As a baseball player David Ortiz's movements are dissected, examined, measured, and analyzed. When he changes, we notice. This year we've noticed. Ortiz might have fallen off just enough that he is not David Ortiz anymore. It was always coming, like a late tax bill that would arrive in the form of weak grounders and overmatched strikeouts. But this is David Ortiz, and it's still just June. So maybe this is just another credit card application, not a bill coming due. It's so tough to tell what's in these official-looking white envelopes.
Ortiz is healthy, which is good news. That is about where the good news ends, though. A year after hitting 35 homers during one of the greatest seasons ever by a 38-year-old, the career .283/.377/.542 hitter is hitting just .219/.297/.372. His struggles thus far have led to his being benched against left-handers, against whom he's hitting .114 with an almost impossibly lower-than-his-batting-average on-base percentage of .111. Against right-handers, he is hitting…pretty well, actually, if not at quite a peak Big Papi-ish level. But it hasn't been enough.
At 39 and with declining numbers, there has been an ambient feeling of dread surrounding Ortiz this season, a sense that we may have seen the last of a great player. Unsurprisingly the Boston media has seized on this and put voice to it. "I'm not washed up. I guarantee you that. I can wake up and hit, bro. That's my nature. I'm not washed up." That's Ortiz talking to WEEI.com's John Tomase. You don't have to hear Ortiz saying it to register the strident defiance in his voice. Ortiz isn't one who gives up easily, and with good reason.
In 2008 he tore a tendon sheath in his wrist. He missed 54 games. He hit well after returning, but the injury lingered and his next season remains his worst since joining the Red Sox in 2003. He's had a disastrous start in 2009, when he hit .185/.284/.287 over April and May but then put up a .904 OPS the rest of the way. He had a bad April in 2008 (.184/.294/.350) and an even worse one in 2010 (.143/.238/.286). Ortiz got a fair share of shit from the media and fans, but especially the media, for those performances, and the experience clearly helped him hone a sense of personal outrage and perceived disrespect.
So when the questions come, they get the "bro" treatment, which, in case you haven't heard it, is, "something [voice rising] something [voice rising] something, bro!" (By "something" I mean "[swear word].") When you hear that, you are listening to a very pissed off Papi.
Even when he handles himself calmly, Boston's sports media is lying in wait to shape the story. On Wednesday, Ortiz's Red Sox were facing Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen, a left-handed starter. Boston's manager John Farrell opted not to put Ortiz in the lineup and Ortiz was asked about it before the game. Here's what he said.
"What do you want me to tell you? You have to ask the manager. I am not the manager here. I'm just the player. I do what I get to be told. I'm not playing today, so I'm here in case he needs me later."
Based on that quote, Ortiz was variously characterized as "fuming," "not happy," and "upset," as a predictable prelude to more stories about how Ortiz is throwing another tantrum. None of this has to do with Ortiz's ability to hit lefties this season, but you could see how a proud man might feel a bit like everyone is out to get him. It's cyclical. Ortiz can voice his displeasure at the media through the media; the media knows that, provides him with displeasure, than gathers around to take notes. Boston is not the only city in which it works this way, but it really works this way in Boston.
Maybe it's that Ortiz's team is playing badly. Maybe it's the outsized expectations that where hoisted upon that team before the season, expectations that have not remotely been met. Ortiz is a part of that, and as the face of the franchise he is also the face of the failure, even though no one player is ever truly responsible for team-wide malfunction. For one, all, or none of those reasons, this year seems to feel different when it comes to Ortiz. Of course, 2008, 2009, and 2010 felt different at the time, too. Everything feels different in the moment; it's afterwards that our minds play their tricks on us. We all knew Ortiz would turn it around back then, right? Ha ha sure! But this year he's finished!
The truth is we don't know and we won't know until we know, you know? For now, Ortiz's hits are rebellious celebrations, but in the same cautious and qualified way that an 85th birthday party is. At 39, Ortiz is an octogenarian in baseball years. Even so, this is not David Ortiz's funeral dirge, necessarily.
He is having a tough season, but he's done this before and bounced back; he's been so great in what should have been his baseball dotage that there's virtually no one to compare him to. He appears to have lost the ability to hit lefties, but he's lost those skills before and then found them again. Bad Aprils have come and gone, and the Hall of Fame hitter has remained. We can look at the numbers, we can scout his swing, we can remember his age, but we can't know whether his time has passed until it's all the way over. Maybe the thing to do is to stop guessing.