swing, his Dominican compadre, Ramirez, actually laughed and said: "No. It's fun. I remember watching him on TV. Now here I am competing against him. It was great. It was something I'm never going to forget in my life."
"You know, I'd never really seen him hit before this," said the Brewers' Corey Hart, who hit 13 first-round homers of his own before forgetting how to hit any in the second round. "Me, I have to try to hit home runs. He doesn't. That's what's so impressive about him. He's got that rhythm, and he just keeps going and going."
Ortiz kept going, in fact, until he'd mashed 12,975 feet worth of home runs, which comes to almost 2½ miles worth. His 32 homers rank third on the all-time list of most Derby homers in one night, behind only Bobby Abreu (41) and Josh Hamilton (35).
The 11 homers in the last round tied Abreu (11 in 2005) for most ever in a final round. And the Papster joined only Abreu (2005) and Jason Giambi ('03) in the annals of guys who have hit 11 homers or more in two different rounds in the same Derby.
"He's got the perfect swing for this," said Hunter, who hung with Ortiz all night as part of his gig as kind of the unofficial maitre d' of this event. "That's why he was my pick to click tonight. He's built for this."
In Ortiz's previous three Derbies, he always seemed to run out of steam after one big round. So this time, he said, he was determined to "just kind of use [my] experience."
"I might try to put something different in play," he joked beforehand. "I may try to sit in hot stones. Or I might start chasing my son. Or I might go shagging while the other guys are hitting. I don't know."
As it turned out, he was making all that up. He mostly lounged back and watched the rest of the field do its thing. And quite a thing it was. Disappointing as it was that nobody ever did hit a baseball that plunked into the middle of Splash Mountain, down the road at Disneyland, there were many, many baseballs hit on this night to places no baseballs have ever gone before. Such as:
• Matt Holliday didn't survive the first round. But he did crush the longest home run of the night -- a 497-foot Mars mission that curled around the left-field foul pole and splattered off the facing of the third deck in an almost impossible location for any human being to hit. "I've never seen that," Hunter said. "Not in BP [batting practice] or anything."
• Ramirez also put on an insane show, smoking a never-ending succession of gravity-defying line drives that refused to come down until they landed somewhere between the left-field fence and Mexico. He launched four homers into the rock pile, three more that cleared the trees in dead center and two nearly identical 476-foot screamers that practically cleared the unclearable left-field bleachers. "Hanley -- he's just freakish strong," Hunter said. "And he's got young muscles, too. What's he going to do when he gets grown-up muscles?"
• Miguel Cabrera, meanwhile, got ousted in the second round. But he still left quite the imprint on this show. Cabrera averaged 450 feet for his 12 home runs -- more than anyone else on the premises. "Miguel Cabrera -- what he did was sick, man," Hunter said. Told he left witnesses and even his competitors in awe, Cabrera chuckled, after just another day at his office: "You've gotta go to Detroit and see my BP more."
• While it was tough to say what Cabrera's most ridiculous bomb of the night was, the 485-foot opposite-field rocket he launched two-thirds of the way up the seats in right was an excellent nomination for that honor. "Lefties don't even hit balls there," Hunter gushed.
• But right up there with that shot was a 476-foot laser beam that Cabrera squashed in Round 1 that plopped down in a pool of water at the very top of the left-center-field rock pile -- the never-before-reached body of water the Angels know as "the drink." And that was the home run that made Hunter's night complete. "Let me tell you, man, I've been trying to do that in BP for a long time -- me and Vladdy [Guerrero] -- just trying to do it once. And Miguel Cabrera did it. He did it no cork, no nothing. It was all au naturel, man. Unbelievable."
• And then there was Big Papi's signature blast -- a 478-footer in the second round that cleared the "Going, Going, Gone" sign in right field and clattered into the bowels of the stadium. "When he hit it," said his personal pitcher, Yankees coach Tony Pena, "that ball was screaming. It went by me and I just said, 'Wow.'"
But it was no big deal to Big Papi, a man who claimed he had already hit balls to destinations in this park that were much more distant than that one.
"I hit a homer here that went down the tunnel [three-quarters of the way up the seats in right] once," he reminisced. "But I was trying to hit our bus that was parked out there, so I kind of missed it."
So once a guy does that, what's another shot into a waterfall?
"I hit that in BP all the time," Ortiz deadpanned at his ho-hum best.
So we tried to give him something bigger and better to shoot for -- like the 57 Freeway out beyond the center-field fence. But that, he said, would take "an alien." And after kicking it around, the rest of the field decided it was a good thing nobody ever did hit one THAT far.
"I don't wish that on nobody," Arizona's Chris Young said. "That would be terrible. I don't want to be responsible for that. In spring training one time, there was a street out beyond the fence, and I hit a home run and it landed in somebody's front seat. That must have been scary, man. If I was driving and a baseball came through my window, I'd freak out a little bit. I know that."
Yeah, good point. So the freeway was out. But how about Disneyland? That couldn't be more than 1,000 feet or so from home plate, right?
"No, you can't hit Disneyland," Hunter announced. "It's too far, and it's the wrong direction.
"Disneyland," he said, U-turning and pointing off into the distance, "it's this way."
OK, so Disneyland was out. And it's just as well, too, when you think about it. The last thing baseball needs these days would be trying to explain how Minnie Mouse had just been knocked unconscious by a Home Run Derby homer.
What baseball should have thought about, though, given the setting, was a Home Run Derby staged by those Disney characters. We did a little polling on that topic. And amazingly, all four players we surveyed said Goofy would be a clear favorite in that competition.
"I would have to go with Goofy, just because of the leverage," former Derby champ Ryan Howard said. "Goofy is just so tall and so long. He gets extended, man, it's awesome. I don't know if Mickey can get that extension around his ears. So I think Goofy and maybe Donald Duck would be in the finals. Donald's kind of stumpy, kind of stocky a little bit. So he looks like he's got sneaky power."
"No, it's gotta be Goofy," Holliday said. "He's got crazy power."
But then so does the man who owned this night -- the one and only Big Papi.
A couple of months ago, after his disastrous April, there weren't many people standing who ever would have seen a night like this coming, not for this man. And clearly, David Ortiz is still stung by the words spoken and written by those people.
"There are a lot of people that don't know how hard we work to play this game, how many ups and downs we have," he said. "Not everything is roses and flowers. You've got to deal with the downs so you can get up.
"You know, I've been a guy that [has] been a force as long as I've been playing here with the Red Sox. And I've had a lot of ups, a lot more than downs. And as soon as I have a down, it seems like everybody is pointing at me like a Nintendo game or something that is supposed to be that easy. But to let you know, to give you the news, it ain't that easy."
But on a special Monday evening in July, in a ballpark far from home, David Ortiz sure made it look easy. Yeah, it was "only" a Home Run Derby that he'd just won. But for the man who won it, this was something more -- the chance to remind us not just of what he was, but of what he still is.
"Of course, he won. He was supposed to win," Cabrera said. "He's still Big Papi."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.