Ortiz far from finished

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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At its worst, when pitchers he had barely heard of brazenly threw fastballs over the inner half of the plate knowing he could not catch up to them, David Ortiz wondered how the end would come.

Would Red Sox manager Terry Francona tell him he had been released? Perhaps a solemn general manager Theo Epstein would pull him aside one afternoon. Fearful of how he might react, Ortiz did not bring his son, D’Angelo, with him to Fenway Park for a few days.

Better not to let a little boy see his father at his lowest moment.

“I never thought I was finished,’’ Ortiz said. “But other people, I know they did. I was a dead in their eyes, I saw that.’’

Ortiz then excused himself from a conversation with a reporter to ask teammate Adrian Beltre a question in Spanish. They were organizing a private plane to fly from Toronto to Los Angeles with the six Sox players named to the American League All-Star team and their families.

“Where were we?’’ Ortiz said as he turned back.

It’s where he is going that matters. Ortiz will board that plane for Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic as one of the leading run producers in the game, his on-base and slugging percentages back to the levels that made him one of baseball’s most feared hitters. As the Red Sox fight to overcome a series of injuries, it is Ortiz who leads them.

“It is quite a story. Going from so much speculation that his career was over to an All-Star selection,’’ Red Sox owner John Henry wrote in an e-mail.

Ortiz hit .143 in April with one home run and four RBIs over 56 at-bats. He was ejected from the fourth game of the season for arguing balls and strikes, and before the second week had started Francona started to bench him against lefthanded pitchers.

Usually the loudest voice in the clubhouse, Ortiz became silent and glowering, sitting alone at his locker fuming at the indignity of not playing every day. In those 56 at-bats, he struck out 21 times.

“We’re trying to win games,’’ Francona said bluntly on April 21, when asked why Ortiz wasn’t in the lineup against Matt Harrison, a nondescript Rangers lefthander.

The relationship between Ortiz and Francona cooled even more a few days later in Toronto. In a 1-1 game, Francona sent Mike Lowell up to pinch hit for Ortiz in the eighth inning.

“He was mad at me, he probably was mad at [the media]. There was a lot going on and there wasn’t a lot going right,’’ Francona said.

A report later surfaced, which all involved deny, that Ortiz angrily left the stadium before that game was over.

What bothered Ortiz the most was not his batting average, it was how quickly his manager, so many fans, and some in the Boston media gave up on him.

“I have seen tons of players in other places who struggle,’’ said Ortiz. “All you hear is, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine.’ Why couldn’t they say that about Papi? But I understand it. Tito was under a lot of pressure and I wasn’t getting it done. That’s a bad combination.

“But we all forgot about one thing. I forgot for a minute who I am and what I’m capable of doing. And because of the pressure he was getting, he forgot about who I was, too. But things went back in place.’’

Back in the swing
Over the two months that followed, Ortiz hit .299 with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs. Only Vladimir Guerrero of the Rangers, with 55, drove in more runs during that time, and no player had more home runs.

When news of his All-Star selection came, what made Ortiz most proud was that the players were the ones who chose him.

“I’d rather go that way than to get voted in by the fans,’’ he said. “The fans don’t watch the game the same way a player watches it. I’m not saying it’s not an honor to get voted in by the fans. But it’s different when the players select you.

“What I try to do as a baseball player is not just put up good numbers, I try to help younger guys understand how to take things to another level.’’

Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who grew up near Ortiz in the Dominican Republic, is one of those younger players Ortiz has mentored.

“You see him on the field, he’s better off the field,’’ Cano said. “He’s a guy who comes to you to talk, especially to the young guys. He’s always been good to me and I’ve seen him be good to a lot of guys.’’

Said Beltre, “Even when we was younger he was like that. It revolved around him; he made everybody feel better about themselves. That’s what he did for our team this year. I can tell you, a lot of players feel good to see David back in the All-Star Game.’’

The Red Sox quickly regained lost ground in May and June and established themselves as a playoff contender. Francona does not question the leading role Ortiz played in that.

“It’s huge. I don’t think we’re ever really shy about saying that,’’ Francona said. “When you have a guy who’s your everyday DH, he’s got to hit. That doesn’t mean he’s going to hit every game. But he’s got to be that presence and he’s back to being that presence, which is big.’’

Options for future
The question now becomes how much the Red Sox value that presence. The team owns a $12.5 million option on Ortiz for next season, a clause negotiated into a contract extension signed in 2006.

If Ortiz ends the season productive and healthy, the Sox could simply exercise that option. But that would make little financial sense given how the free agent market has shifted in recent seasons.

Hideki Matsui, fresh off a World Series MVP award, signed with the Angels for $6.5 million last winter. Guerrero settled for $5 million from the Angels. Johnny Damon, Ortiz’s friend and former teammate, overestimated his value to the Yankees and ended up in Detroit.

Damon, Guerrero, and Matsui could be free agents again next winter, along with Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Derrek Lee, and Carlos Pena. The Red Sox have the leverage to decline the option yet still keep Ortiz at a lesser salary.

“Hopefully, it gets done,’’ said Ortiz, who will turn 35 in November. “I think I will be here. I may look crazy, but I’m not stupid. I don’t see myself playing nowhere else and that’s important to me.

“I want to stay here in Boston and always have a home here, go back and forth when I do retire. The people here have been good to me and I’ve tried to be good to them.’’

Henry’s opinion will weigh heavily. He supported Ortiz last year when his name surfaced as having failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs, and again this spring when he struggled at the plate. The idea of Ortiz playing for another team would not sit well with him.

“How could I not support someone who has meant so much to our franchise?’’ Henry wrote. “We’ve had a very special group of men wear the uniform. We’ve been decimated by injuries, but once again we’re blessed with a very special group of professionals.’’

Ortiz is prepared to step back a little if he returns next season, believing that as he and team captain Jason Varitek get closer to retirement, players such as Dustin Pedroia must take on more of the leadership responsibilities.

“Pedey is the next guy,’’ Ortiz said. “He knows what has to be done. He’s the one who will keep it going here.’’

But for now, Ortiz remains the face of a franchise. When Governor Deval Patrick popped into the clubhouse before a recent game, it was Ortiz with whom he wanted to chat. The same was true of hip-hop impresario Dr. Dre, who on Opening Day quickly excused himself from a conversation with Yankees star Alex Rodriguez to hug Ortiz.

“Everybody wants to see how Papi is, what Papi is all about,’’ Ortiz said. “I want to keep my image at that level by doing the right thing. I don’t think that’s selfish. I think that helps the Red Sox, that’s what makes this organization good.

“That’s me, that’s what I keep in mind every day. I know people gave up on me. I hope they learned their lesson. I have a lot left to give.’’

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