The many springs of Big Papi
David Ortiz arrived Monday at Fenway South in Fort Myers for what he says will be the final spring training of his big-league career, the last 13 with the Red Sox. We thought we’d take you on a tour of his previous camps.
Ortiz arrives for his first spring with the Sox, having signed with Boston when Minnesota non-tendered him a contract after he’d spent the previous six seasons with the Twins. Boston’s expectations are modest, to say the least, especially after the Sox succeed in springing Kevin Millar from the contract he had signed with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons. Ortiz will be competing for playing time with Millar, Jeremy Giambi, and Shea Hillenbrand. The idea, general manager Theo Epstein said, is for Ortiz to play some first base and DH against some right-handed batters, getting somewhere between 200 and 300 at-bats. The Sox didn’t sign him until they sent Dave Jauss to watch him play first base in the Dominican Republic.
“He looks great,’’ Epstein said after watching him work out at the bag. “He’s just what the scouting report said. He’s got really good hands and foot work around the bag. He’s not going to have plus range, but he’s going to catch what he gets to, and he handles throws real well.’’
With his former team also training in Fort Myers, reporters delight in hearing stories about how Ortiz was pranked by the Twins. Like the time they distracted him by wrapping his clothes in ice, while they filled his underwear with peanut batter.
“We still love him as one of our own,’’ Torii Hunter said.
But new teammate Manny Ramirez already has shown Ortiz some love, giving him a Cadillac Escalade even before they became teammates. “He got it customized and gave it to me,’’ Ortiz said. “We love each other.’’
It took just a single season for Ortiz to morph from part-time player to Big Papi, the slugger having smashed 27 home runs and knocked in 65 runs in just 75 games after June 30.
“I’m not going to lie to you,’’ he says entering camp. “Everything has changed, crazy than before. Everywhere you go, people just want to get to know you better.’’
Ortiz lets it be known he hopes to play more at first base, “At 28, I don’t want to be a full-time DH,’’ he says. “Everybody knows it’s tough being just a DH at my age.’’
The Sox played Ortiz at first base in 34 games in 2004. It will be the last time in his career he plays more than 10 games in a season in the field.
This was Ortiz’s first spring in which his contract was a topic of discussion. The Sox signed him to a one-year, $4.6 million deal to avoid arbitration; in May, they tore that deal up and signed him to a two-year, $12.5 million deal.
Ortiz came into camp after the transformative experience of winning the World Series the year before, ending 86 years of franchise frustration.
“I was in Disney a couple of days ago with my family and I saw this 14-year-old girl,” he said. “She came to me and she was crying and I was like, `Hey, what happened?’ and she was like, `No, I’m just happy to meet you. You made my family’s life great. You, Big Papi, you played well and we won and my family was expecting that for a long time. My grandpa, he passed away and my grand, grand, grandfather he passed away expecting the Red Sox to win and you came in and helped us out and we won it.’
“It’s a great feeling when people come to you like that.”
The mini-controversy revolved around the order in which Ortiz and Ramirez would hit in the lineup. The previous October, Ortiz had batted cleanup behind Ramirez, but made it clear his preference was to have Manny hitting in the 4-hole. Manager Terry Francona acceded to Ramirez’s wishes to hit third, but that lasted only until mid-May, when he flipped Ortiz back into the 3-hole.
Otherwise, Ortiz had never sounded happier.
“Man, I don’t know, but we’re having so much fun here,” he said, “Like, when I go to Fenway, never in my life have I ever felt like that. It’s like, damn, I’m at home. This is where I want to be.’’
Ortiz’s contract status dominated his spring. He’d proclaimed in January that he’d like a contract extension, and while the Red Sox held an $8.4 million contract option for 2007, they obliged, in April signing Ortiz to a four-year, $52 million extension.
“I can’t think of a player who contributes in so many ways,” Epstein said. “David embodies what we want a Red Sox player to be. It was just an easy decision for us that David as a player and David as a person is someone we want to commit to and commit to for a long time.”
There was one void in Ortiz’s life, though. That winter, Johnny Damon had signed with the Yankees as a free agent.
“He’s my boy, man,’’ Ortiz said. “I talked to him a lot before and after he went to the other side. I wish him the best.
“Hopefully, people understand that this is a business. Players pretty much go for their future. I think that’s what happened with Johnny.”
There was a gift awaiting Ortiz when he arrived in camp in 2007:
a new black Toyota Tundra TRD truck. Owner John W. Henry personally handed him the keys.
“It’s my first truck ever,” Ortiz said. “Pickup truck. That’s what I got for my new year.
“That was my breakfast. I get a little something every year. That’s why I keep on going, man. I like presents.”
The gift was Henry’s way of saying thanks for arguably the greatest season ever by a Red Sox slugger, one in which Ortiz shattered Jimmie Foxx’s club record 54 home runs.
His idea of an encore? “What I always do,” he said. “Kill the ball!”
Ortiz made a point of taking a newcomer under his wing: Dustin Pedroia, the rookie second baseman.
“He talks to me about when he came up,” Pedroia said. “He said it’s going to be tough at first, you’ve got to get used to it. Don’t read the papers, don’t listen to this or that, just play hard and people will love you for it.
“I think he expresses that every day he walks in here with a smile on his face. That’s why everybody loves him. I’ve never heard one bad thing said about David Ortiz, and I don’t think I ever will.”
Ortiz’s joy over the team’s second World Series title in four seasons was tempered by the off-season surgery he had in November for a torn meniscus in his right knee. Ortiz is confident that the knee will not be a hindrance, but Francona said Ortiz will need to be more mindful of his conditioning.
“We talk to David about that,” Francona said. “I can tell David anything, and we do. Take care of yourself because you get to an age, and he’s a big boy. We don’t want to hold our breath every time he slides. He’s had a couple of knee issues. He understands he has to take care of himself.”
Ortiz expresses his hope that the Red Sox don’t lose Ramirez, who has two club options left on his contract but wants a new deal from the club..
“At one point, this team is going to have to do something about it because there’s not a hitter like Manny out there,” said Ortiz. “Manny is the kind of guy that you definitely want to have on your team, because of all the success he’s had in his career and what he’s done and what you expect from him. Manny is the type of guy that when he’s healthy, you know what you’re going to get from Manny.”
[Ramirez was traded at the July 31 deadline to the Dodgers in a three-team deal.]
For the first time in his tenure with the Sox, Ortiz was coming off a season in which he hit fewer than 30 home runs, a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist limiting him to 109 games in which he hit just 23 home runs and drove in 89 runs. Ortiz-watchers were all looking for signs that his right wrist was fully healed. So was Big Papi.
“I think he swings the bat now knowing if he doesn’t hit a ball it’s not because of his wrist,” Francona said. “Hitters are always dealing with issues, timing, things like that, swinging at strikes, getting pitches they can handle. Last year, there’s also the issue of swinging knowing that you’re going to have some clicking. I think it’s human nature to not be at full strength. We knew that and he dealt with it and we dealt with it.’’
Ortiz, 34, came into camp in the final year of his contract, with the Sox holding a $12.5 million option for 2011. He also was coming off the worst season of his big-league career, one in which he hit just .196 with 3 home runs through June 10 and finished with a .238 average and 28 home runs. A slow start in camp made him a major talking point.
“This is my 14th spring training and nobody ever talked about my numbers in spring training before,” he said.
“Oh, you guys are going to get some results, believe me,” he said. “It ain’t over yet.”
Ortiz said he had no doubt he would have a bounce-back season.
“Last season was an experience for me,’’ he said. “At the end of the season, when I sat down at my house, I was proud of myself. It was because there’s not too many people that know how to bounce back from that hole that I walked into the first two months. I asked myself how did I bounce back? I had an answer for that, I just stayed strong and didn’t pay attention to all the negativity that sometimes people bring around. I just stuck with what I have and thanks to God, I had a whole lot of teammates that had my back when I was really struggling.’’
Ortiz tried not to make it an issue, but he had made it known that he would have preferred another contract extension. Instead, the Sox exercised a $12.5 million option. His negotiating position had not been helped by another slow start.
“Obviously those types of slumps are hard for the players and for everybody around the player,” Epstein said. “We never thought he was done.
“There’s always some concern when you’re going through stretches like that, but he deserves all the credit in the world for working his way out of it and not getting consumed by the storm that was starting to surround him.”
Ortiz was bombarded with questions about fried chicken and beer, the symbols of last September’s collapse that led to the dismissal of manager Terry Francona. The Sox also had a new general manager, Ben Cherington succeeding Epstein after he left to become the Cubs’ president of baseball operations.
“The deal with the clubhouse, people made it into a bigger deal than it was,’’ he said, later adding: “One thing I’m not worried about with this club is leadership.’’
Ortiz said there was a point that winter he thought the Sox were not going to keep him.
“I’m not going to lie to you — at one point I thought I was done here,’’ he said.
“The front office was caught up in a lot of things … and at one point I guess I thought I wasn’t a priority here. That’s the way it looked to me.’’
The Sox ultimately made Ortiz a two-year, $18 million offer which he rejected, accepting a one-year, $14.75 million deal just hours before an arbitration hearing. Ortiz arrived in camp saying he’d dropped 20 pounds in the previous two months and was noticeably slimmer. He attributed the loss to an unusual diet he had embraced.
The beauty of his diet, he said, is that it was all natural, involving no supplements. The parameters were determined in a clinic in the Dominican Republic, where he underwent something called bioelectrical impedance, which is a procedure that its proponents say can assess body composition, measuring body fat, lean muscle mass and intra- and extracellular fluids.
This was followed by what its inventors call the ALCAT test, an acronym for something called antigen leukocyte cellular antibody test. It is a blood test said to measure the body’s response to various food and chemical substances at the cellular level. It claims to be able to tell what food “intolerances” or “sensitivities” an individual’s body has, and from the results, a personal diet can be drawn.
“If I stop hitting bombs,” he says, “I give up the diet.”
The Sox took a calculated gamble on Ortiz, signing him in November to a two-year, $26 million deal [plus an additional $4 million in incentives] even though he was limited to just 90 games in 2012 after straining his right Achilles tendon. By the spring, he was experiencing inflammation in both heels, and did not appear in a single exhibition game. At age 37, many raised the question of how much he had left.
Ortiz did indeed begin the season on the disabled list, but then hit .500 (18 for 36) with 3 homers and 15 RBIs in his first nine games after being activated.
He insisted, later, however, that while he didn’t play in any games, he worked extensively under the direction of Dan Dyrek, the team’s coordinator of sports medicine. “The bald guy, he’s a genius,’’ Ortiz said of Dyrek.
Ortiz also made no secret of his pleasure that the Sox had fired Bobby Valentine and replaced him with John Farrell.
“A lot of players had a lot of issues with our manager last year,’’ Ortiz said.
“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.
“…I think the first move our organization did was go out there and try to fix that. I’m pretty sure everybody is looking at that as a positive move, and now it’s like a fresh start. I’m pretty sure a lot of guys are comfortable … we’re going back to the basics with a manager like John.’’
After his epic performance in the 2013 postseason that resulted in a third World Series title, the Sox took a major step to ensure that Ortiz would end his career in a Sox uniform, tacking on a $16 million extension for 2015 with options built in for the subsequent two seasons.
“I don’t think you can apply a single policy to every player,’’ Cherington said. “You have a guy like David who has meant so much to the team, on and off the field, for so long he sort of goes beyond a typical player relationship. I think we owe him our time, a conversation when he wants it. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to find a way to resolve something or find agreement on something.
“He’s sort of passed in our eyes a typical player in the context of contract negotiations. His importance to the team, on and off the field, is significant. We just felt like, you know what, let’s sit down and make something work that makes sense for you, makes sense for the team, and we think we’ve done that.’’
In an essay he wrote for the Players Tribune, Ortiz made a passionate case for why he should be a Hall of Famer.
“People ask me all the time how I turned into such a monster in my early 30s,” he wrote. “‘How are you doing this? You must be cheating.’ You know how? Physically, I was always a bull. But I learned to play the game with my head and my heart and my b—-. I got smarter. I got mentally tougher.
“… I became a great hitter because of my mental preparation. This is a thinking man’s game. You can be the strongest dude alive and you’re not going to be able to hit a sinker with 40,000 people screaming at you. That’s what really makes me mad when I think about the way I will be remembered. They’re only going to remember my power. They’re not going to remember the hours and hours and hours of work in the film room. They’re not going to remember the BP. They’re not going to remember me for my intelligence. Despite all I’ve done in this game, I’m just the big DH from the Dominican. They turn you into a character, man.”
He said that since his name was linked to steroids, he has been asked “a million times” whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
“Hell yes I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” he wrote. “I’ve won three World Series since MLB introduced comprehensive drug testing. I’ve performed year after year after year. But if a bunch of writers who have never swung a bat want to tell me it’s all for nothing, OK. Why do they write my legacy?’’