BALTIMORE — It’s almost always like this at the end. Not many baseball players retire at the top of their game. Sandy Koufax walked away at the age of 30 after winning 27 games in 1966, but he’s in a small club. More typically, there’s a gradual diminishment of skills, some reduction of regular appearances, and finally a moment when a guy gets politely nudged into retirement or released.
And so again we wonder if we are seeing the final days of David Ortiz.
Ortiz turns 40 in November. He is hitting .219 with 6 homers and 21 RBIs on June 9. He is batting .114 against lefthanders and has gone 17 games (66 at-bats) without hitting a home run, hitting .169 over those 17 games.
Against all pitching, Ortiz is batting .111 with runners in scoring position and .188 with runners on base. On Tuesday, he took a third strike (against a lefty) with one out and two on in the eighth inning. On Wednesday night, he was benched against lefty Wei-Yin Chen. It was the second time in six days Ortiz was benched against a lefty starter.
The Sox don’t call it a benching, of course. That’s too harsh. It’s just giving Ortiz a day off to clear his head and work in the cage. But we know what it is. And we know this might finally be the beginning of the end of one of the long, great runs in Red Sox history.
Ortiz was not happy with his place on the bench against the Orioles, but he was reluctant to say much of anything while sitting at his locker in the visitors clubhouse at Camden Yards late Wednesday afternoon. A group of reporters gathered around the big man’s stall, but Ortiz never turned to face the group while he was being asked questions.
It was an uncomfortable, somewhat embarrassing experience for everyone. Including Big Papi.
Q: Does a day off help this time of year?
A: I don’t know.
Q: David, you’ve had some success (.308 lifetime) against Chen. Would you have liked an opportunity to be in there?
A: I’m not playing today. That’s all.
Q: Is getting a break against lefties a good thing? Do you feel you’re struggling against lefties more than you are against righthanders?
A: My man, what’s wrong with not playing today? So. I’m just not playing.
Q: I just wanted to know if there’s a difference between going up against a righty or a lefty and if that matters.
A: It’s something, like I said, that you’ve got to ask to the manager. I’m not the manager here. I’m just a player and I do what I get to be told. He told me yesterday I’m not playing today, so I’m here in case they need me.
Q: David, how have you felt about your at-bats the last few days?
A: I’m swinging hard just in case I hit something.
That was it. Papi walked away from his locker and went to the stadium’s underbelly batting cage to hit. Reporters went to work, and at least one early wire dispatch was headlined, “Ortiz fumes while being excluded from Bosox starting lineup.’’
Misleading. I was there. Ortiz did not seem happy (who would be?) but he was totally composed.
Sox manager John Farrell explained that he informed Ortiz he would not be in the lineup after Tuesday night’s 1-0 Sox loss.
“We’re trying to get David going against lefthanders,’’ said Farrell.
When Farrell was reminded that Ortiz has enjoyed some success against Chen, the manager said, “We’re looking at his overall body of work against lefthanders . . . He understood it.”
Acknowledging that this is a touchy situation, Farrell said, “David is a professional, and there is individual work to be done to get him back to hitting lefthanded pitching.’’
We’ve been down this path before, folks. The Twins thought Ortiz was going south when they let him walk after the 2002 season. In 2009, Ortiz was close to being released by the Red Sox. He went homerless and hit only .200 in his first 33 games, covering 149 at-bats. A year later, manager Terry Francona sent Mike Lowell up to bat for Ortiz in a game in Toronto and Ortiz almost refused to leave the batter’s box.
“That was a tough time for me and David,’’ Francona later said.
Now Ortiz looks bad again, and there’s some rush to announce that he is done. When the Sox were home last week, Channel 4’s Steve Burton asked Big Papi if he is “washed up,’’ and Ortiz gave a rather tepid answer. A few days later, in an interview with WEEI’s John Tomase, Ortiz was back to his old feisty self, saying, “I’m not washed up. I guarantee you that. I can wake up and hit, bro. That’s my nature.’’
He was not feisty before Wednesday’s game. In the summer of 2015, Boston’s proud DH is the lion in winter, trying to stave off the inevitable ending that awaits all professional athletes.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com