Theo Epstein is nothing if not logical, so we wouldn't be shocked to learn that the Red Sox’ bloodless general manager is quietly shopping David Ortiz this off-season. We have no hard evidence to support this suspicion, mind you. It’s just that, if certain things fall into place during the hot stove season, it makes more sense than some of us wish to admit.
Consider: Should the Red Sox win the Mark Teixeira lottery — and we’re absolutely convinced that a lucrative-bordering-on-obscene offer will be forthcoming from Yawkey Way — manager Terry Francona will be obligated to try to cram four high-quality everyday players (Ortiz, Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell) into three positions (third base, first base, designated hitter).
Rather than dealing with that conundrum (not to mention the egos), it’s more likely that the Sox would deal one of the quartet — most likely Lowell, assuming he returns in good form after hip surgery. But it’s no longer blasphemous to suggest that Epstein should at least gauge interest in the 33-year-old Ortiz as well.
Oh, of course some suckers for sentiment would like to believe Big Papi, who will forever stand among the most universally admired Red Sox, will never slow down and never grow old. I’m unabashedly one of them. But alarming signs already indicate that his body is plotting to betray him.
Ortiz never was quite right this past season, starting slowly (he was batting under .200 as late as May 2, in part because of a sore knee), then missing all of June and three weeks in July with a tendon injury in his left wrist. He finished his 109-game season with decidedly un-Papi-like numbers: a .264 batting average, 23 homers, and 89 RBI. His OPS (.876) fell 190 points from the previous season, and his record-setting 54-homer performance of 2006 felt as if it happened a decade ago.
We hoped all would be right in the world come the postseason, and we longed for Papi to match his late-inning heroics of the 2004 and 2007 playoffs. But save for a delightful flashback (a lightning bolt of a three-run homer during the Sox’ stunning comeback from a 7-0 hole in Game 5 of the ALCS), the postseason was devoid of Papi Moments. He batted .154 in the ALCS, and for the first time, we didn’t expect him to come through when the Sox required a clutch hit. Worse, it appeared he didn’t either. The famous easy smile was absent. So was the duende.
Given his, um, larger-than-life physique, you do have to wonder if the Mo Vaughn-as-a-Met stage of his career is nearer than we care to believe. But make no mistake — our suggestion that Epstein should consider trading him does not mean we hope he trades him, for it will be a tremendously sad day when Big Papi is no longer a member of the Boston Red Sox.
One great find
It’s easy to forget now, after all he’s accomplished here, but Ortiz is not a Red Sox lifer. He broke into pro ball in the Seattle Mariners’ system as a lanky (no, seriously) 17-year-old first baseman named David Arias in 1992, and he spent the first four-plus seasons of his big league career unfulfilled as a Minnesota Twin.
But his legacy is as a Red Sox, and that legacy will endure long after he’s clapped his hands twice, burrowed menacingly into the left-handed batter’s box, and terrified a helpless pitcher for the last time. He’s our icon, and there’s one line I always fall back on when it comes to describing his impact on the franchise since he arrived as little more than an obscure name in the transactions before the 2003 season:
David Ortiz is the best thing to ever happen to the Boston Red Sox.
I first wrote those words in 2005, a few delirious months after all ghosts were exorcised and all heaven broke loose, and I still believe them to be true. I imagine you do, too. Hell, you’ve got the everlasting memories and the Faith Rewarded DVD (which was robbed of a Best Picture nomination at the 2004 Oscars, in my opinion) as indisputable evidence of Ortiz’s on-field impact.
And all of those homers and highlights might not have been his most meaningful contribution. He is the epitome of a clubhouse leader, the charismatic emotional center of the ballclub. He’s a unifying force, with his big grin and bigger personality. In 2003-04, with an assist from everybody’s buddy, Kevin Millar, and the rest of the Idiots, he eliminated the cliquish “25 players, 25 cabs” mentality that had plagued the Boston clubhouse for so many years.
The pressures of being a Red Sox roll off his broad shoulders. He transcends race. He’s what this franchise — this city — has always needed.
And he leads us in the direction of a larger truth: Ugly endings are far too common for Red Sox superstars. Hell, they’re practically a franchise tradition, from Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn a generation ago to the contentious departures of Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, and, of course, Manny Ramirez more recently.
I dearly hope that trend changes when it’s Ortiz’s time to depart, whether that comes this winter or a half-dozen memorable seasons down the road. If anyone deserves a famous final scene at Fenway, it’s him, and I suppose our hope for an appropriate farewell when the day comes can be found in this:
The man always has had a knack for memorable endings.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org