Sweet dreams for Ortiz
He's nightmare for opponents
He knew he had this in him, from the time he was a little boy in bare feet in the Dominican Republic, yearning to play shortstop, dreaming of becoming an NBA star, fantasizing about crushing home runs out of major league parks. Some dreams simply don't come true.
Other dreams merely have to wait.
When David Ortiz finally made it to the big leagues full-time in 2000, he dutifully took orders from a manager, Tom Kelly, who urged him to concentrate on base hits, not Babe Ruth swings. Just four short years ago, Boston's indefatigable slugger was a singles hitter for the Minnesota Twins, batting .282) with only 10 home runs in 130 games.
"Something with my swing was not right in Minnesota," Ortiz said. "I could never hit for power. Whenever I took a big swing, they'd say to me, `Hey, hey, what are you doing?' So I said, `You want me to hit like a little [girl] then I will.'
"But I knew I could hit for power. It was just a matter of getting the green light."
There were times he would leave the park frustrated and angry. He did not like that feeling. He was a proud man, but one who vowed never to become spoiled or greedy or selfish. He came from the same country where his friend Pedro Martinez sat under the mango tree and wondered how he'd scrape up 50 cents to catch a bus. David Ortiz was a happy, grateful person. Baseball had afforded him a life he could only dream of, and he would not let the disappointments of a simple game overtake him.
In the winter of 2002, he became a free agent. His employer, the Twins, expressed tepid interest. The Boston Red Sox signed the big lefthander for a relatively modest fee (one-year, $1.25 million), slightly outbidding the New York Yankees.
"In my first at-bat at spring training, there was a man on first," Ortiz said. "I tried to move the runner over. When I got to the dugout, [manager] Grady Little said, `Hey, hey, you got to bring that guy in.' I said, `OK, I guess I've got the green light to swing.' "
His swing has been refined by hitting coach Ron Jackson, who made minor adjustments with his elbow, his choke on the bat, and his timing. He told Ortiz to wait as long as he possibly could before he swung. He talked about "loading up," utilizing the strength of his sturdy, 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound frame to its maximum.
"Think of what it's like to get ready to throw a punch," Papa Jack said. "If you really want to hit somebody hard, you've got to draw back. That's what I mean by loading up. That's what we had David work on."
You want loading up? Here's what Ortiz piled on the Yankees in the American League Championship Series: A .387 average, 3 home runs, 11 RBIs, 23 total bases, a slugging percentage of (.742), an on-base percentage of (.457), and an MVP trophy for a walkoff home run and a walkoff single that have propelled him into national stardom.
"It's ridiculous," said teammate Doug Mientkiewicz. "It's gotten to the point where he swings with such conviction, he doesn't even need to be hitting a strike anymore."
When the St. Louis Cardinals jog onto the emerald lawn of Fenway Park tonight for Game 1 of the World Series, you can be sure of one thing: They will do everything they can not to let Ortiz beat them.
"But the way he's hitting, it might not matter what they do," said Jackson.
Ortiz's incredible hitting display has drawn comparisons to the original Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, as well as former Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson, whose dramatic clutch hits in 1986 made him an instant folk hero.
"Once you get into a groove like that, you feel invincible," said Henderson. "I feel like I could hit anybody, and the opposing team could sense that. When you make a pitcher nervous on the mound, they end up trying to throw around you, or making a mistake, and it usually helps out the hitter."
Henderson, not unlike Ortiz, was a congenial personality who seemed impervious to pressure.
"The guys that get nervous are the guys who go 0 for 5," Henderson said. "David and I have that big smile in common. But the big difference is Ortiz isn't sneaking up on anybody. He's the No. 5 hitter. I was batting seventh or eighth.
"Pitchers go into the game worrying about Ortiz hurting them, and he goes out and does it anyway."
He has been so good you wonder if it's really as easy as it looks, but then, you don't see Ortiz retreat between innings to the clubhouse so he can rewind the video of his previous at-bat. When you are the designated hitter, you have that luxury.
"We were sitting in the clubhouse during Game 7 [of the ACLS]," revealed outfielder Gabe Kapler. "It was about the third inning. I'm stretching, trying to get ready. I was telling him how impressed I was that Curt Schilling still gets nervous before a big game. I told him I thought it was amazing a guy of his caliber still has the jitters.
"David looks at me and says, `I never get nervous.'
"Now my first inclination was not to believe him. But he says, `When I start feeling that way, I think about what I've gone through in my life, and then I put things in the proper place.' By prioritizing baseball, it allowed him to be at ease, and to relax.
"It shows on the field. There is always this calmness about him. And when pitchers see that calmness, I think it worries them."
You must go back to the Dominican, to sultry summer days when Ortiz begged to play shortstop, even though he was a lefty; when he saw Michael Jordan play on TV, and decided he wanted to be like Mike; when the pitches he saw appeared as big as beach balls, to understand this simple life is what prevents him from allowing baseball to be complicated. He was poor, but so were his neighbors, his friends, and his relatives. His parents loved him and educated him, and that was enough. As Ortiz so aptly explained it himself, "Growing up in the Dominican ain't easy, but it ain't bad, either.
"I always think back to where I came from," he said. "I never forget about that. I was down in Jamaica Plain the other day. They have a lot of people from my hometown in the Dominican living there.
"I went to the barber shop to get a haircut, and there was no one in there. A half an hour later, the people were in the streets, waiting for me to come out of the barber shop.
"My friend asked me, `How come you aren't like the basketball players?' The other day one of them came into this club and no one got close to him, because he had three bodyguards with him. People just wanted to try and say, `Hey, good job,' or `What's up? Can I have an autograph?' People don't want to hurt you. They just want to say hello.
"The people [from the barber shop], they see me all the time in the Dominican. If I come out with three bodyguards, how can they talk to me? There is no reason for that."
He has never taken himself too seriously. In Minnesota, he was the target of numerous practical jokes, including the day infielder Corey Koskie loaded his pockets with ice cubes, and his underwear with peanut butter and jelly. Ortiz, of course, enjoyed the last laugh. He lubricated Koskie's underwear with Icy Hot just before a road trip.
They were a young team, and Ortiz was a leader in the clubhouse. He had a major impact on prospects like Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman.
Last spring, with Minnesota and the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., for an exhibition game, Ortiz went to get dressed when he realized someone had stolen his clothes. He was forced to squeeze into a county worker's orange jumpsuit to retrieve his things.
"You should have seen him," said Mientkiewicz. "The suit was up to his shins. There were buttons popping off all over the place. He came over to our clubhouse yelling and hollering. That's an image I will never forget."
The lasting image for most of America is Ortiz's mighty swing, and the havoc it wreaked on the Yankees. It has brought him new respect in the form of phone calls from Jordan, rock star receptions in Boston, unsolicited advice from Reggie Jackson.
"I was talking to him about hitting three home runs in one game in the World Series," Ortiz said. "He said pitchers back then had heart. They weren't afraid to come right after you. I told him, `I guess pitchers now are smart.' "
Because the National League does not use the designated hitter, Ortiz will play first base for the three games in St. Louis, which has already caused great concern in Red Sox Nation. Ortiz had 31 starts at first this season and committed four errors. He has been a liability in the field, and put in some extra fielding work yesterday.
"Every day I work the bag a little bit," he said. "One day, I'd like to possibly get a chance to play [in the field]. I'm only 28 years old. I don't want everyone to know me as just a hitter."
For now, the moniker of HITTER is a respectful one. No one expects Ortiz to duplicate his ridiculous heroics from the ALCS, but the Red Sox can't help but believe the former singles hitter will have a bearing in the outcome.
"David is the first guy I've seen who would go 0 for 5 with three strikeouts and come on the bus and say, `It's OK, someone is going to pay tomorrow,' " said Mientkiewicz. "And, 99 percent of the time, he'd do something great the next day."
"He's been in a zone all year," said Jackson. "The concentration is the main thing. He's having all good at-bats. He's hitting the ball to left field, right field and up the middle.
"And, when the game is on the line, he's been a clutch hitter. I've been around a lot of great ones, including Frank Thomas and Albert Belle, and David tops them all, right now."
He is not surprised by this. His dreams were always so vivid, and so real. David Ortiz has been waiting his whole life to be a home run hero.
All he needed was the green light.