David Ortiz keeps the Red Sox loose—and in the playoff hunt
There was considerable angst at Fenway Park last Friday night after the Red Sox lost to the Yankees, 8-7, and fell 9� games behind New York in the American League East. Righthander Curt Schilling, who surrendered seven runs in 5? innings, remained in the dugout, his head buried in his hands. In the silent clubhouse, rightfielder Trot Nixon, hands propped behind his head, stared blankly into his locker, seemingly frozen in his seat.
Into this funereal scene strode David Ortiz, Boston's lumbering 6'4", 230-pound designated hitter-first baseman, who was whistling as he made his way to his locker. "It's easy to get real down after losing [to the Yankees], with the history this [team] has," says Ortiz. "My attitude is, tomorrow's another day."
It sure was. The Red Sox bounced back on Saturday with a thrilling 11-10 victory that included a bench-clearing brawl in the third inning and a walk-off, two-run home run by Bill Mueller against the league's top closer, Mariano Rivera. After winning again, 9-6, on Sunday night, Boston was a half game ahead of the A's and the White Sox in the wild-card race.
Ortiz's sunny demeanor and offensive production have helped keep the Red Sox afloat. "This team has been so up and down all year," says first baseman Kevin Millar. "One constant has been David's hitting. He's saved us."
Batting third, ahead of All-Star leftfielder Manny Ramirez, Ortiz is having an MVP-caliber year. In addition to hitting .307 at week's end, he was second in the league in RBIs (88) and slugging percentage (.615) and was tied for second in homers (26). "Beyond his numbers, David is a huge clubhouse presence," says outfielder Gabe Kapler. "He knows exactly the right thing to say or do at the right time to fire us up and get us going again."
Ortiz is often seen flashing his wide, gap-toothed smile, but don't be fooled; he is a fiery competitor. On July 16, after being ejected for complaining about a called third strike, Ortiz threw two bats onto the field and narrowly missed hitting two umpires. (He received a five-game suspension but is appealing.) In Saturday's brawl Ortiz swung at Yankees starter Tanyon Sturtze (he missed), then wrestled the righthander to the ground. While most Boston players downplayed the melee after the game, Ortiz said, "I think it's the best thing that ever happened to us. It's the start of something good."
Ortiz has been good for the Red Sox since signing a one-year deal in January 2003, a month after being released by the cost-cutting Twins. At the time, he was known around the league as a good clubhouse presence but a flawed hitter. "When he first came up with Minnesota, he had some holes in his swing you could exploit," says Oakland manager Ken Macha. "You could throw the ball in hard on his hands, speed it up against him, then change speeds. Since then, he's closed the holes with a lot of hard work." After hitting .288 with career highs in home runs (31) and RBIs (101) last year, he signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal.
Ortiz, 28, also forged a strong bond with Ramirez, a fellow Dominican, who has encouraged Ortiz to train more and be better prepared before games. The two are nearly inseparable in the batting cage and the dugout. "Manny pushes David a lot," says Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson, who instructed Ortiz to open his swing to help him catch up with inside pitches. "They are always bouncing things off each other."
With righthanders Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and catcher Jason Varitek eligible for free agency after the season, the Red Sox could undergo a major overhaul this winter. Ortiz is a player Boston could rebuild around. "No one is thinking about next year," he says. "We've still got a long way to go this year."