FORT MYERS, Fla. – David Ortiz is right.
The Red Sox don’t need him to be a babysitter or father figure.
They don’t need him to be a comedian in the clubhouse. They don’t need gift certificates to the hopeful reopening of "Big Papi's Grille" in Boston. They don’t need him to be a mix master of the music in the clubhouse before and after games. They don’t need him to match Jacoby Ellsbury’s speed or physique, although Ortiz said that he’s lost about 17 pounds from last season.
They don’t even need him to be happy. As a matter of fact, before last season when it was written several times that Ortiz was done and had to platoon, he came out and had his best season in four years. On his way to the batting cages following his physical, he was still upset on Friday about a columnist's criticism weeks ago that suggested Ortiz was ready to break down and was finally close to being done.
Forget all of that. What they need from him is pure production. That’s it.
Something along the lines of what he did last year would be just fine.
For a 35-year-old who was thought to be slowing down, his numbers were pretty sensational. A .309 average, 554 slugging and a .953 OPS, his highest since three straight seasons over 1.000 from 2005-07. In the other more traditional categories, Ortiz hit 29 homers and drove in 96 runs.
He’s right about something else. He did his job in 2011, when he earned $12.5 million in the option year of a four-year contract that was extended way back in April 2006
Lost in all the scraps of fried chicken and beer bottle tabs on the clubhouse carpet is the fact that Ortiz was very good and had the best year of his career against left-handed pitching.
He batted .329 in 201 plate appearances covering in 97games. That was actually 31 points higher than his .298 average in just more than twice the plate appearances against righties
Ortiz did his job, and did it very well, playing with the chip on his shoulder that an aging left-handed slugging couldn’t hit left-handed pitching.
“You know what, I didn’t think about it because I think I did my job last year,” Ortiz said when asked if he would change anything about 2011. “I would’ve thought about that if things go down the way they did and it had a lot to do with my performance. I think my year wasn’t that bad last year, and I was really upset because of the way we finished and all the opportunity that we had through the season, all the chances that we had through the season of winning games and those games walking away from us.”
In the heat of the summer, Ortiz was a beast, batting .411 with a ridiculous 1.330 OPS in August, with eight homers and 20 RBIs. When Youkilis wore down due to injury, Ortiz’s numbers dipped predictably in September as he was moved up in the order and Youk was dropped to fifth.
The point is: A lot was asked of Ortiz, who was doubted by many. How did he respond? With pure production. This spring, he appears to be carrying that same chip. But he also has perspective about the way 2011 ended.
“I didn’t blame everything on the last game,” he said “I blame everything on the history of the whole season and everything coming down to one game. Everyone was focusing on that one game, which I guess was the right thing to do. But there was a lot of games that we just let go during the season. We should’ve been on top 10 games, not being away from the playoffs because of the one game. Because the last game, sometimes you’re playing against teams like Baltimore that were packing to go home, and you’re playing with a lot of pressure but they’re not playing with any. And you wind up getting beat up because of that.
He’s absolutely on the money. This Red Sox team is built again to produce big numbers if Ellsbury and Pedroia get on base and if Youkilis returns to form from offseason hernia surgery and hip issues.
And it's built to succeed if Papi produces.
“You want to be perfect in do everything you do so you can win the game, and it doesn’t work that way,” Ortiz said. “I’ve been saying that for years. Now, on the other hand, you have a lot of opportunity to win ballgames, and for any reason, it doesn’t happen and today you’ve got to face that situation. I think after the season last year, I was still depressing because I was so ready to go to the playoffs and it didn’t happen.”
You can hear the drive and passion that still remains, even if he may privately feel unappreciated by ownership. He says he didn’t speak once with owner John Henry this winter.
“I remember at one point during the season, I was like, ‘Man, this is the best ballclub that I have ever been into,’ because we were playing so good,” he added. “When you’re playing that good in July, August, me personally, I already made up my mind in the playoffs. And having the kind of drought that we had and moving forward towards the end of the season when you know that you’re running out of chances, that wears you out. That wears you out.
“I’m telling you, I was like having all this pressure that we’ve got to win to get to the playoffs, that’s something extra that you’ve got to bring to the table. After all, it was like, you know, I don’t know if you guys know, but I was very disappointed. But there’s nothing you can do about it this year. You have to pull yourself together and be ready to do damage next year.”
So what will be Ortiz’s leadership role on the 2012 Red Sox?
“When I talk to any of the guys on the team, I don’t want to sound like I’m their dad,” Ortiz said. “I make sure that they understand that it’s a friend, a brother, another player, talking to them. That’s why my communication with a lot of them is easy. I have a good relationship with everybody.
“It’s not my job to walk on anyone. I’m just an employee, just like anyone else. I’m not a babysitter or anything like that. I’m talking to another man just like me. There’s a difference between being a team leader and being a babysitter. Everybody has an idea about what they are here for.”
Ortiz is not holding grudges against Josh Beckett and Jon Lester from last year’s debacle in September.
“The problem was when they did it,” Ortiz said. “They came out and apologized. That means they’re not going to do it again. For that, you need to turn the page.”
I’m here to tell you that in the wake of his 29-minute therapy session with reporters on Wednesday, it only became crystal clear 20 minutes in that he just wants to play, produce and show the Red Sox they’re getting off cheap at one year, $14.5 million.
If Ortiz comes anywhere close to repeating what he did last year, that will be money well spent.
To the TragsBag:
From @CraigMacCormack: @Trags I'm not sure Ortiz wants to be leader. That's OK w me if he puts up another season of solid #s in middle of #RedSox lineup. #TragsBag
Couldn’t agree more. Your sentiments pretty much sum up the way most Red Sox fans feel. We in the media are sometimes guilty of mixing emotion and production. They are separate. We all know most of the clubhouse activities would have been minor notes in a sidebar story on chemistry if the Red Sox won two more games. That said, Ortiz will lead by how he does on the plate. Only Edgar Martinez can rival him as a productive major league designated hitter since the rule came into existence in 1973.
From @ZakDodge: @Trags Just wondering do you have any videos of Pedroia hitting in the cage, he is my favorite player, is he looking good?
Working on those Zak. Keep checking back at WEEI.com. Meanwhile, as I wrote on Wednesday, I can tell you that he loves hitting in the cage and coined the expression “cage bombs” this week. He is someone I wouldn’t worry that much about. Our Alex Speier noted that he had a sensational season in 2011 with his OBP coming in at a career-best .387. He did strike out more than ever (85) but that was also off-set by a career high 86 walks. He is again in tremendous shape, as Rob Bradford noted when he went out to Arizona for his annual January visit. Barring injuries, don’t worry. Slot him in for a .300 average.
Again from @ZakDodge: @Trags how is Lester looking is he in shape, and is Beckett in shape and does he have his form from 11?
Both are throwing the ball well down here and both passed their physicals. To determine if they’re in shape or not, you’d really have to wait till the end of camp to make that determination as both are pushed toward 100-pitch limits. The issue of conditioning with Beckett is a legitimate one since he appeared much less effective and more hittable in the seventh and eighth innings of his final four starts in September.
From @BostonRocks: @Trags Mike Why is it this 30 yr Sox fan has zero interest in following this team ? Hangover from the great collapse & sick of prima donnas.
This is what these Red Sox are up against. In addition to battling the AL East, they need to win their fan base back. In the first 10days here, I can tell you they’ve said all the right things. They know what they have to do to win fans like you back and all they want is the chance to do so.