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Big Papi is always the big attraction

David Ortiz, the majors’ top home run hitter, had his long-ball stroke going in the first round of the Home Run Derby, but ran out of steam.
David Ortiz, the majors’ top home run hitter, had his long-ball stroke going in the first round of the Home Run Derby, but ran out of steam. (Reuters Photo) Reuters Photo
By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / July 11, 2006
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PITTSBURGH -- For one round, anyway, as he sent home runs swan-diving into the Allegheny, including the longest of the night, a 488-foot drive that broke the water's surface on the fly, it appeared as if David Ortiz was about to adopt a new nickname for the night: Ol' Man River.

But when it comes to the All-Star Home Run Derby, Ortiz is never the last man standing, and last night in PNC Park was no exception. For the third straight year, Ortiz did not make it past the second round of this made-for-TV exhibition and found himself watching someone else -- in this case, Ryan Howard of the Phillies -- hitting a winning walkoff blast.

``I put more pressure on myself doing this than playing the game, do you believe that?" said Ortiz, who managed just three home runs in the second round after a 10-homer salvo in Round 1 (four other homers made it to the river on a bounce).

``When I stop and start over again, that's not easy," said Ortiz, who like Howard and a third of the eight contenders, Miguel Tejada of the Orioles, took his soft tosses from Ramon Henderson, the Phillies' bullpen coach who became in demand after he served up a record 53 homers to last year's winner, Bobby Abreu, also of the Phils.

``I run out of gas," Ortiz said. ``I find myself trying to overswing at the end. That's not me. I've got to keep it smooth."

But Ortiz didn't need to keep launching balls into the Allegheny, which runs behind PNC Park, to make a splash at these 77th All-Star Game festivities, when he will be one of four players representing the Red Sox (second baseman Mark Loretta, closer Jonathan Papelbon, and the spirit of Manny Ramírez are the others) at tonight's game, the fifth to be played in the Steel City.

An embarrassed sport forced by scandal to temper its enthusiasm for Barry Bonds's pursuit of one of its most hallowed home run records entertains no such reservations about Big Papi.

``I think he's the Magic Johnson of our era right now," said New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who may have edged out Ortiz for the American League Most Valuable Player Award last season but concedes it's no contest when it comes to unconditional love.

``He's the most charismatic baseball player I've ever been around. Whites like him, blacks, Hispanics, everybody," said A-Rod. ``Everybody loves David Ortiz. I love him. He's a good friend. It's hard when it's the New York Yankees and the Red Sox to say anything about love, but there's a lot of respect for him."

A-Rod dropped a previously untold story about Ortiz on the cluster of inquisitors who had gathered around his table in a hotel ballroom yesterday afternoon, while on the other side of the room, Ortiz entertained a nonstop parade of listeners, wearing diamond-studded sunglasses and a spectacular array of silver necklaces, bracelets, and rings (``That's some serious bling," said Sox second baseman Mark Loretta, basking in his first All-Star start. ``He's got his own jeweler traveling with him, sorting things out.")

``I spent a lot of time with him in Minnesota," A-Rod said, harkening back to the days before Ortiz staked his claim on New England, a player recently released by his former team, the Twins. ``What a small world it is. I had an opportunity to get David Ortiz and [Rangers owner] Tom Hicks on the phone when I was in Texas, and they couldn't get a deal done.

``This was a time when no one wanted David Ortiz. His story, when you think about it -- his mother passed away, being released by Minnesota, and then for him to triumph and do what he has been able to do? If it was a movie, I'd line up to watch it."

Rodriguez then asked what Ortiz is before answering his own question. ``Big Papi is a big cartoon character," said A-Rod. ``How can you not like Big Papi?"

Like Ortiz, White Sox slugger Jim Thome tends to make pitchers wince just by walking to the plate, but beyond both having forearms like sides of beef and their shared devotion to the longball, Thome would seem to have little in common with Ortiz. Thome, the progeny of Illinois farm folks, would wear overalls to these things if he could get away with it, while Ortiz would have a Cartier's concession installed in the clubhouse. But Thome, who has known Ortiz for years as a rival, admires him for much more than what he's done on a ballfield.

Thome told about how Ortiz and the other Red Sox All-Stars flew here from Chicago Sunday night on the White Sox charter, courtesy of the generosity of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

``OK, I will say this about Ortiz," Thome said. ``It came from my wife, actually. We're sitting on the plane last night and the first thing [Ortiz] asks me about is my nephew who was paralyzed when he was 16. Ortiz was playing for Minnesota [at the time].

``My wife, she goes, `Man, you know what, that David Ortiz, he cares, he's very passionate.'

``Let's not forget the player he is, but you know what, he does care, he cares about people and if you're around him -- we have the same agent -- to be around him and watch him and see how he's progressed, what he's done, is great. He's a tremendous player, really, and right now he may be the best clutch hitter in the game, no question."

Thome smiled when told that Ortiz said recently that Ortiz used to wear Thome out with questions.

``I take that as a compliment. When you watch him, and you watch the energy and the vibe that surrounds him, it's cool, because I think deep down underneath all that [bling] is a genuine good man who really cares about people.

``You can't put on that act inside."

Back at his table, Ortiz is repeating the idea he floated after the Sox went 19 innings and 6 hours 19 minutes Sunday, the third longest game in the team's history, that after 15 innings, baseball should borrow from soccer and its penalty kicks and have a home run derby settle ties. But the big boppers wouldn't get to take their swings, Ortiz said. You'd get to choose the weak swinger on the other club.

And which player would Sox opponents pick out of the Boston dugout? The Ortiz smile came out in all its thousand-watt glory.

``[Doug] Mirabelli," he said. ``In batting practice, he's Reggie Jackson. In the game, Michael Jackson."

Loretta, of course, has only recently come within Ortiz's orbit.

``I think he's the biggest personality in the game right now," Loretta said. ``That's what Alex was getting at. He's someone people gravitate to. It's just amazing to me. You see the getup and stuff, but he's such a down-to-earth guy. And it's just the perfect nickname -- Big Papi. He's a huggable guy. Always a great smile, a great laugh. He makes people feel good in any room. He's probably the biggest personality in the game right now."

Earlier in the day, someone had gestured at Ortiz's shades. Custom-made for the All-Star Game?

``Custom-made for the All-Star Game?" he repeated. ``Custom-made for me."

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