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Ortiz shows his clout on and off the field

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 29, 2012
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SEATTLE — As Fred McGriff, Darrell Evans, Carlos Delgado, Dave Kingman, Jeff Bagwell, and others will attest, hitting 400 home runs doesn’t guarantee a spot in Cooperstown.

It does, however, represent a pretty impressive milestone, especially for a guy who was traded by the Mariners to the Twins, and eventually released because he was viewed as a platoon player about to make too much money for the Minnesota payroll.

For David Ortiz, who was at 399 entering Thursday night’s game against Seattle, what is also remarkable about the feat is the way he has approached his status as a baseball senior citizen. He has decided that he is going to play harder than ever, and not pace himself as most 36-year-old players tend to do.

He does not want to “pick his spots” but rather play hard all the time, run the bases aggressively, take care of his body, and play out the final two years of his career at the top of his game, not just going through the motions.

At 36, he is the Red Sox’ best offensive player. Still.

There will be other columns devoted to whether Ortiz should be in the Hall of Fame debate, but those shouldn’t come until he finally calls it a career after the 2014 season.

Seattle is the city where many believe the greatest DH in history played. Edgar Martinez had an amazing career, but he did not receive much support for the Hall, likely because of the perception of him as a one-dimensional player. But a .312 career batting average, two batting titles, a career .933 OPS, and 145 RBIs to lead the American League in 2000 cannot be ignored.

Ortiz has a .284 career average with 399 homers and 1,319 RBIs. His .927 OPS includes a 1.028 this season, which would mark the fourth time in his career he has topped 1.000.

Sometimes the positional aspect of the Hall can be overstated. We did not vote Ted Williams into the Hall of Fame because of his defense.

Whether Ortiz’s numbers will be extraordinary enough when all is said and done becomes the issue.

He will likely fall short of 500 home runs (unless he plays beyond the two years he claims he’ll play), and even then, 500 guarantees nothing, especially if you have been associated with steroids (i.e. Mark McGwire).

Ortiz, who didn’t have his first 500-at-bat season until he was 28, knows what he wants for the rest of his career. He wants his legacy to be one of a guy who played the game with dignity and left it with respect.

After spending about a half-hour on the Red Sox bench with Ortiz the other day, I could see the passion he still has for playing baseball and playing it right.

He has become a huge supporter of manager Bobby Valentine, telling him early this season, “I’ll help you every way I can getting these guys to play hard for you.”

And Ortiz has succeeded. He called an early-season team meeting in which he lit into teammates for their poor attitude and challenged every one of them to look within himself to make a difference.

In addition to that kind of leadership, he has been a very good hitter. He swings at strikes, takes his walks, and hangs in against lefthanded pitchers as well as any lefthanded hitter in baseball.

When he has had to play first base, he has played very well — to the point where scouts from National League teams are starting to believe that if things don’t work out with the Red Sox, they would no longer view Ortiz as strictly a DH.

“I just want to do the right things,” Ortiz said. “I want to play the game and have respect for the game. I want to play hard, help this team win, and help this organization. That’s all I want to do.

“I get frustrated with things sometimes but I’ve always loved being with this organization. I would love to stay here until I decide to hang it up.”

The last player standing from the 2004 championship team, Ortiz feels the Red Sox are trending upward. He feels good about the words he spoke back in late April, which he believes his teammates took to heart. He feels that Valentine appreciates the leadership and support he has shown, and that this is a team that can still accomplish big things.

“We have a chance to do so big things here, and I think our guys feel that way now,” Ortiz said. “We have the talent. When we get all of our guys back, we have the pitching, the bullpen has been unbelievable, and we have a good manager here.

“It feels like everyone is on the same page here, and that’s why I didn’t like to see these stories that we’re not together or there’s turmoil. There’s no turmoil here. We have a bunch of players and a manager who want to win. Period. That’s what we have here.”

So despite a recent rant about not having fun and reconsidering whether he would return to the Red Sox, the fact is, Ortiz is having fun. He loves the place he has reached late in his career. He feels wisdom has taken over and he still has the physical tools to put up major numbers for two more years.

He will be an All-Star again — though he turned down a Home Run Derby invitation — and Valentine appreciates what Ortiz does and who he is.

“He gets it,” Valentine said. “He does the right thing all the time. He’s a great example for our players. He reacts the way he’s supposed to react, he plays hard all the time. He really understands how things work.”

Yes, Ortiz wants a multiyear deal, and if anyone has made his case, it’s him. It would not be shocking for him to decline arbitration and open up his talents to the market. It’s the last thing he wants to do, but really, for the last three seasons, he has proven to Red Sox management that he deserves some security.

As we’ve written before, rewarding a great player who has been so loyal to the brand and the team should be a no-brainer. Take the business side out of it, in this case. Yes, one-year deals are great. They tend to motivate players into having good seasons, but as Ortiz has always pointed out, has he slacked off in the years when he’s had a multiyear deal?

So when he strikes No. 400, it guarantees him nothing. After all, Jason Giambi has hit 429 homers, Andruw Jones 427, and Paul Konerko 409. They don’t necessarily elicit Hall of Fame excitement.

What it does, however, is remind us what a superb career he has had and continues to have, and that the way he conducts himself is something we wish all of his teammates would emulate.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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