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Ortiz is loved far, wide

HRs and smiles are his trademarks

BALTIMORE -- When David Ortiz enters a clubhouse, he strides in, confidently, almost dancing. He looks as if he owns the world and, at this moment, perhaps he does.

He says this is who he is. He is the man with the smile, joking and yelling and grinning all at once. His personality reaches out, into the stands, through the TV, across a table. He says it in his clothing choices -- the man prefers matching shirt-and-cap combos that are often about as loud as his voice.

''I think everybody pretty much knows what it's all about [with] me," Ortiz says. ''I don't like and I don't believe in people who are pretty normal when everything is going well and they change when they see a bump in the road. I let them know straight up I don't like it. That's the way I am. I don't like lies. I don't like two faces. I don't feel comfortable with it. I'll tell you what I feel in a heartbeat. That's me."

David Ortiz, on the field and off, does not hide.

That's part of the reason the slugger suddenly has become the most popular player in baseball, part of the reason he'll be on national television tonight, displaying his power-perfect swing in the Home Run Derby. Two and a half seasons after he was not tendered a contract by the Minnesota Twins, Ortiz received more votes than any other player for tomorrow's All-Star Game, picking up 4,138,141, including more online tallies than anyone else.

It's why he is beloved. Ortiz isn't the enigma that Manny Ramirez is. He doesn't have the stoic, no-nonsense persona of Jason Varitek. He isn't confrontational and dramatic -- except in his flair for the game-winner -- like Curt Schilling. Ortiz is what he is.

The only question is what made him that way.

Because Ortiz isn't smiling now. He isn't grinning, isn't shaking. He's sitting, simply, and pain washes through his eyes. He's talking about his mother and about how, since the accident, nothing can get him down. Because nothing, he says, will ever be quite so hard.

Angela Rosa Arias was killed in a car accident in January of 2002. It was, absolutely, the most difficult moment in his life.

''At that point I have to be the stronger [person] in the family because, pretty much, my sister, my aunt, my uncles, my pop, pretty much everybody got hit really bad," Ortiz says. ''I had to act like, 'Hey, let's hang in there.' I got to take the heat. I lose my mother, that I love, the person that give me the most love ever. But I never quit. I act strong in that one moment that was terrible. But I've got my pain. I deal with the situation. After that, I don't think I have faced anything worse than that, anything more painful than that.

''That's why I see everything in light and happiness."

This isn't the Ortiz of the ballpark. This isn't the Ortiz of the commercials, the ones that show him gregarious and laughing. This is the other David Ortiz. The one that is his. The one he keeps inside.

''Life is a challenge," Ortiz said. ''Life is a challenge that you need. There's things in life that are going to throw you into the ground, but if you learn how to get up, that means you are not a quitter. That's the best that a human being can have, never quit. If you quit, if you are a quitter, you're giving up on your kids, your wife, your family, you're giving up on them."

He says he's never done that, never given up, though he came close after his mother died. He won't, he says, if he hasn't yet.

He has taken that pain and transformed it into joy. It has been subsumed into the old Ortiz, the one before he lost his mother and lost his job in Minnesota almost at the same time. It was the one that started before and blossomed after, once the sorrow became less acute and life got, well, good. Even in a city as notoriously tough on its talent as Boston, Ortiz stayed Ortiz.

''I don't think the environment has anything to do with his personality," said Terry Ryan, Ortiz's general manager with the Twins. ''If you go down to the Dominican, he's the same there. He's the same in Boston. He did the same in Appleton, Wis. He's always had a smile. He's got a flair about him. He's got a charismatic approach."

It isn't, of course, only his personality. Ortiz has done more than enough at the plate to satisfy the legions of Red Sox fans who adore him, more than a few of whom walk around with his name branded across their backs. Ortiz simply was transcendent in the playoffs last season, getting just the hit at just the time.

Ortiz effectively won the World Series for the Red Sox with his bat last season. And, just for that, he could be deified in Boston. In this town, his swings mean just as much as his smiles.

''If he stunk and he hit .150 and hit zero home runs and drove in nobody, people wouldn't have that," Varitek said. ''The fact [is] that he's very good at what he does -- extremely good, one of the best in the game -- and he has that very likeable persona. When you're mechanically sound, as he is, those slumps are short. That's what makes him so good."

He is good. With a batting average well over .300 for the second time in two seasons and another 40-home run year in his sights (.314, 21 HRs, 75 RBIs), Ortiz could be on his way to the award he says is his final step in getting everything from baseball.

A long time ago, when Ortiz was little, his father explained baseball to his son.

An escalator, he said. You rise with it, getting on when you reach the big leagues. Each step is an achievement -- playing well, making the All-Star team, winning a World Series. Ortiz says he has one step left: a Most Valuable Player award. It's possible.

For now, though, he'll have to settle for ''Most Popular."

''He went from being a good player to one of the elite hitters in the league," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. ''And then you add on his infectious personality, his ability to smile. He has the quickest, warmest smile I've ever seen. He can make a person walk through that door -- he's never met before -- feel so comfortable. And that is a gift. You couple that with his ability, you have David Ortiz."

Ortiz sits, thinking quietly in a clubhouse normally filled with thumping rhythms. His father -- slightly shorter, slightly rounder -- is behind him, 20 yards away. Ortiz, still not smiling, considers his answer.

Is he ever not, well, him?

''Of course, as a human you get down," Ortiz said. ''Everything is not only happiness. Everything is not flowers and piece of cake. There's a lot of things in life that you see, that you have to face. That's life. But, otherwise, happiness."

And that, really, is David Ortiz.

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