Ortiz reflects on past, ponders future
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — David Ortiz walked into the Red Sox clubhouse a few days ago and noticed the locker a few feet away from his had been given to Brent Lillibridge, one of the many nondescript players who have passed through Fenway Park in this forgettable season.
“That’s where Youk was,” said Ortiz, referring to former teammate Kevin Youkilis, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox last month. “That’s when it really hit me that I’m the last one left.”
Ortiz is the only player from the 2004 World Series champions still with the Red Sox, the only man in the room who was on the field when they came back to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series then overwhelmed the St. Louis Cardinals to win a trophy that even today fans line up to take photographs with.
That was a team loaded with star players who had colorful personalities. But on Tuesday night, when Ortiz is introduced as a member of the American League All-Star team, he will be the only player from the Red Sox on the field. Teams like the Cubs, Indians, and Orioles have more representatives than do the Sox.
Being here alone, Ortiz said, is “a little strange.”
But it’s not undeserved. Outside of Ortiz, the most talented players on the team have underachieved. Others are injured and have yet to play. As baseball’s best gather here, the Sox are largely an afterthought.
At 36, Ortiz is a dinosaur determined to fight off extinction. He is hitting .312 with a 1.013 OPS, the fourth highest in the game. Ortiz has 22 home runs, 57 RBIs and 47 extra-base hits. Only Reds first baseman Joey Votto, with 49, has more.
Ortiz is on a pace to hit 41 home runs, something he hasn’t done since hitting a franchise-record 54 in 2006. Last week he became the 49th player in history with 400 homers.
“It’s one of those renaissance years,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. “You’re talking about being on pace for 40 homers and 120 RBIs. Those are numbers that the elite of the elite put up. David’s a great hitter. He’s one of the faces of baseball.”
Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who counts Ortiz as one of his mentors, marvels at what his friend has accomplished at this late stage of his career.
“Papi is still the best,” Cano said. “How many players in the game do you stop to watch him swing the bat? When you think of the Red Sox, you think of him.”
The starry season has come despite Ortiz being in the middle of the lineup that changes, literally, almost every day. His protection has been there some days, missing on others. Ortiz already has been walked 51 times, the Yankees doing it six times in the four games leading up to the break.
“If you don’t have hot guys hitting behind you, they won’t mind to pitch around you and take care of the rest, you know what I’m saying? So this first half was good,” Ortiz said. “Like I always do, tried my best. Hopefully the rest of the guys that are on the DL will be ready for the second half and us to have a better chance.”
Ortiz also admits that his statistics are borne of a desire to prove something to those who run the Red Sox. On several occasions this season, he has voiced anger at the idea of playing on a one-year contract [albeit at $14.575 million] and having to prove himself all over again while other, less-accomplished teammates have the security of multi-year contracts that in some cases proved unwarranted.
“I understand the situation sometimes,” Ortiz said. “But not all the time. Let me ask you something: Who has shown they can play in Boston?’’
Whatever questions there are, Ortiz has answered them. He hit .218 with 18 home runs against lefthanders from 2008-10; swinging the bat so poorly that former manager Terry Francona regularly benched Ortiz against lefties at the start of the 2010 season.
But since the start of the 2011 season, Ortiz is hitting .321 against lefties with 17 homers.
“You can see the difference,” Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels said. “Through a career, if you can play 10 or 15 years, you’re going to have a few years when you’re not at your top stuff. But it’s how you come back from those years that counts, and David has come back strong. It’s really fun to see because he’s a great player.
“He’s got the baseball intelligence to know what a pitcher’s going to throw him, especially a lefty. He takes that, applies it, and he gets the hits. He’s going the other way now and showing incredible patience.”
Ortiz also improved himself physically, losing weight to guard against a family history of diabetes. The side benefit is more athleticism on the field. Ortiz has scored from second on a single eight times this season, one more than he did all last season.
“I feel different,” he said. “I wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to the field.”
That’s not always the case, however. Ortiz arrived 25 minutes late for the American League’s mandatory interview session Monday. But he made a stylish entrance, arriving wearing Diesel sunglasses and covered in diamond jewelry. His pinky ring alone was probably worth more than a utility infielder.
“Best-dressed All-Star every year,” Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said. “Not even close.”
Ortiz took questions for 15 minutes, in English and Spanish. The Red Sox, he said several times, still can contend for a playoff spot if they get healthy.
“Oh, yeah, no question,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz also said he plans to play for as long as anybody allows him to.
“But I’m not going to be Jamie Moyer,” he said, referring to the 49-year-old lefthander who started 10 games for the Rockies earlier this season.
Later in the day, former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, now with the Phillies, said he suspected the team would balk on the idea of signing Ortiz to a two-year deal that would take him into retirement.
But he hopes that changes.
“In my opinion, the Red Sox are not the Red Sox without him. Period,” Papelbon said. “I don’t care what he asks for. I try and make that big man happy.”