For 'Big Papi' and Red Sox, a new world order

Feb 18 2011 - 4:56pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This is a new place for David Ortiz.

For someone who has hit as many historic home runs as he has, no one has talked much about him this spring. But when Ortiz strolled into the Boston Red Sox clubhouse on Thursday, familiar expletives on his lips and a "I Still (Heart) White People" shirt hanging off his shoulders, he was impossible to miss. Big Papi's power of personality remains unmatched.

But the acquisition of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez created most of the buzz that now surrounds the Red Sox, and the healthy returns of Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis have dominated the rest of preseason

Ortiz, one of the two or three most transformative personalities in Red Sox history, has almost become an afterthought -- and that's OK with him.

"I don't mind being under the radar," he said.

Being under the radar might actually help Ortiz if he starts as slowly as he has of late. The designated hitter has hit under .235 in each of the last three Aprils, and he's hit under .200 in two of the last three. A year ago, he hit .143 with one home run in April, and Terry Francona had little choice but to lift him for a pinch-hitter in a couple of late-inning situations. Few players could have made Francona agonize over those decisions the way he did with Ortiz.

"It's pretty public knowledge that last April was tough for everybody, including me," Francona said. "I second-guessed a lot of nights what to do, what not to do, with David's history, what he's meant to us, what he means to us, options we had on the bench. It was a very difficult month."

But the reason the Red Sox picked up the $12.5-million option they held on Ortiz for this season was because he's always seemed to turn things around. A year ago, even with that miserable start to the season, Ortiz still earned his sixth All-Star nod in July. He finished the season with a .370 on-base percentage and a .529 slugging percentage. He hit 36 doubles and 32 home runs, his highest total in both categories since 2007.

If he had avoided his slow start, he might have put up the same type of numbers he did in his prime -- back when he and Manny Ramirez made up the most fearsome hitting tandem in the game. He has hit 40 home runs three times and slugged at least .600 four times, and that's what made his April power droughts so jarring.

"Walking into the season sometimes, you hear everyone talking about your start and you put more pressure than normal on the beginning of the season," he said. "I understand how people worry about me the way the season starts, you know? People are just kind of used to seeing you do your thing on a daily basis. I'm not planning on putting pressure on myself when the season starts. I'm planning on preparing myself right now the way I can go through the season with a full tank like I normally like to do it. ... "My viewpoint right now is not focusing on what people have to say about the beginning of the season. My viewpoint is to get prepared and go and play the game the way it's supposed to be."

Ortiz made clear during the season, he didn't want the Red Sox to pick up his option, that he wanted to negotiate a contract extension to keep him in Boston beyond 2011. But he didn't raise a stink once the Red Sox made their decision.

"That's something that I can't really control. I want to stick around but that's what they had on the table for me at the time."

Ortiz conceded that there were times a year ago that he found himself a little preoccupied with his contract. When he started slow and pressure built, both internally and externally, the uncertainty about his future only made it more difficult.

Because he has no contract for next season, he'll face the same uncertainty this season. He'll just have to learn to handle it better, something he promised on Thursday to do.

"I'm just not going to let that get into my head like last year. I know that I can go 0-for-20 like I can go 15-for-20. It's just a game. Last year, what happened was, I kind of snapped a little bit at the beginning of the season. It was because I don't think it was fair, after the second game of the season, people having to doubt you. I guess that's part of the game. I'm not planning on going through that again. I'm going to try my best like I always do and whatever happens happens."

At his age -- he turned 35 in November -- any slow start still will raise eyebrows. But even though he laughed after suggesting he wanted to play until he was 45, he didn't look or sound on Thursday like he's ready to hang it up anytime soon.

"That's something that your body will tell you how you feel through the years," he said. "I feel really good right now. I think I worked out this offseason really good, and my body feels the same, you know. The longest you can play this game, you're going to try, right?"

Ortiz isn't young anymore. Ortiz isn't going to hit in the heart of the batting order anymore, either. He's going to stay under the radar -- and the smart money says he's going to enjoy it there.

 

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