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All we're saying is give Papi a chance

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 7, 2010 02:43 PM

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ortizswing.jpg If you grew up with a poster of Fred Lynn (or Carlton Fisk . . . or Mo Vaughn . . . or Roger Clemens . . .) on your bedroom wall, you require no in-depth reminder of the Red Sox' long history of acrimonious departures with its most beloved players.

So the current ownership's apparent intent on mending fences with the iconic likes of Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra is as appealing as it is shrewd. Peter Abraham put it perfectly the other day: John Henry is settling all family business, but in a good way. In this case, pulling them back in just when they think they're out, to tweak a line that requires no tweaking, is a wonderful thing.

Which is why my mind is spinning at a certain element of Sox fans' mindset when it comes to David Ortiz. After two games -- two ugly games, yes, but performances that are pretty much historically in character for him at this point in a season -- it seems there is panic in the bleachers, panic in the living rooms, panic on the airwaves. The first four questions on last night's Red Sox postgame show on WEEI pertained to Ortiz. The mashup:

Big Papi has no pop! He's 0 for 7! It's 2009 all over again! You have to play Mike Lowell! What is FranCOMA doing?

My radio went off before the fifth question could be asked. Poor John Ryder deserved hazard pay just for having to listen to all of the caterwauling.

Big Papi is getting full Grebeck treatment here, and while it's never good for your mental health to let sports radio shriekers influence your viewpoint or gauge of what's important, it's unavoidable in this case.

The anti-Papi venom? It's not right, it's way too soon for this, and based on the hypersensitive Ortiz's reaction last night, it makes me wonder if there is going to be a bitter ending here for perhaps the one player in recent Red Sox history who should be sent off on good terms.

“(Expletive) happens. Then you guys talk (expletive)," Ortiz said after the Sox' 6-4 loss to the Yankees Tuesday night. "Two (expletive) games already. (Expletive) are going crazy. What’s up with that, man? (Expletive). There’s (expletive) 160 games left.”

Clearly, Papi would be getting more leeway after all of two games if not for the lingering shadow of Mike Lowell, an appealing player with a classy public persona, his fair share of memorable moments, and no place to play.

It's a bummer that Lowell is in purgatory, but there are reasons that the Red Sox have not been able to trade him despite the willingness to gulp down virtually all of his $12.5 million salary. He's 36, has the range of Neil Diamond since his hip surgery, and, in a cruelly ironic twist, can't stay healthy enough here to convince a potential new team that he would stay healthy there.

Should he stick around -- and find reasonable health -- Lowell will get his at-bats against the likes of southpaws CC Sabathia, and tonight's New York starter, Andy Pettitte. But Ortiz is the designated hitter, and it was a common and symbolic gesture to have him in there on Opening Day. And it's wise for manager Terry Francona to show faith in him tonight.

This is one of those days when I remember to appreciate Francona's big-picture approach to running his ball club. Too often around here, the refusal to be short-sighted is practically an act of defiance. No time to let the season percolate. Ortiz is 0 for 7 with some ugly swings? What are you waiting for, Theo? Get him gone . . . yesterday!

It's just . . . ridiculous. And please don't accuse me of being in denial about his decline from his heyday. Of course I recognize that Ortiz, who is listed at 34 years old and is definitely 30-something, ain't all that he used to be. His bat has slowed, and lefties have become the recurring nuisance they were during his Minnesota Twins days. Those glorious days of practically predictable walkoffs have faded, and to watch him struggle leaves you feeling a little melancholy. We all miss this. And this.

But that doesn't mean it's time to sit him down against anything more than the occasional tough lefty, let alone say goodbye. You say Ortiz can't hit a fastball anymore? Baseball-reference begs to differ. He had an .859 OPS against power pitchers last season, as compared to .756 versus finesse pitchers. Despite his historically brutal start in 2009 -- his second homer came in game 54, the one-third mark of the season -- he finished with 28 homers and 99 RBIs. No current member of the Red Sox surpassed those numbers last season. Believe it or not, including Lowell.

C'mon, it's April. He's almost always like this at this time of year. This is traditionally his worst month for batting average (.259 career) and on-base percentage (.348) and second-worst (to, of all months, August) for OPS (.855). In 2003, he began the season 0 for 6. In '04, 1 for 6. In '07, 3 for 19. In '08, 0 for 11. Last year? Well, you know.

It wouldn't be out of character for him to begin another season in a prolonged slump, and it's apparent that his awful first half in '09 resonates more with this vocal segment of Sox fans than does his extremely productive second half.

That makes sense, to a degree, and the concern is understandable. Still . . . as Papi so crisply put it during his mini-tirade last night, it's two (expletive) games.

Follow his manager's lead. Give the man a chance.

Judging him on seven at-bats? That's not a chance. That's an agenda.

And it will lead directly to the kind of sad ending that was just starting to become unfamiliar around here.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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