The burden of a superstar is the unrelenting expectation of excellence. David Ortiz not only understood this, he embraced it, with brute force in the batter’s box and amiable gentleness in the community. He was Big Papi, the face of the Boston Red Sox, a slugger with a killer swing and a killer smile.
”I take a lot of responsibility for what happens around here,” he said, in the days leading up to the 2007 postseason.
Ortiz sprayed balls to all parts of the field, got on base consistently, drove in runs as he always had. He identified the change in attitude toward him by opposing pitchers and accepted their unwillingness to pitch to him as a byproduct of the previous season, when he hit a team-record 54 home runs and posted 137 RBIs.
He knew he would not duplicate his 2006 home run totals in ‘07, not with the poor sampling of pitches he was given, not with a balky right knee that became more and more bothersome as the season progressed. Yet the public’s fixation on his supposed power outage left Ortiz perplexed, and mildly perturbed.
”People were so focused on why David is not hitting 40-plus home runs,” he said. “Well, how many guys hit over 30 home runs? Five? Six? I’m in that group.”
In 2007, he led the major leagues in on-base percentage (.445), led the American League in walks (111), and batted .332 with 35 home runs and an OPS of 1.066. Manager Terry Francona suggested it may have been the finest season of his career.
It would be impossible to overstate how critical David Ortiz was to Boston’s championship run in the 2007 World Series. He has become one of the most feared hitters in the game, and his presence in the lineup was a major benefit to those around him, specifically cleanup hitter Manny Ramírez. In the clubhouse, Big Papi was a dynamic, soothing personality who proved to be a confidant and friend to all, particularly the Latin players.
The Red Sox players respect Ortiz for his skills, but also his willingness to speak from the heart on their behalf. There is no bull with Big Papi; the Big Man prefers to tell it straight.
On the eve of the American League Championship Series, Ortiz lamented the lack of power on the Red Sox, pining aloud for the kind of lumber featured in the New York Yankees’ lineup. Never mind the Yankees were already home, eliminated by the Indians in the first round.
”It can’t always be me and Manny,” Ortiz said. “We need some help, bro. I thought we would have gotten some [last winter].”
General manager Theo Epstein said the Red Sox front office has grown accustomed to impassioned Ortiz tomes and has learned to put them in proper perspective.
”Sometimes I wake up and wish he didn’t say some of the things he says,” Epstein conceded, “but it almost always comes from a place of spontaneity and emotion. It never comes from a bad place.
”David really cares about winning. I never want to limit his emotion in any way, because he speaks from his heart. His personality has been critical to the success of our team. He brings all corners of the clubhouse together.”
In that respect, this season was a struggle for Boston’s DH. Ortiz injured his right knee in 2006 when he tripped on some netting at Yankee Stadium. Although it hampered him intermittently, he played through without major difficulty. During the offseason, the pain immediately subsided, and he and the team determined he did not need surgery. He participated in an offseason program to strengthen his legs, and said in retrospect that program enabled him to complete the 2007 season without having to sit for prolonged periods, even after an MRI revealed a torn meniscus that will have to be repaired in the near future.
The injury clearly affected Ortiz’s production. He was unable to drive through the ball the way he normally can, and on the days the knee was particularly bad, he often found himself locked in an upright stance that affected his swing. Although Francona did find pockets of time to rest his slugger, that luxury became increasingly difficult when Ramírez became sidelined with an oblique strain and missed 24 games.
Ortiz welcomed the occasional day off, but felt some pressure to perform as often as possible.
”The one thing I hated was walking through the parking lot to the field and hear everyone yelling for me, and knowing I wasn’t going to play that day,” he explained. “For a lot of those people, it was the one time they were going to get to the park all year, the one time they were going to get to see Big Papi, and I didn’t like sending them home disappointed.”
He discovered his success was often his worst enemy. Every time Ortiz stepped to the plate in a crucial situation, the fans expected him to come through with a hit - preferably a home run. Although he did drive in 117 runs, he sensed disappointment when he didn’t deliver.
”People are used to seeing you come through on every at-bat and doing some damage,” he said. “It can’t always be that way. This is not a Nintendo game. Those are real pitchers out there trying to make a living.”
Shortly before the playoffs began, Ortiz had a cortisone shot in his knee that bought him some time, and some new life. He batted .370 with 3 home runs, 10 RBIs, and 14 walks in 14 games during the postseason.
His towering two-run shot in Game 1 of the Division Series against Anaheim convinced manager Mike Scioscia the best strategy was, when in doubt, to walk the big fella. And so he did - five times in the final two games.
In Game 1 of the ALCS against Cleveland, Ortiz reached base in all five at-bats, collecting two walks, a single, a double, and he was hit by a pitch.
By the time the Red Sox reached the World Series, Ortiz was clearly in pain, laboring on the bases and at the plate. Even so, he batted .333 with 4 RBIs and 2 walks in the sweep of the Colorado Rockies, and, when the action shifted to Colorado and the designated hitter was removed from the playoff equation, he handled his assignment at first base flawlessly.
His season ended with him atop a table in Denver, in the euphoria of a winning clubhouse, drenched in champagne and tears.
”I don’t know how people see things, but I’m happy with what I’ve done,” he said. “If I have a bad season, I’ll be fine with myself as long as I know I’m fighting. You lose the willingness to fight, then you lose me.
”But I’m not done fighting. Hey, I’m not that old, bro. I’m just getting started.”