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Red Sox shouldn’t give in to David Ortiz

Posted by Adam Kaufman  January 28, 2014 10:34 PM

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David Ortiz knows exactly who he is.

He’s the greatest designated hitter to ever put on a baseball jersey, let alone one that reads “Boston” or “Red Sox,” and there’s a compelling argument he could one day see his face on a plaque in Cooperstown.

In Boston sports lore, he’s a legend. Ortiz sits on the Mount Rushmore of a generation of heroes, and he may hold just such a distinction in his team’s storied history.

He’s also a 38-year-old slugger fresh off an MVP-deserving .688 average in his third World Series win.

He’s well aware of whose bleeping city this is, and so are his employers.

But, you know what? In business, that doesn’t matter.

I sat at my keyboard, fully prepared to write how annoyed I am with the man we affectionately call Big Papi and how I wish he’d just shut up and hit. Then I realized two things: First, my colleague Eric Wilbur already did that, and mighty well I’d say. And second, no matter what Ortiz says, he’s only half of the equation.

What really counts is where the Red Sox go from here, and the ideal direction is clear: Don’t give in.

Coming off of an injury-shortened 2012 season, made downright dysfunctional by his surroundings, the Sox raised eyebrows when they rewarded Ortiz for the healthy portion of his campaign with a two-year deal. When he did little more than run the bases during last year’s spring training, the pact already appeared to be a colossal mistake.

And then he put both his city and his team on his shoulders en route to one of the most improbable championship runs in Boston history. Along the way, the nine-time All-Star batted .309 with 30 homers, 103 RBI, and a .959 OPS in 137 games. In the playoffs, he upped the ante to a .353 average, five long-balls, 13 RBIs, and a 1.206 OPS.

He was suddenly a decade younger, mentally, physically and, to him, contractually.

Guys pushing 40 don’t get multi-year deals, especially ones worth $30 million. When the Sox adhered to his requests at this time a year ago, it was good PR. It was filling one pothole in the bumpiest road the organization had traveled in decades.

For that privilege, Ortiz said he wouldn’t open his mouth on the subject again. Apparently, he meant until it suited him best.

If so publicly discussing his contract and the business of baseball is what the face of the Red Sox franchise needs to make himself tick, to stay motivated and hungry, to give off the sticky impression of self over team, more power to him. Hopefully it leads to more power from him. He should get in front of whichever writer or television or radio reporter he’d like. He basically has, and we haven’t reached February. Frankly, this would all make far more sense if he held court on his first day in Fort Myers and, who knows, he might.

In Ben Cherington’s office, though, this should be nothing more than noise. David being David. It’s not like he’s going to demand a trade.

Ortiz is committed to Boston for one more season, and $15 million is committed to him. If he wants to match or even exceed that in 2015 and beyond, he’ll do whatever he has to (yes, within the rules of the game) in order to stay on the field as an influential member of a winning lineup. If possible, he’ll avoid trips to the disabled list and excessive days off and, if the Sox let him, he’ll play in National League ballparks.

After all, there’s money on the line.

It’d be easy for the financially flexible owners on Yawkey Way to say, “You know what, David, you’re right, we need you. Here’s another $15 mil for 2015. In fact, we probably don’t beat the Tigers in the ACLS without that series-changing grand slam, so make it $20 million for good measure…” and he’d flash that sparkling smile, doff his shades and say he was only kidding about a willingness to play somewhere else.

If the Sox did call his bluff and let him head to free agency, sure, it’s hard to believe Ortiz wouldn’t leave for the right offer. But, as much as we’d all like to believe he has a limitless loyalty to the city he defended beyond the bounds of the FCC, he’d go. He may want to keep in mind, though, multi-year offers approaching the kind of money he makes now won’t be there when he’s 39, particularly when he’d inevitably require draft pick compensation. Half of the majors can be ruled out of the equation because he doesn’t play the field, and others in his own league either don’t spend or wouldn’t shell out that kind of coin for a DH. Even the Yankees would be hard-pressed to do more than court him.

David Ortiz will retire as a member of the Red Sox, and he knows it and should embrace it. If he didn’t by his own volition, and chased a few extra million from the highest bidder, his brand and popularity would take a hit. Ortiz would never let that happen, and he doesn’t have to. He’ll have a contract in Boston for as long as he isn’t an embarrassment to himself, whether that’s for two more years or 10. After that, he’ll be named an assistant to the GM or another glorified team ambassador spouting tales of the glory days at instructional drills each spring. He’ll ask kids half his age if they’ve seen “Four Days in October.”

In the meantime, the Red Sox won’t just roll over his already DH-leading deal of $15 million when a dip in production might bring him back for $10-12 mil. The lack of a salary cap doesn’t suddenly mean the absence of brains, and the luxury tax matters more to the Sox than their rivals in the Bronx.

It’d be nice if Ortiz handled these situations differently; if he spoke glowingly about his time in Boston and how he never wants to leave. Maybe he’s just upset that his career came a few years before contracts got truly laughably out of control. You know, when they were only humorously outlandish.

It’d be nice if he took a page out of Jon Lester’s book, and pronounced a willingness to pass on immense free agent riches for a still lofty but more measured deal in a city he wouldn’t leave without having the shirt ripped off his back. But, then, even Lester’s hometown discount may pay more than Ortiz has earned in his entire 17-year career.

For Ortiz, the champagne has dried up. In the winter, it doesn’t matter if the summer breeze blew like 2012 or through 2013. Without fail, the offseason is his contract season, and the Red Sox should make sure he remains the only one at the table. If they cave, he’ll do this again a year from now. If they don’t, he’ll be sitting there next winter regardless. In the end, he gains no leverage by being a distraction and his desire for security won’t hamper his productivity. Only Father Time can do that.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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