The ghost of David Ortiz - NBC Sports

The ghost of David Ortiz
Once-buried superstar rises from the dead to power Red Sox once more
October 25, 2013, 1:30 am

BOSTON -- We are watching a ghost. He must be a ghost because David Ortiz, the great designated hitter of the Boston Red Sox, well, he faded away years ago. He faded away at age 32, age 33, when players of his type almost always fade away. His bat slowed. He overcompensated. He started to guess which pitch was next. Once you get to that age, once you start guessing on pitches, your hourglass has just about run out of sand. Line drives became pop-ups. Foul tips become strikeouts. Small aches stretch on for weeks. It’s a story older than the game.

The ghost steps in to the box. It is Game 1 of the World Series. The people at Fenway Park chant his nickname. Pa-pi! Pa-pi! The air is chilled, and the stands are darkened by overcoats, and the Cardinals have a left-handed pitcher named Kevin Siegrist on the mound. It is a bland cliche to make age comparisons for narrative purposes, but how can we resist? Siegrist was 8 years old when the ghost made his major league debut. He was in high school when the ghost hit 41 home runs and led the Boston Red Sox to their first world championship in 86 years. He was still in high school when the ghost hit 54 home runs, more than any Boston player ever, more than Ted Williams or Jimmie Foxx or Carl Yastrzemski or Jim Rice.

Siegrist had walked his own hard road to get here -- he was a college walk-on, a 41st-round draft pick, an utter non-prospect who worked and matured and developed a high-nineties fastball that left-handed batters simply cannot hit. Right-handers have trouble against him too, but lefties are all but helpless. Seigrist faced 79 lefties; eight got hits off him. None of those hits were doubles. None of those hits were home runs either.

The ghost had never faced Siegrist before. The ghost knew almost nothing about Siegrist. He was just another in a long, long line of hard-throwing lefties that managers have put up to terminate him. The ghost stepped into the box, and everyone chanted for him, and the atmosphere sparked, and he would say one thought went through his mind. Fastball. This kid was obviously going to throw a fastball.

David Ortiz stopped hitting fastballs years ago.

The ghost smashed that 96-mph fastball over the right-field bullpen and into the delirious stands.

“He’s got a good fastball,” the ghost told us all afterward. “And I can still hit fastballs.”

* * *

One legend goes that David Ortiz hit a home run the first time he swung a bat in a neighborhood game in his hometown of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Ortiz started this legend himself. When he first came to Boston, he told Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe that his childhood dream was to be a basketball player, like Michael Jordan. One day, he got pulled off the basketball court by his friend, a pitcher named Joel Paniagua. “Play one game,” Paniagua said. Ortiz conceded. He joined the baseball game. He hit a home run. And eight months later, the Seattle Mariners signed him.

Well, as mentioned, that’s one legend. Another -- the one that Ortiz writes in his book “Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits” --  is that he grew up with a deep devotion to baseball, just like most young boys in the Dominican Republic. He wrote that he would use whatever was necessary to play. He would sometimes steal the heads off his sister’s dolls and use them as baseballs. He and the other kids would sometimes throw bottle tops they had found in the dirt and try to hit them with broomsticks. Ortiz would insist that swinging at those spinning tops taught him how to hit the curve.

At a certain age, Ortiz worked his way into the Dominican Republic’s baseball system, where Major League scouts could get a look at him. At 16, he got hurt while working with the Florida Marlins’ prospects. He was discouraged. He thought his chance was gone. His father, Leo, who had played baseball his whole life, told him: “David, you are going to play in the big leagues someday.” Not long after that, he signed with the Seattle Mariners for $7,500.

There are still other David Ortiz legends. Lots of them. That’s the thing about Ortiz -- there’s something larger than life about him. He was not like most of the other prospects to come out of the Dominican Republic. He was 6-foot-4, and he would quickly fill out to 250-plus pounds, and he swung hard and with the intention of hitting the ball over a fence somewhere. When he was 20, he was the player to be named later in a Mariners-Twins deal. When he was 21, he smashed 31 home runs for three different minor league teams -- one in A ball, one in Class AA, one in Class AAA -- and jumped right to Minnesota and the big leagues.

There have been many theories about the way the Twins handled Ortiz. The common perception has been that they discouraged his tendency to pull everything and tried to make him more of a gap-to-gap hitter. The common perception is that they did not understand his talents. The common perception is that he was a disappointment. Two people closely associated with the Twins said that isn’t exactly true. “We knew that David had tremendous power,” one Twins official told me shortly after Ortiz emerged. “The timing just wasn’t right.”

The timing led the Twins to release Ortiz after the 2002 season. He’d had a reasonably good season considering that he was hurt much of the year, and considering that he was grieving the loss of his mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who died in a car accident that year. Ortiz hit .272 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs and was a regular for a Minnesota team that reached the postseason. And his teammates absolutely loved him. Well, everybody loved him. Ortiz always was a big-hearted and lovable big guy who always seemed to be in the middle of the conversation and was the mark of countless practical jokes because nobody took them in better spirits.

So, yeah, the Twins loved him. But they saw him as limited. He really couldn’t play any defensive position. His power was not coming around as they hoped. And, most of all, he was almost certain to get a big raise in arbitration. Teams with low payrolls like Minnesota make cost-conscious choices all the time. They let David Ortiz go.

He went to the Dominican Republic and thrashed baseballs all winter.

And the Red Sox, though they had three other first basemen/designated hitters already, scooped him right up.

* * *

Speaking of legends, the story goes that when David Ortiz got to Boston, the manager, Grady Little, was not especially excited. Little already had several no-glove guys to put in those first base/designated hitter spots, starting with Jeremy Giambi, brother of Jason, who many seemed sure was ready to break out. He already had Kevin Millar, who was another all-hit guy. Little wanted what managers always seem to want -- more guys who can play defense, more guys who can run the bases, more relief pitchers. What can a manager DO with David Ortiz?

The Red Sox kept Ortiz anyway. This was probably because GM Theo Epstein and his staff insisted. At first, Little would play Ortiz two or three times a week. Even that seemed too much for the way Ortiz was hitting. In mid-May, the guy was hitting .208 with absolutely no power. His biggest role on the team seemed to be befriending new free agent signing Manny Ramirez. At some point he had to start getting hits. He was frustrated. He was worried. “My situation’s kind of tough,” he told reporters. “And everybody’s seeing it.”

On July 1, he still had only four home runs -- though he was hitting better. He told teammates that he was feeling something coming, something good. He felt like he was about to explode. And then, yeah, he exploded. A homer in Tampa Bay on July 3. Two homers at Yankee Stadium on Independence Day. Two more homers at Yankee Stadium on July 5. He crushed 11 home runs in August, seven of them in eight starts. Ortiz, the superstar, had arrived.

Everything went Hollywood smooth for a brilliant few years after that. The Red Sox in 2003 reached the postseason and lost another heartbreaker to the Yankees. But in 2004, Ortiz hit .301 with 41 homers and 139 RBIs. And in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees he became a Boston legend.

In Game 4, with the Red Sox trailing three games to zero, he hit the game-winning home run in the 12th inning.

In Game 5, he hit a home run that brought Boston back when the Red Sox seemed finished and then he hit the game-winning single in the 14th.

In Game 7, he hit a two-run home run in the first inning off Kevin Brown that made it clear to everyone that this time the Red Sox were going to beat the Yankees.

And then, the Red Sox swept the Cardinals and won their first World Series in forever.

* * *

When Ortiz came to Boston, he called everyone Papi. That was his nickname for everybody. He will tell you that he’s not much good at names. So Papi it is. He calls teammates Papi. He calls opponents Papi. He calls reporters Papi. He still does. It’s easier that way.

After the Red Sox beat the Yankees -- and then beat the Cardinals in the World Series -- Ortiz would forever be “Big Papi.”

* * *

How many players in baseball history have had a run as filled with excellence and glory and excitement as David Ortiz from 2004 to 2007? He was the key force in breaking the curse in 2004. He led the American League with 148 RBIs in 2005 and almost won the MVP award. Next year, he hit .287/.413/.636 with a league-leading 54 homers, 137 RBIs, 119 walks and 355 total bases. The next year, he led the league with a .445 on-base percentage and the Red Sox went back to the World Series. He hit .714 in a three-game sweep of the Angels. He and the Red Sox coasted to a four-game sweep over Colorado for their second World Series championship.

Everywhere Papi went, it seemed like there were parades.

And then, just like that, the fun ended. Well that’s baseball. Ortiz turned 32 in 2008. Big, strong, slow players like Ortiz don’t tend to age well. Look at players comparable to Ortiz. Former Boston star Mo Vaughn was more or less done at 32. So was Cecil Fielder. So was Big John Mayberry and "Big Klu" Ted Kluszewski and "Big" George Altman and "Big Donkey" Adam Dunn. Having the word “Big” in your nickname often means a free fall in your early 30s. Big Papi fell right in line.

First, Ortiz hurt his wrist. Then his power seemed to weaken slightly. Then his bat seemed to slow. He hit .264 with 23 homers in 2008. Hardly a Big Papi season. And 2009 was a nightmare. The average plunged to .238. Ortiz slugged less than .500 for the first time as a Red Sox player. In July, the New York Times reported that he allegedly had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs six years earlier in the 2003 survey testing. The results were supposed to be secret, but they leaked and Ortiz -- who had been outspoken against steroid use -- insisted he never used steroids or any other performance enhancing drug. Ortiz hit .083 in the division series against the Angels -- this time the Red Sox got swept.

I closely watched Ortiz during a couple of spring training games the next year. He looked utterly helpless at the plate. I heard a couple of people call him “Big Pop Up.” I have never been so sure that a great player was done. It was too bad. Ortiz had been an extraordinary hitter but time caught up. It doesn’t matter how many legends build up around you -- nobody can turn back time.

* * *

Everybody knows how things turned ugly for the Red Sox. In 2010, they were a pretty good team but they never could get untracked -- they were in third place in the American League East every single day after Independence Day. General manager Theo Epstein thought the team needed a year to reload and rebuild with some younger players -- a bridge year, he called it -- but it was made clear to him that in Boston you have to win EVERY year. There are no bridge years. There are no reload seasons.

So during the offseason they acquired several high-priced players and in 2011 they actually won one more game than in 2010. But the season was a disaster. The Red Sox went 7-20 in September -- falling out of first place and then out of the playoffs -- and then reports came out of players eating chicken and drinking beer during games down the stretch. And then manager Terry Francona, who had led the Red Sox to their only two World Series championships since 1918, was sent packing. And then Epstein left.

Then the Red Sox brought in Bobby Valentine to manage and, well, nothing good happened after that. The team lost 93 games, Boston’s first 90-loss season in more than 45 years. They traded away as many of the big-money stars as they could just so they could start over.

But during all that mess, somehow, the ghost of David Ortiz started crushing baseballs again. Nobody seemed sure how it could happen. The bat sped up -- bats don’t speed up. Strikeouts went down. That doesn’t happen. The batting average went up. Baseballs started sailing out of parks again. Nobody seemed entirely sure how any of it was possible. There were theories. Some thought that watching teammate Adrian Gonzalez hit every day helped Ortiz recalibrate his approach. Some thought that, in seeing the end, he rededicated himself to the game. Some thought he was playing for one more contract. Some thought it was just a mirage.

The reasons are theories. The performance is fact. In 2011, Ortiz hit .309/.398/.554. In 2012, he was hurt much of the year but slugged better than .600 in 90 games. And this year, he hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs for the first time since the last Red Sox World Series appearance in 2007.

“I always knew I could still play,” Ortiz would say. “I had no doubts about that.”

* * *

These days, David Ortiz is as much icon as ballplayer in Boston. It hasn’t always been flowers and chocolates, of course. When Ortiz was about to become a free agent after 2011, he hinted that he would be willing to sign with the despised New York Yankees. There was the PED report. There were a couple of public outbursts. A positive Boston Globe story this week still found room to twice refer to Ortiz as “churlish.”
 
But in many ways, I suspect those minor spats have made Ortiz MORE of an icon, not less. He has been so human, so awesomely human, with his countless hugs, with the happy chatter, with the way he spits on his hands and rubs them together, with the extraordinary performances along with the various moments of failure. Ortiz has been in Boston for 10 years. After the marathon bombing in April, it was Ortiz who spoke loudest. Of course it was.

“This is our [f------] city,” he shouted at Fenway Park. “Nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”

And then, he has been something more than human, a ghost of the man who looked utterly finished five years ago. It was this ghost of Ortiz who came up with the bases loaded and the Red Sox down one game and four runs to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series. Of course it was. He hit a grand slam off Joaquin Benoit. It was one of only two hits he would have in the entire series. But it was the only hit that mattered.

And it was the ghost in Game 1 of the World Series hitting a home run off a hard-throwing lefty he had never faced before.

Then, Thursday night, Game 2 of the World Series, and the ghost came up in the sixth inning with the Red Sox down two runs. He faced Michael Wacha, the Cardinals' brilliant young starter. Again, you could do the age cliche comparison -- Wacha was 6 when Ortiz got his first big league at-bat. Wacha basically throws two pitches, a blazing fastball and a devastating change-up. One feeds off the other. He had given up one run in the postseason.

He threw Ortiz the fastball first, missed for a ball, and then another which Ortiz fouled off. And then it was four straight change-ups -- first for a ball, second was fouled off, third was in the dirt.

And then Wacha threw the fourth change-up. He clearly did not want to challenge David Ortiz with a fastball.

And the ghost with Ortiz on his jersey knew it. He knew all of it. He knew the park, knew the situation, knew what pitch was coming. He reached out, and hit the ball the other way, and popped it over the Green Monster for a two-run home run anyway. Amazing! Absurd! Another home run? Fenway Park was incoherent, a babbling mess of joy.

This time, though, the joy didn’t last. The Cardinals took the lead back. It was 4-2 St. Louis. The ghost came up a final time in the eighth inning. There was a runner on and one more homer would have tied the game. But who could really ask for one more home run? Oh, wait, everyone was asking for it. Everyone was hoping for it. In a way, everyone could FEEL it coming.

The kid on the mound, Carlos Martinez, could throw fastballs up to 100 mph. Where do the Cardinals find them?

The ghost stepped in and everyone knew what he was thinking. Fastball. It had to be a fastball. First pitch. Martinez threw it, and Ortiz swung with everything he had, only the trajectory of the ball was wrong. Instead of it lifting up, it instead descended hard, a blistering ground ball. Even though he hit it into the shift, it was hit hard enough and well enough to be a single.

Ortiz got to first base and, strangest thing, you could see something on his face that looked like disappointment. Only a single! And, even stranger, I suspect you could have seen that mild disappointment on faces all over New England. Only a single! Boston’s Mike Napoli followed with a pop-up to end the inning. The Red Sox lost the game, and the series is going back to St. Louis tied at 1-1, and, of course, everyone knows it’s ridiculous and unrealistic and even unfair to expect David Ortiz will hit a home run every single time the Red Sox need him to hit one. It’s utterly ridiculous. Heck, it’s ridiculous to expect that Ortiz, at his age, with his history, could be doing what he’s doing.

And yet ... he is doing it. Well, it is October. It’s a good time to believe in ghosts.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski