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Dan Shaughnessy

The big question

Sox wonder if Papi can regain his pop

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 23, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - You look at him and listen and you want to believe. You want to turn back the clock to 2006 when he hit 54 homers and knocked in 137 runs. You want to remember the golden days when it seemed like every hit was a walkoff wonder.

David Ortiz brought more joy to Boston baseball fans than just about anybody. In those championship seasons, Big Papi was the Dominican Yaz, carrying the team on his back, performing in the clutch every time. He did it with a smile, too. Nobody made more friends, earned more love.

That’s why it’s so hard to think about where this is going. Sure, we would all like to believe that Ortiz can return to the form that made him one of the most feared sluggers in the game. But the trends are bad. He’s 34 going on 43 and his numbers have tumbled downhill for four straight seasons. Good pitching almost always gets him out. He went 1 for 12 in the playoffs last season. In his last two Octobers, Ortiz batted .164 (9 for 55) with 17 strikeouts and only one home run. Life didn’t get any easier when his name was leaked on the list of those who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.

He probably wouldn’t be here if not for the contract. The Sox are on the hook for a guaranteed $12.5 million this year, which makes him worth one last shot. But there is fear throughout the franchise. Jason Bay and his home runs are gone. Manny Ramirez is long gone. The Sox are committed to “run prevention’’ and that’s going to pile more pressure on Ortiz. Theo Epstein basically put Big Papi on notice the day after the playoff sweep last autumn. The GM said the Sox needed more production from the DH spot.

Ortiz bounded into camp yesterday, slightly trimmer, and spoke of the pain he felt during his historic drought of April and May. After Ortiz made several references to “negativity,’’ he was asked if he felt people in Boston gave up on him too quickly last year.

“I think so,’’ he said. “I think people give up on me too early. Start talking about age and all that kind of stuff. You listen to it for a minute. It was the same people that was clapping for me the year before that. Minds change that quick? I don’t believe in that. But I’m strong enough to know how to deal with that.’’

When a reporter remarked on his relatively svelte figure, Ortiz said, “You ought to see me naked.’’ Later, he explained that he’ll never look like Ricky Martin (love those dated references), adding, “I’m going to be the same guy. I want to stay away from injuries, but I ain’t going to look any different.’’

The Ortiz situation is sensitive. Manager Terry Francona has been known to stay with veterans (Mike Timlin, Jason Varitek) despite evidence they might be done. Tito tried everything with Ortiz last year, dropping him in the order, then giving him some days off.

“I thought what was best for the team was to be patient with David,’’ Francona said. “I thought we were there for him. He didn’t quit. That was a difficult two months. There’s no getting around it. There was no production. He was going through stuff he’d never gone through before. To run away from David wouldn’t have helped us. I think there’s a difference between being loyal and trying to do what’s good for the ball club.

“I think it kind of ganged up on him as we got a month into the season and things went from bad to worse and kind of multiplied. I think the worst game was in Anaheim. He looked frustrated and needed to take a blow. He stayed under the radar for a few days. The last four months, he was pretty good, but he had a long way to go.’’

It’ll be interesting to see how long Francona stays with Ortiz if things start slowly this year. It’s never easy at the end. Hall of Fame Orioles manager Earl Weaver stuck with lefty Mike Cuellar way too long, finally pulling him out of the rotation only to have Cuellar complain about losing his spot.

Earl’s response? “I gave Cuellar more chances than my first wife.’’

Ortiz finished with respectable numbers (28 homers, 99 RBIs, although a career-high 134 strikeouts) last season, but his late-season stats were largely padded against teams that already had surrendered. If we should assign asterisks to steroid-inflated numbers, what do we do with homers hit against the moribund Orioles of 2009?

Papi issued a warning to those looking for him to burst out of the blocks.

“I’m not a beginning guy, I’ll tell you that right now,’’ he said. “I’m an end-of-the-season guy. Pretty much my whole career I’ve been like that. Last year was something I don’t even know how to explain. But I’m not focusing on that. At the end of the season, when I sit down at my house, I was proud of myself. I know how to bounce back from that hole that I walked into. I just stayed strong. I had a whole bunch of teammates that had my back when I was struggling.

“For me to do it, get it done once again, it’s not surprising. You guys know me. You know what I’m capable of producing. Everybody knows what I’m capable of producing. I struggle sometimes, but I know how to bounce back. So I’m very excited about this season.’’

It’s good to see him. We’re glad he’s excited. But what if this is the end?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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