Commentary

Pain, criticism won't keep Big Papi down

Originally Published: August 28, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Before the first game of a doubleheader with the Los Angeles Angels 11 days ago, David Ortiz was a walking exhibition of pain. He had already taken a cortisone shot in his shoulder and told the Red Sox medical staff and his manager, Terry Francona, that he didn't want another in his knee. His back, which hasn't become news yet, has been killing him.

Cortisone, Ortiz reasoned, masks the pain of injury, and he wants to feel some of that grinding knee discomfort as a gnawing reminder not to place too much strain on the joint. A shot, in other words, might make him feel too good, and the result could be Ortiz's permanently damaging his bad wheel without feeling a thing.

David Ortiz
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonDespite knee, shoulder and back ailments, David Ortiz has played in all but 12 games this season.

Even beleaguered, the snapshot was typical Ortiz, Big Papi oversized and disarming and profanely ebullient, even while a young fan waited for the great Papi to acknowledge his moon-eyed desperation and squeaky, singsong patter -- "Mister Ortiz! Misssster Or-teeeez ... Mr. Ortiz!" -- that itched like a mosquito bite. To the mercy of eardrums everywhere, the kid finally got a ball.

Big Papi's body wasn't just barking at him; it was in full howl. But while Ortiz has spent parts of the season experimenting with physical pain management, he has for the first time in five seasons in Boston dealt with … drumroll, please … doubt and criticism.

The stat sheet at the time said he had but 19 home runs -- which is great if you're Curtis Granderson -- and 71 RBIs, only eight more than Kevin Youkilis and eight fewer than Mike Lowell.

The demons were calling and Ortiz listened; he heard the voices from the bars along Boylston Street and the murmurs along the first-base line after a crunch-time strikeout.

What's up with Ortiz? Why isn't he hittin' any homahs? He and Manny combined won't hit as many as Ortiz hit by himself last year...

Maybe the universe was finally and justifiably beginning to balance itself out, for no player in Boston baseball history -- not even Yastrzemski -- had ever enjoyed such a prolonged streak of success during the tensest moment of a ballgame, or a season. Ortiz, it seemed, always came through. And now he wasn't. Instead of reaching a crescendo, he was suddenly waving through fastballs.

Or maybe Ortiz was suffering from the beginning signs of something direr: age. Maybe he began to resemble the city's last great left-handed slugger, Mo Vaughn, who as the calendar lurched forward saw his skills stubbornly stuck in reverse. Ortiz will be 32 in November and is approaching the years when time isn't often kind.

David Ortiz

Ortiz

Designated Hitter
Boston Red Sox

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
119 24 87 94 .436 .324

The stat sheet showed he was still batting .333 with runners in scoring position, .326 with two outs in that situation, but .222 with the bases loaded, a stat that pecked at his pride because the sacks have been full for the big man just nine times this season. By comparison, before the games on Aug. 17, Julio Lugo had been up 18 times with the bases loaded. And there was the issue of his curious lack of power against left-handers, against whom Ortiz had left the yard just twice all season. In each of the past three seasons, Ortiz had hit at least 10 home runs against lefties.

"I'm not complaining. I just want someone to analyze the game, to know what they're seeing out there. There is a lot more to what's going on out there than 'David Ortiz isn't hitting home runs anymore.' Just analyze the game. Give me my opportunities and I'm telling you, I can still [produce]."

Ortiz, who straddles the balance between being publicly affable but politically astute better than most athletes of color in Boston, ran into trouble in spring training, when he says he attempted to make a point about the ease with which it is possible for athletes to use steroids and performance-enhancing drugs -- especially in his native Dominican Republic, where buying candy is only slightly easier. Ortiz surmised that in an unregulated world, he may once have inadvertently taken a banned substance without knowing.

"And so now I had to listen to people say that I admitted to using steroids, which I didn't," Ortiz said. "A lot of guys wouldn't have taken that. They would have cut everybody off. But I like everyone. I don't have a problem with anybody."

If you're Alex Rodriguez or Mike Schmidt, these are old, rusty laments; but not if you're Ortiz, who by knowing nothing but sunshine in one of the worst weather towns in America has, through an unblemished and still-growing legend, defied every law of Boston baseball meteorology.

So, for the first time as a Red Sox player, Ortiz has had his feelings bruised. In response, he began a hot streak versus the Angels that further burnished his legend and, as the Red Sox and Yankees begin a key three-game series here Tuesday night, pushed the Sox toward their first division title since 1995, when Vaughn was named AL MVP and Kevin Kennedy was the manager. Ortiz's most recent streak began that weekend at Fenway against the Angels, continued during last weekend's rampage through Chicago and brings him to Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, Boston's once-tenuous four-game lead over the Yankees has doubled, and the Red Sox are poised to deliver something to the Yankees that has eluded them during the regular season for a dozen years: a knockout blow.

There are few gunslingers left on major league pitching staffs, few dangerous men who are unafraid to challenge the game's best hitters. Bob Gibson has been retired for 32 years. In 2004, Barry Bonds walked 232 times in a season (120 intentional). Willie Mays never drew more than 20 intentional walks in a season; Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson combined for 1,341 home runs, but neither collected more than 23 intentional walks in a single year. These days, there's simply no money in coming after the baddest man in a lineup. Eleven days ago, Ortiz had 10 more walks than RBIs.

In the first game of that doubleheader, John Lackey, the Angels' starter who won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series against Bonds and the Giants, challenges Ortiz to a first-inning duel, and Ortiz wafts a 2-2 breaking ball into the seats in right for a 2-0 Boston lead. The Red Sox hit for the cycle in the first five batters of what will be an 8-4 Boston win.

Along with the Red Sox, the Angels are the fashionable pick to be playing deep into October, and in the second game only the changing of the foliage is missing. Near the end, Francisco Rodriguez, the fearsome K-Rod, faces Ortiz with the bases loaded and one out, leading 4-1. Rodriguez throws a wild pitch to allow one run to score, and on the next pitch Ortiz ties the game with a two-run double. The Red Sox lose when the Angels tag Eric Gagne for three runs in the top of the ninth.

Just watching Ortiz standing in the batter's box is the most obvious giveaway that he might be better off at Mass General Hospital than Yankee Stadium. But on Saturday afternoon, the day after the doubleheader, Ortiz offered a lesson in in-game pain management.

Creaky joints have forced Ortiz to hit more upright than in any of his previous four seasons in Boston. The signature, exaggerated Ortiz crouch was first suggested by former Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson, who sat with Ortiz and viewed film of him with the Minnesota Twins. The two concluded that Ortiz was susceptible to inside fastballs, especially from left-handed pitchers. During his final year with the Twins, in 2002, Ortiz hit .203 against left-handers in 118 at-bats, and .216 during his first season in Boston.

Do I need a few days off? Yeah, man. I do. Would I be better if I took four or five days to heal? Yes, but you can't do that. I gotta play.

-- David Ortiz

Jackson worked with Ortiz to develop a crouch to close what Jackson called the "cold zone" in his swing.

But now Ortiz can't bend over. He cannot rest on his front knee, for unlike most hitters who rest on their back foot for power, Ortiz prefers even weight distribution. To compensate for the pain, Ortiz changes his stance constantly during each trip to the batter's box and surrenders portions of each at-bat. He says he will crouch only in hitter's counts to save the knee and shoulder. Only when he is looking for a fastball will Ortiz bend.

"The problem isn't when I connect," Ortiz said about the shoulder. "The pain comes when I swing and miss. When I get nothing but air, I'm telling you, it hurts like [hell]."

Saturday night, Ortiz reverses a 4-0 deficit by ruining Jered Weaver with a first-pitch grand slam that seals a six-run fifth in Boston's 10-5 win. Weaver, completely unglued, smolders while Ortiz admires his handiwork, vowing after the game that at some point in the future -- the ALCS, perhaps? -- Ortiz will pay for his showmanship.

The Angels provide the springboard. The Angels split the four-game series by winning the finale 3-1, but Ortiz has two hits. For the four games, he hits .375 (6-for-16) with seven runs scored, eight RBIs and two home runs. Over the next seven games, the Red Sox win six. Ortiz plays six games, hits .478. Of his 11 hits, six -- three homers, two doubles and a triple -- were extra-base hits.

Since the start of the Angels series, a span of 10 games, Ortiz has raised his average 13 points, hit five home runs and driven in 16 runs.

"Do I need a few days off? Yeah, man. I do," he said. "Would I be better if I took four or five days to heal? Yes, but you can't do that. I gotta play, because ... the Yankees, they're right across the street, and they ain't [kidding]."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "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 reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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