KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “You know what they say about lions?”
After posing the question, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz stands up, bat in hand, to illustrate his answer. With the end of his bat, he draws a circle in the dirt next to the Kauffman Stadium backstop.
A lion, Ortiz explains, marks his territory as if drawing that circle. The circumference serves to establish residency for a pride, defining turf and serving as a warning to those who would invade. It is the lion’s home.
For the most part, the boundaries are respected and offer safety. The male lion (“the king,” said Ortiz) will typically have little difficulty driving away intruders.
But eventually, Ortiz said, another lion will dare to enter the circle. When that happens, the two lions will wage a ferocious battle to see who will emerge as the rightful master of the territory.
“You know what that tells you?” Ortiz asks as he starts toward the batting cage. “That even when you are at home, even when you are a lion and you are where you want to be, that tough times kick in.”
For Ortiz, long a lion in the Red Sox clubhouse, the 2009 season has been an ongoing study in that subject. The foremost star of the Sox’ run atop the baseball world that began in 2003 spent much of the year trying to withstand the sort of adversity that had been rarely if ever seen in his first six seasons with Boston.
Now, with a months-long trial nearly behind him, Ortiz is preparing to return not home but instead to another familiar lion’s den. The last time he was in New York seven weeks ago, the designated hitter was embattled.
He had to face the glaring spotlight of a national press conference about his positive test for a performance-enhancing substance during Major League Baseball’s survey testing in 2003. It was a moment when his season — perhaps even career — seemed capable of being derailed.
But instead of withering, Ortiz now once again stands strong at the end of the season, amidst one of his best stretches of baseball this year. After going 3-for-5 and homering for the second straight time on Thursday, he is hitting .290 in September with a .398 OBP and .536 slugging mark. He is hammering the ball with an authority that once seemed unimaginable this year.
He has withstood a year that has offered a string of unique challenges, and now he returns to New York — the site of his most challenging moment this year — with the confidence of someone who has endured the worst and emerged stronger for it.
“One thing I’m going to remember about this year is that things got really, really bad — really bad — and I still fight back,” Ortiz said. “I never shut it down. That’s the only good thing I can remember.”
The misery at the start of the slugger’s season became undeniable. Ortiz got off to such a woeful start that he could not pretend to see reason for optimism. In May, after an 0-for-7 day against the Angels, the defeated slugger’s only comment was, "Papi stinks."
The memory of that time is not a happy one for Ortiz. Even he found it difficult to imagine that any of his year-ending numbers could approach respectability.
“I had two months of vacation — not a vacation I wanted, but I had a vacation,” Ortiz said. “If you looked at my numbers at the beginning of June, and you look at my numbers right now, you’d be like, ‘This guy had to haul ass to get there.’ My numbers were looking like, it would be amazing if I got 15 homers and 60 RBIs.”
Ortiz’ poor performance forced Sox manager Terry Francona to walk a fine line between faith and realism. The great constant of the Red Sox lineup during the manager’s tenure had become the team’s biggest vulnerability.
It was not merely the numbers that were bad. Ortiz looked completely out of whack in the batter’s box, a lost hitter who constantly guessed wrong about what was coming next.
The 33-year-old wore his struggles plainly. Instead of a constantly jovial demeanor, he seemed at times defeated. He tried to maintain his composure, but there were times when the slugger’s agony was apparent to his manager.
“This is the first time that he really ever went through something like this so, you know, it can be hard for him. It would be hard for anybody,” Francona said. “And I think he is very proud, and I think it probably hurt him more than he let on.
“For the most part, he keeps it in,” Francona said. “But I think every so often David will let it out, and when he does he lets it fly.”
Francona served as a source of counsel, reassuring Ortiz that he maintained faith in the player. He also said that he would remain honest in dealing with him, and that if a move had to be made — whether a head-clearing spell on the sidelines or a decision to drop the team’s No. 3 hitter in the batting order — Ortiz would be the first to know.
The communication between Ortiz and Francona was candid, honest, real. The two have been close almost from the beginning of the manager’s time in Boston, and so they were able to assess the situation candidly. Ortiz asked Francona not to pull any punches.
“I’m the kind of person that I will stick with you no matter the situation. You want to get the same respect back. I did get that from him. That is something that I really appreciate and that I will never forget,” Ortiz said. “He came to me with the same line that he always came to me: 'I’ve got your back no matter what the situation.' That’s great, man. You never forget about that kind of stuff. I always trust Tito. I always told Tito, no matter what the situation is, come to me with the real deal.”
Ultimately, Francona did have to give Ortiz a three-game spell on the bench during a May series in Seattle to clear his head. But rendering him a bench option — something that crept into public dialogue — was never an option.
“Pulling the plug on David was silly. I remember going through and seeing some of the comments,” Francona said. “I wouldn’t have been doing my job right if I had bailed on David. It is not a personal thing, my job is to get the most out of this team. Taking him out of the lineup is not serving this team best. Part of my job is fending off all that and letting the guy play.
“I think I told him that I am here, he speaks to me every day, but I’m here. I told him that I have patted him on the back for five years and now I have to go be the other way,” Francona said. “He knew how I felt. Sometimes when you have been together so much, he doesn’t need a speech from me, he knows how I feel.”
Because of the relationship that has been built over the years, Francona and Ortiz were able to achieve some hard decisions. The manager gave the slugger a lot of leash to rebound, but ultimately, while he could keep putting Ortiz’ name in the lineup, he could no longer place him in the heart of the order.
Instead, Francona dropped Ortiz to lineup positions he had not experienced since his first year in Boston. Ortiz would have to move from one of the lineup’s glory spots to a less-glamorous position.
The slugger was unhappy with the change. Even so, because of the relationship and trust that he had with his manager, Ortiz accepted a decision that he was told was for the betterment of the team.
“When I have to tell somebody that they are hitting down lower in the order, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it was to him, so it was for me,” Francona said. “I know he doesn’t like hitting down in the order. Neither did I. But again, I always do what I think is right, and once again the relationships get you through things like that.
“I know David doesn’t like it. I hit him seventh sometimes. He hates it. I still have to do what I think is right, and then it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about him, and he knows that.”
Ortiz was able to put any wounded pride aside. He moved down in the order, and though it did not happen immediately, he finally began to hit.
At the end of May, through nearly one-third of his team’s schedule, Ortiz was hitting .185 with a .570 OPS, one homer and 18 RBI. But in June, he started salvaging his season.
At first, the progress came slowly. A line drive that nicked the Pesky Pole, a ball that he lofted over the Green Monster …
They weren’t the epic blasts of years past, but the Sox and Ortiz alike were happy to take any positive sign and try to use it as a confidence-boost. Ultimately, that approach paid dividends.
From June 1 through July 29, Ortiz performed, if not to the standards of his mid-prime self, then to those of a reasonable facsimile. In 47 games, he hit .268 with an .890 OPS, a dozen homers and 37 RBI. It appeared that his season was hitting its stride.
Instead, it was about to hit a tripwire.
THE POSITIVE TEST
A couple of hours before a Thursday day game against the A’s on July 30, Ortiz was asked by a New York Times reporter to comment about his positive test for a banned substance during MLB’s 2003 survey testing. Initially, the slugger shrugged it off without comment, and then he went out and delivered a game-winning homer.
Following the game, in a packed clubhouse that was buzzing with news of the positive test for PEDs, Ortiz briefly addressed the media — saying that he would make himself available as soon as he had all the information he needed to do so — before issuing a statement. In it, the slugger acknowledged that he had tested positive, but he said that based on how he lived, he was surprised by that revelation.
Immediately, a wave of judgment crashed upon Ortiz. That day, many declared his career — in particular, his emergence as one of the game’s top sluggers after coming to the Red Sox as a 27-year-old — a fraud. As Ortiz declined comment on his positive test for the next nine days, others joined the chorus, assuming that the silence represented an admission.
Now, nearly two months later, Ortiz recalls being wounded by those who assumed that he was guilty without giving him a chance to rebut the claim.
“You’ve got to believe it? How about the 20 times I’ve been tested and I have never tested positive for anything? What happened with those numbers?” Ortiz asked. “I wasn’t mad because of the fact that somebody came out and said something about me. I was mad because how can people believe those things? How can the people who know you, the people that see you, the people who deal with you every day, they heard that and right away they believed.”
Ortiz homered in his first two games after news of the positive test exploded. But he quickly went into a nosedive.
The designated hitter notched just two hits in his next 28 at-bats up to and including the day when he had his press conference in New York. The Sox were in one of their toughest stretches of the season, a six-game losing streak to Texas and New York, and Ortiz’ situation seemed — even in the slugger’s opinion — to be a distraction.
“There was some frustration there. At the time, we weren’t playing very good. It was a tough time on everybody, but nobody more than him,” Francona said. “Publicly, I couldn’t say anything. I checked with what I was supposed to do and was told very strongly that ‘this will get handled.’ I think some of the frustration there is that some people took some pretty big shots at David.
“Now, I understand what baseball has been through but still have some level of disappointment because David is David,” Francona continued. “Not everybody is guilty. You know, I’ve sat and listened to some [players], probably like you, and listened to some things [with skepticism], [but] I thought that they probably needed to step back and listen to this guy. And I thought he handled himself really well.”
Ortiz sat in front of the national news media on Sat., Aug. 8, and with the help of Michael Weiner, the incoming head of the MLB Players Association, laid out his defense. He said that he’d never knowingly ingested steroids, but that he was guilty of having been “careless” in his use of supplements in 2003.
He went on to say that, after the advent of suspensions and penalties for positive tests, that he had been checked more than 15 times without another positive.
Some believed Ortiz’ proclamations of innocence. Others didn’t. Now, seven weeks removed from that moment, Ortiz insists he doesn’t care what side people came down on.
“That is in the past. I don’t give a damn. I came out and talked to [the media]. I have nothing to hide. I came out with what I had,” Ortiz said. “One side of the planet is going to believe it. Another side is not going to. I can’t control that. What I can control is that the people that believe me get to be on the same page as me: my manager, my teammates.”
Following the press conference, Ortiz’ teammates expressed universal support for the slugger. Even so, it remained to be seen whether the positive test would continue to signal the player’s demise or whether he would be able to prove resilient in the face of immense scrutiny and adversity.
The Sox left New York, and Ortiz stirred. He hit a pair of homer in his fifth game after leaving Yankee Stadium and then cleared the fences three times in three days. He did not relent.
Now, following a night when he went 3-for-5 with a homer, double and walk, Ortiz has hit .286 with a .392 OBP, a .593 slugging percentage, a .984 OPS and 11 homers.
Incredibly, he now has 26 homers and 91 RBI for the year. Though his batting average remains a dismal .237, his .790 OPS is not merely respectable (at least for most players) but also little short of remarkable given the distance he had to travel to get to this point.
“I think with the numbers I have already this year, those guys that were checking out my age, I think this should stick in their mind. You know what I’m saying?” Ortiz said. “People thought I was looking for excuses and thinking in the wrong direction when you struggle a little bit. That’s something that at the end of the day, it’s a sorry analysis. People always have to look at things the right way.”
For Ortiz, that means taking stock of a year that has been filled with challenges unlike any others he has faced in his career. He is able to look beyond his start, and to view other measures — the American League-leading 25 homers since June 6, for instance — and take satisfaction with what he has accomplished in the face of massive challenges.
He will not finish the year with incredible, MVP-caliber numbers that once seemed routine. All the same, he will conclude the regular season in a fashion that underscores that he remains a threat.
“Anybody can have a bad year. Anybody can struggle. They look at it like a bad year because they’re not numbers for David Ortiz that they’re used to, but it’s not like they’re the worst numbers in the league,” Ortiz said. “Remember this: A bad year for David Ortiz is a hell of a year for some guys, you know what I’m saying?”
In like a lamb, out like a lion. In 2009, Ortiz has fought for his turf.