FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz, owner of a new contract that will pay him $4.587 million this season, was on the phone yesterday afternoon from the Dominican Republic, happily chattering about how his life has changed since being saved from obscurity a year ago by the Red Sox.
"I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "Everything has changed, crazy than before," he said on a conference call. "Everywhere you go, people just want to get to know you better."
Meanwhile in Boston, the Sox were announcing the hiring of a new third base coach, Dale Sveum, and putting the finishing touches on a bargain acquisition -- the estimable Ellis Burks --that in its own way could prove to be as much of a coup for the 2004 Sox as Ortiz's signing a year ago for low dollars ($1.25 million).
For a base salary of less than a million, or not much more than the Sox will be paying benchman David McCarty if he makes the club out of spring training, Sox general manager Theo Epstein outmaneuvered the Seattle Mariners, whose late bid for the 39-year-old Burks was for more money ($1.25 million) but did not afford him the same percentages for a championship sendoff to a stellar 18-year career.
Just as Ortiz gave the Sox unexpected thunder from the left side -- he had a higher slugging percentage than Manny Ramirez (.592 to .587) and drove in runs at a faster clip than anyone in the American League except for Toronto's Carlos Delgado (1 per 4.4 at-bats to Delgado's 1 per 3.9) -- Burks, if healthy, gives the Sox another powerful presence from the right side.
Burks's surgically ravaged knees have long since ended his days of playing the outfield, but he will give incoming manager Terry Francona a great option to DH against lefthanders. The Sox hit a robust .285 against lefties last season, second in the league behind Toronto, but were just 26-27 against lefthanded starters. As terrific as Ortiz was last season, he did not hit well against lefties -- .216, 35 percentage points below his career average of .251 against lefties, and only 4 of his 31 home runs came off lefthanders.
Burks, who will be introduced at a press conference at Fenway Park this morning, is a career .311 hitter against lefties, with equally impressive numbers: .391 on-base percentage, .528 slugging percentage. He played just over two months last year before elbow surgery ended his season, but the Sox were satisfied by the results of his physical yesterday, which means it's not unrealistic to think Burks, with sufficient playing time, could approach the numbers he put up in his last full season, 2002, when he hit 32 home runs, knocked in 91 runs, and batted .301. It's unlikely, though, that Burks will get the 518 at-bats he got with the Indians in 2002, although his addition should put both Ortiz and Kevin Millar on notice that their playing time could be affected. Ortiz spoke yesterday about wanting to play more first base, a position Millar assumed on a full-time basis after Aug. 10, with Ortiz appearing in the field just twice thereafter.
"At 28, I don't want to be a full-time DH," said Ortiz, who admitted yesterday he played very little first base this winter in the Dominican League, and was serving as DH on the Licey team bidding to win the Caribbean Series.
Millar took over first base duties because in the organization's judgment, he showed more improvement at the bag than Ortiz did, and because Millar and Ortiz both hit better when they were playing first base and DH, respectively.
"I don't see [Ortiz] strictly as a DH," Epstein said yesterday. "Defensive performance will dictate who will play in the field."
Millar's bat, however, could figure in the equation if he doesn't improve on his second-half performance in 2003, when he hit just .251 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs after the break. He had nearly 100 more at-bats last season (544) than his previous career best, so fatigue could have been a factor.
In any best-case scenario -- his knees hold up, and his right elbow is fully recovered from surgery to remove bone chips and reposition a nerve -- Burks could be a huge factor in determining whether the Sox return to the World Series for the first time since 1986, one year before Burks made his big-league debut with the Sox. As great an offensive machine as the Sox were last season, put Burks in the middle of an order with some combination of Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Ortiz and Millar, they could be even more dangerous this season. And Burks comes with a clubhouse reputation second to none.
Speaking of Ramirez, Ortiz said yesterday he hasn't spoken with his friend since the height of the Alex Rodriguez trade talks, when Ortiz famously quoted Ramirez as saying he felt like he had nine toes in Texas and just one in Boston. But that didn't prevent Ortiz from declaring that Ramirez was content he'll still be wiggling his digits in the Fens.
"He's happy to be back in the house," Ortiz said.
He had better first-hand knowledge regarding Sox ace Pedro Martinez, whom Ortiz has spoken with a number of times this winter and planned to see last night.
"He told me he's throwing hard," Ortiz said. "Really? That's not news. I asked him, `What are you throwing, 200 [miles an hour]?' But he's in pretty good shape. He's getting into his program, and everything's looking good."
Martinez, Ortiz said, is upbeat about the addition of Curt Schilling to the Sox rotation.
"I guess he can't wait to see the season to start," Ortiz said. "He can't wait to get to camp to know more about Curt."
He chuckled. "Me, too."