Coming out swinging
Ortiz looks ready for healthy cuts
FORT MYERS, Fla. - Big Papi is like Santa Claus.
He's making a list and he's checking it twice. He knows who's been naughty and who's been nice. He knows it when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. Most of all, he knows you've been dissin' him all winter - don't deny it - and he is not happy about it.
"I don't have to prove nothing here," he declares. "I've done it all. I just want to be healthy and let people know they were wrong."
There is a serious school of thought that says people with the David Ortiz body type do not age well. They are positive we have seen the best of Papi, and that only disappointment awaits. It's one thing to be built like Papi at 27, but quite another to be built that way at 33, which Papi became back on Nov. 18.
Papi isn't buying it.
"I've heard people say, 'He's getting older,' or whatever," Ortiz explains. "I just turned 33. I've never seen a player called old at 33."
Now, most players are notoriously bad historians, and Big Papi is no exception. Ten years before Papi was born, Hall of Famer-to-be Frank Robinson was traded by the Cincinnati Reds because the GM believed him to be an "old 30." Robby had 284 of his career 586 home runs left in his bat, not to mention a Triple Crown, an MVP, and two world championships.
In those days, a lot of people thought 30 really was old.
But Frank Robinson was a much different body type. More to the point are the cases of Cecil Fielder and Mo Vaughn, a couple of widebodies whose premature career conclusions represent cautionary tales for the big guys of the sport. Fielder just kept getting bigger and bigger, and he was done at age 34, his last decent season coming at age 32. Mo likewise assumed Sumo wrestler proportions as he got older. He was finished at 35. Each battled injury, and neither was able to reverse the decline once it started.
Big Papi wasn't Big Papi last year. He has had knee problems for a couple of years, and last year he injured his left wrist severely enough to miss games from June 1 through July 23. When he came back to the lineup, he was better than a lot of guys, but he wasn't the Big Papi who had been abusing American League pitchers since 2003.
Ortiz knows what he was, and what he wasn't, and he doesn't think people cut him enough slack. Though far less than 100 percent, he was good enough to play, and he did what he could.
"I'm just surprised at how people see things," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who counts on himself a lot. I know I wasn't 100 percent, but I tried. Things didn't work out the way I expected. But people didn't see the positive, only the negative. But I know I can hit."
Among those few people willing and eager to accentuate the positive in this matter was the skipper.
"There were some pitches he couldn't handle, but we were better off with him in the lineup than without him," asserts Terry Francona. "If you pro-rate his numbers, they were pretty good. And the threat of a three-run homer was still there. Believe me, it is better to have him than not to have him."
The problem, of course, is that when a man has set a bar in the stratosphere, ordinary performance looks so disappointing. Ortiz's final numbers in 2008 were quite reminiscent of the stats he put up in his final year with Minnesota, when, in 412 at-bats, he had 20 homers, 53 extra-base hits, 75 ribbies, and an .839 OPS. Those are the numbers Theo & Co. were pro-rating into something dazzling when they signed him for that cut-rate million back in '03. Well, last year, David Ortiz, in 416 at-bats, had 23 homers, 54 extra-base hits, and an OPS of .876.
Give him his customary 600-plus at-bats and a reasonably conservative final ballpark area would have seen him have a minimum of 30 homers and 100 ribbies, bad wrist and all.
The wrist, Papi says, is fine. Now about that body . . .
Who among us didn't say that we will know everything about Big Papi's current level or true professionalism by how much of him there is when he reports to spring training? So I am here to report that David Ortiz is a lean, mean, batting machine. Really.
He looks mah-ve-lous.
"Just working hard," he says. "I'm just trying to get myself ready for the season. I really didn't take many days off after the end of the season. I started right away, to make sure I was ready to go."
For years you couldn't talk about David Ortiz without talking about Manny Ramírez, the other half of baseball's premier early 21st century 1-2 punch. We all know that, regardless of who winds up batting behind Big Papi this year, Manny will never again be walking through that door.
Papi was peppered with questions concerning the failed Red Sox pursuit of Mark Teixeira, the injury to Mike Lowell, and just about anything to do with the cleanup spot. He made it clear he would still welcome the addition of a certified Big Bopper, as unlikely as that now seems. But he did make one promise.
"I just want to take everything day by day," he says. "If I don't see a pitch I can hit, I'm not swinging. I won't let the situation go from bad to worse."
Anyway, Papi can only be Papi, not himself and a cleanup hitter, too. The important thing is that the left wrist is healed, he looks more like Adalius Thomas than Vince Wilfork, and he wants the world to know he has some bashing to do.
"I just want to be healthy like I am right now," he says. "If I'm healthy, I know I can do some damage."
By the way, have you seen Mo lately? God love him for all the good work he's doing, but I saw him at the airport, and for a minute I thought he really was Vince Wilfork.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.