Jackie MacMullan

Check that baggage

Ortiz says Japan won't trip him up

His swing is not yet making sweet music, but David Ortiz stretches yesterday with a marching band behind him. His swing is not yet making sweet music, but David Ortiz stretches yesterday with a marching band behind him. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / March 19, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Yesterday was a designated packing day for Red Sox players, who were instructed to spend their afternoon strategically filling their suitcases and taping up their favorite equipment for the trek to Japan tonight.

In order words, stock up on Airborne and take the day off.

David Ortiz showed up to the park at 9:30 in the morning anyhow. There are no days off for him right now. He is pleased with how his surgically repaired right knee has responded, but he's not particularly happy with his swing or his production.

"I need some hits," he said. "Can you help me with that?"

It has been a quiet spring training for Big Papi, who is still waiting to launch his first homer. Ortiz is experienced enough to understand that rehabbing from an injury requires patience, and pressing too much at this juncture is a dangerous proposition. He's also wise enough to realize that no one - least of all himself - should draw any conclusions from his small sampling of at-bats.

Ortiz is batting a respectable .286 in 12 games, with eight hits (four of which are doubles). He's walked six times, struck out five times, and scored one run.

The slugger is not worried, he said, only mildly frustrated. For him, this shortened spring training is less than ideal. If anything, Ortiz needs more days to get his legs under him and perfect his lethal swing. After his surgery, he was advised by the medical staff to wait until the end of January to begin conditioning and taking cuts in the cage, and that's almost a full month later than when he'd normally begin preparing. Now, with camp breaking early to visit Dice-K's digs, Ortiz will have his routine interrupted yet again.

"I'm a little behind schedule," he conceded. "It hurts me a bit. But I've just got to keep on working. I'll be all right. It might just take a little time."

While the Sox have said all the right things about doing their part to promote the globalization of major league baseball, the unspoken sentiment throughout camp is that many players are reluctant to make such a long trip at such a critical stage of spring training. You can be sure that if general manager Theo Epstein had a wish list of players he could leave behind, Ortiz (not to mention Mike Timlin and Tim Wakefield) would be on it.

"Look," Ortiz acknowledged, "from Day 1 I have said I don't want to go to Japan, but I'm an employee. My boss wants me to go, so I am going.

"All the bitching and complaining I could do is not going to make any difference. So why do it? It's not worth it."

He is right. Ortiz knows as well as you and I do that, given his druthers, manager Terry Francona would not drag his ball club halfway across the world to play four baseball games - particularly since only two of them count. And you can be sure Epstein would prefer not to shrink his roster this early in the spring, when every other major league club still is tinkering with the numbers.

But Major League Baseball has anointed the Red Sox the next team in line to spread its international wings, a byproduct, no doubt, of the success of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, who have spoken in reverent tones (through an interpreter, naturally) about what an honor it will be to return to their homeland wearing the jersey of a champion.

Asked how the trip would affect Ortiz specifically, Epstein responded, "Once the games count [in Japan], I'm sure David will be locked in. This spring has been about him getting back and making sure his knee is OK, and logging some at-bats.

"He's such a great hitter, I have no doubt he'll be fine by April."

The Red Sox have taken great pains to make sure their overseas jaunt does not torpedo the early part of the season the way it did to the Yankees in 2004. Pitcher Mike Mussina complained that the trip messed up his internal time clock and Kevin Brown eventually landed on the disabled list with an intestinal ailment that was caused by parasites, a sickness Brown felt certain he contracted in Japan.

The struggles of Boston's most bitter rival have been mentioned more than once this week. The front office has driven home the point that if the veterans continue to fight the trip kicking and screaming all the way to Tokyo, it will be counterproductive for everyone.

"The last thing we need is us complaining about this," Francona said. "I hope you never hear an excuse about [not playing well] because of this trip.

"It is not a competitive advantage. Hopefully we'll be going as a very good representative of major league baseball, and we'll win some games."

It will not and cannot be a win-at-all-costs mentality, however. For instance, Coco Crisp and Bobby Kielty, who have been battling injuries, learned yesterday they would make the trip, but most likely would see action only in the two exhibition contests.

Epstein said the Sox will be prudent about how they use their personnel.

"We're not going to ask our [starting] pitchers to go deep into games," Epstein said. "We're not going to ask our bullpen guys to go multiple innings, or pitch back to back.

"These two games count, but it's still March, and we're not going to ask more of our guys than we normally do at this time of year."

Ortiz traveled to Japan in 2004 with a group of All-Stars shortly after the Red Sox won the World Series. While he's remembered in that country for a towering home run of Ruthian proportions (some have estimated 600 feet), Ortiz's own lasting memory was of jet lag.

"I was messed up after that trip for two weeks," Ortiz said. "I was sleeping all day and up all night. It was awful.

"The Red Sox have a good plan for us. They want to get us on the same schedule as the people over there. I tell you what. I'm going to do it. If you don't, it's going to [expletive] you up."

By the way, the Yankees did manage to recover in time to win the AL East in 2004. Then they blew a 3-0 advantage against Boston in the ALCS and lost the pennant.

The Red Sox have heard all the cautionary tales, but they are unmoved. They long ago sent out the stern memo: There will be no grousing, no excuses, and no notes from the doctor recommending bed rest and the avoidance of an intercontinental flight.

"I guarantee there won't be one person complaining about this trip," Ortiz predicted. "We're going. The boss says so. That's how it is. So deal with it."

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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