Seething Ortiz boils over

In pregame rant, he blasts his critics

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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The smile is largely gone these days, the locker now a refuge instead of a stage. It used to be a beacon, drawing in teammates and media to a back corner of the Red Sox clubhouse filled with the bulk of David Ortiz, filled with music, filled with the sunshine that committed a Nation to him.

That is no longer the case. As Ortiz has started slowly the past two seasons, his joy has subsided. Where he used to entertain for an hour at his locker before road games, he rarely does that anymore. Where he used to put his iPod in a dock that would blast the clubhouse at full volume, there is more silence than beat.

Bitterness has crept in. Ortiz is clearly sensitive, taking to heart the words that are written and spoken about him. He hears them. He hears people saying that he’s done, that he’s old, that it’s time to go.

“It’s just not right,’’ the 34-year-old Ortiz said before last night’s 6-2 win over the Twins, in which he didn’t play. “That’s why I came to be, going from being an angel to being [a jerk]. It wasn’t because of me. It was because people change you. I guess that’s the way life’s supposed to be. I don’t call myself [a jerk] because that ain’t me, for real. But sometimes you’ve got to act like one.’’

Asked if he has changed to protect himself, Ortiz said, “I guess. People take the happiness away from you because they worry about making some extra dirty money. That’s how I call it. When you criticize a person like me about my game, you’re just trying to make some dirty money.

“Because you know I work my [rear] off to elevate my game every day. It don’t matter. So if you’re telling me that just because of the fact that I’m not hitting at the time, you’ve got to bury me like that?’’

And he was buried. Ortiz’s career appeared to be nearing its end. On the final day of April, Ortiz was batting .143 over his first 63 plate appearances. He had been pinch hit for, emasculated (in his mind) in the name of winning games.

They were necessary moves, given the way he was batting. But that hardly made a proud man feel better. Not to mention that he was being torn apart in the media. He went off at one point, swearing at reporters after a game, a tirade that was made to be more of an attack than it was, but it was also a clear sign of frustration.

As he said yesterday, “We’re a quarter of the way [through the season], and they gave up on me way before that.’’

That’s not the case anymore. In May, Ortiz is hitting .358 with 7 home runs and an OPS of 1.170. He has been as good as anyone in baseball this month, better than anyone could expect. And yet, Ortiz still feels the sting.

“This feeling I’ve had since the first day that I walked into camp,’’ he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I got that feeling. And you’re not supposed to play baseball like that, though. To begin with, this is not me.’’

He wasn’t himself, at the plate or in the clubhouse.

“I was that guy for a long period of time and everything was fine,’’ Ortiz said. “Everything kind of switched from one day to another, boom, and then you see the real faces. Then you see what people are going to be like when you fail.

“You know, this game has a lot of up and down. If a player like me fails for a minute, you’ve still got to believe that that player is going to bounce back. But the negativity is so bad around here that people just start putting on people that I’m not going to be able to hit anymore.’’

Ortiz said he wasn’t comfortable being around people because “when you turn on the TV, living in Boston, all you hear is people just saying bad things about you like you are a killer, like you just killed somebody. Like you got no chance in hell to be back. That [stuff] just crushes, that [stuff] just hits you, that [stuff] just buries.’’

Not that it’s stopped him entirely from watching.

“I was watching the other day this guy named Buster Olney,’’ Ortiz said of the ESPN baseball reporter. “He was 100 percent saying that I can’t hit inside fastballs anymore. [He] needs to sit down and watch the game because I don’t get pitched inside.

“When people try to get me out, they go away. This guy was talking that I can’t hit inside pitches and I was like, ‘What is this guy watching? When was the last time he sat down to watch a game?’

“I would like somebody to give this guy a call and sit [him] down to watch a game and see how many inside pitches I get, how many of those inside fastball strikes I get. I guarantee you that if he sees one the whole game, it’s a lot, because they don’t pitch me in. So don’t be saying that.’’

Ortiz got animated at times while discussing how troubled he has been at how he feels he has been treated, how much it pains him that he has changed. He sees the differences in himself and isn’t comfortable with them.

Nor is he comfortable with the criticism. He sees a right way to question his struggles. And a wrong way.

“I know how to fight back,’’ Ortiz said. “That’s the thing. I’m a nice guy. I don’t like to see people struggling. I don’t like to be horrible to people. I don’t like to be mean to people. But on the other hand, people make you be like that. People is horrible.’’

Ortiz isn’t sure what turned his season around, though he continues to caution that no judgments should be made until the end. Then they can say what they want. Until then, he believes, such sentiments should be reserved.

“It can get to the point that you are pressing and you want to try to hit a ball off the plate 500 feet,’’ he said. “It’s not going to happen. So you start chasing that, which started happening to me all the time. Or you can just be patient and wait for your pitch. Trying to get three hits in one at-bat, hit a pitch that I’m not going to hit — just chill.’’

That’s the only difference he can see, that he is now staying away from the doubters. He didn’t change anything. He’s using “the same swing, same approach.’’ But the results are vastly different.

“He’s got balance, he’s got confidence, driving the ball out of the ballpark both left-center, center, right,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He’s been good. Unfortunately, two games into the season we had to answer a lot of questions, which actually gets old.

“Now he’s getting hot. It’s great news for us.

“I don’t think David’s ready to retire.’’

Nor does Ortiz. He also knows that he has been hurt, and that he is not the same person now that he was. It pains him.

“The thing is, I’m human,’’ he said. “I’ve got feelings. I’m a person that I don’t like being like that. That ain’t me, but I think the more I keep my distance from the media and from people asking me questions and this and that, the better it is because right now, I’m just not in the mood.’’

It was suggested that it was a shame that Ortiz might shut himself off.

“It is,’’ he said. “But that’s how it is. I miss the old days, too.’’

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