There are times when greatness becomes so familiar that it is difficult to appreciate. Sustained excellence over a significant period of time should have the effect of amplifying the sense of accomplishment. Often, however, it does precisely the opposite, rendering the extraordinary mundane.
But make no mistake: What David Ortiz is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.
Ortiz is 37 years old, turning 38 next month. Yet he remains a game-changing force like few others. On Saturday, he offered a compelling reminder of that fact, destroying a pair of David Price pitches (one a cutter, the other a fastball) for solo homers in the Red Sox' 7-4 victory to take a 2-0 lead over the Rays in the best-of-five ALCS.
It was the first time in his storied postseason career -- which now includes 14 homers -- that he'd gone deep twice in a single game.
"See me swing that mother-(expletive)?" Ortiz shouted gleefully in the clubhouse, dancing away from a question about the imminence of his 38th birthday. "I'm swinging like I'm 20!"
That's not quite accurate. When Ortiz was 20, he was not Big Papi. For that matter, he wasn't even David Ortiz -- or at least, no one realized it. In 1996, his age 20 season, he went by David Arias (his mother's last name) as a promising prospect for the Mariners' Single-A affiliate before he got dealt to the Twins as a player to be named (or, in this case, renamed) for Dave Hollins.
Ortiz was promising then, but that young prospect can't hold a candle to who he is now. Indeed, he still had yet to reach a point where the Twins would realize what he might become, something that helped lead Minnesota to release him as a 26-year-old in December 2002.
"He looks better now than he did 10 years ago," raved Tigers outfielder and former Twins teammate Torii Hunter earlier this year. "We released David Ortiz when we were with the Twins, which I thought was the worst thing ever. We released David Ortiz and one man's trash is another man's gain. The Red Sox picked that trash up and ran with it."
More accurately: Ortiz did the running, and the Sox eventually cleared a path for him after an overcrowded group of corner players and designated hitter types prevented Ortiz from getting regular playing time in the first couple months of his Sox career. Afforded the chance to play everyday, he started dominating -- a fact that is worth remembering because the veteran very closely resembles who he was when he exploded on the scene for the Sox.
That is an insane realization given that a) Ortiz has been in Boston for more than a decade and b) the health of his Achilles represented a major cloud casting a shadow on the possibility of his production this year.
Consider these two seasons:
128 Games, 509 PAs: .288 average, .369 OBP, .592 slugging, 31 HR, 72 XBH, 101 RBI, 144 OPS+
137 Games, 600 PAs: .309 average, .395 OBP, .564 slugging, 30 HR, 70 XBH, 103 RBI, 160 OPS+
Not much of a contest between which player a team would rather have, right?
The first season was Ortiz in 2003, when the 27-year-old forced his way from a part-time role to cult-figure status en route to a fifth-place finish in AL MVP balloting. The second season was Ortiz in the regular season this year, when as a 37-year-old, he returned from the disabled list with a season where he posted comparable numbers to those of his first year in Boston -- but at a time when offense is down considerably throughout baseball (hence the 160 OPS+, meaning that he's 60 percent more productive (as measured by the imperfect measure of OPS) than a league average hitter).
The takeaway? Ortiz is a more dominant middle-of-the-order force now than he was over the totality of that 2003 season. He is more impactful, based on his performance relative to that of the league, than he was in his first of five straight top-five finishes in AL MVP voting. He remains the ultimate game-changer in a Sox lineup that ranked as the best in the American League.
How to describe his ongoing impact and stature as a bad mother-(expletive)? He led the majors -- by a huge margin -- with 27 intentional walks. No one else -- not Miguel Cabrera (19), not Joey Votto (19), not Robinson Cano (16), not Chris Davis (12), not Mike Trout (10) -- had as many as 20. There were stretches this year (when Mike Napoli was slumping) when he had virtually no lineup protection, yet he continued to produce at an outrageous level.
In his 11th year with the Red Sox, at a time when he's moved well beyond what is typically considered the prime years, Ortiz is capable of standing in against one of the toughest lefties on the planet in David Price and launching two pitches into orbit.
"When he gets two home runs, things are going to revolve around him," Sox manager John Farrell noted. "Can't say enough about him. He's probably surpassed our expectation of number of games played (in 2013, coming back from the injury). He's been so productive, which has been consistent with his entire career. It was always a matter of health. … He's the main cog in our lineup. And to build around him, leading up to him and guys that follow him in the lineup Ã¢ÂÂÃ¢ÂÂ we're capable of scoring runs in a couple of ways, but when you can score it in one swing of the bat, as he's done many times over, he's a huge threat for us."
Even now, Ortiz possesses swagger like few others. Consider the message that he offered to teammate David Ross prior to Saturday's game.
"He came in and told me, he said, 'I wore my A-game today because I'm going to be doing interviews after the game.' He said he wore his best clothes. Only Papi can do that," Ross howled. "We need him. I told David the other day, we were on the road, and I said I've never seen a guy care so much about winning and bringing it everyday. If he doesn't bring his A-game, we're not very good. Same with Dustin Pedroia.
"He's a presence in our lineup, obviously," said Ross. "When I'm a catcher on the other team, when I've caught and come in here, David Ortiz gets my attention. He makes everyone else better."
He's been doing that for a long time. How on earth to explain it?
Ortiz recently offered his unique take.
"I was born to hit," he said. "I was swinging a bat in my mama's belly."
But it's far more than innate skill that has defined his excellence over the duration of his time in Boston. Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez was in big league camp as the organization's roving hitting instructor when Ortiz was in his first spring with the Sox in 2003.
"At that time, he was stronger, younger. But now, experience, knowing how to prepare, how to take care of himself, how to take care of his daily work to stay strong for the game, that's what he does," said Rodriguez, who described Ortiz's purposeful work in the cage and in batting practice to drive the ball to different fields depending on how he thinks an opponent will attack him. "It's not like he just shows up and starts hitting. He puts in the time everyday to get ready for the game. He knows who's pitching, he knows how they're going to pitch him, and he works at it.
"He's a smart, hard worker. He studies pitchers, knows through the years what pitchers want to do and he prepares every day to go after that guy. It's not by mistake. If he's not the best, he's one of the best."
Indeed, it is the intelligence to constantly stay atop the cat-and-mouse game that is at the heart of Ortiz's prolonged stay atop the baseball world. His strength and power are, of course, obvious, even if likely somewhat diminished from a decade ago. But during his time in Boston, he's become an expert on the science of hitting in a fashion that leaves teammates in awe.
"I kind of marvel at his overall knowledge of hitting," said reliever Craig Breslow. "It's often overlooked because physically, he's just a big guy and he hits the ball so hard. … What is often under appreciated is how good of an all-around hitter he is. If you think you can go down and away because he's got pull power, he will wear out that Wall or go over the Wall. If you shift him, he'll hit a ball down the third-base line. If you think you can beat him in, he'll hit a ball 400 feet down the line. He also has a really good idea of what opposing pitchers are going to try to do to him, and he has a really good approach and plan as to what he's going to do to combat that. He's as knowledgeable a hitter as I've ever played with, in addition to being, obviously, an immensely talented slugger."
The net result? The man who claimed ownership of October in 2004 and who performed to an outrageous standard in both that run to the title and the subsequent one in 2007 has offered the first hint of trying to do the same in 2013. He is performing to a level that has characterized so much of his tenure in Boston -- continuing a sustained run that commands consideration as one of the most dominant offensive players of a baseball generation.
"That guy gets locked in, it's over," said Ross. "This guy, he's really good. Appreciate what you see. Tell the fans that. Write that. Appreciate what you see. This guy's really good."