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Let it go, Big Papi

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 16, 2013 11:54 AM

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Pretty much since the black curtain fell on the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, Dan Shaughnessy has referred to goat-horned manager Grady Little as "He Who Must Not Be Named,'' that Voldemort of Boston baseball.

But it didn't require rapt attention to David Ortiz's comments from his picnic table pulpit a couple of days ago to recognize that Little apparently now has ex-manager company in the Name-Doesn't-Ring-A-Bell club.

Ortiz's refusal to say "Bobby Valentine'' when discussing last year's manager was so obvious that it almost made one wonder whether his disgust for the one-and-done dugout disaster is so deep that he also refuses to say the name of Thursday's holiday for consistency's sake if nothing else.

"A lot of players had a lot of issues with our manager last year," said Ortiz when asked about the character of this year's team, hardly a leading question. He continued:

"A team is like a human body. If the head is right, the body is going to function right, but if the head is messed up, then the body is going to be all over the place. It seems like that was part of our situation last year. Guys weren't comfortable with the manager we had. Guys were struggling."

Ortiz's annoyance -- or perhaps a stronger word is required -- with Valentine is understandable. Ortiz is one of few Red Sox who at least publicly had Valentine's back, though the slugger's comments this week that he saw problems with the manager's approach as far back as last spring suggest his support may not have been unwavering or entirely genuine.

papinfinn214.JPGHow did Valentine repay him for providing at least some form of support? He went on Bob Costas's talk show after he was fired and suggested Ortiz, who had been sidelined with an Achilles' injury since July 16, shut it down for good at the end of August after the franchise-altering blockbuster trade/salary dump with the Dodgers.

"He realized that this trade meant that we're not going to run this race, we're not going to finish the race properly and he decided not to play anymore," Valentine told Costas.

Whether Valentine believed it or not, it was a slimy thing to do, a salacious quote provided during an interview that after the fact feels like a job interview. (He'll soon debut a show on NBC Sports Radio.) Maybe Valentine needs a reminder of how hobbled Ortiz was when he made a one-game return Aug. 24, but for those of us who saw him that day, when every step looked like it could lead to disaster, there was no doubt that shutting him down was the right thing to do.

"I wasn't ready," Ortiz said. "I thought I was. I was doing some running. I knew I wasn't 100 percent but I thought I could survive. But it got worse. I got in a lot of pain and I actually put my career to the side, trying to come back, trying to help this ballclub. Doctors told me I could have snapped my Achilles running down to second base. You guys know the rest."

That Ortiz is still not 100 percent, nearly seven months to the day after initially suffering the injury, is only further confirmation of the obvious. Of course he's angry at Valentine. Who among us wouldn't be under the same circumstances?

But now that he's said his piece without saying the name, it's time for Ortiz to put this behind him. As fans who abandoned ship sometime last August and September are beginning to notice, the Red Sox have completely reversed their culture this year, bringing in accountable, affable professionals -- Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and more. If Bobby V was nonsense, John Farrell is entirely no-nonsense.

This may not be a great team, though the opinion here is that there's a reasonable chance of a pleasant surprise ahead this summer and perhaps into the fall. It will almost certainly be a likable one, particularly compared to gag-inducing recent editions.

Ortiz, who was on a very short list of the best hitters in the American League when healthy last season (his 1.026 OPS was higher than that of respective qualified league-leaders Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera), is essential to the Sox' on-field success.

At 37, he remains the quintessential cleanup hitter, and while there were countless other circumstances that contributed to their collapse last year, it is relevant that they were 23-49 without him.

But his role in making sure the culture change takes effect as soon as possible is nearly as important as his role in the heart of the order.

He's beginning his 11th season with the Red Sox now, a gift from the Twins that gave beyond the wildest expectation, and has he ever seen it all. He's been a central character, the man of so many big moments, through the redemptive/rewarding "Idiot" years and the more conventional 2007 champs. He's been as exasperated as any of us through the down times of September 2011 and beyond. He's lived the full Red Sox experience.

But if he takes a moment to look around this spring, he'll notice that not only have many names changed, including that one he refuses to say, but that the atmosphere has as well. The group isn't the Idiots Redux, nor is it managed by one. It's a team with a chance, one enhanced if the familiar big fella in the middle is right, in both body and mind.

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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