David Ortiz looks to be in good spirits at Red Sox spring training. (AP)
FT. MYERS, Fla. – They're here to see the last of the Idiots, the final vestige of the greatest moment in New England sports history. All the rest of the 2004 Boston Red Sox are gone, off to other teams, to retirement, to opining on television, to coaching, to playing Mr. Mom. And here is David Ortiz – the most beloved player to wear a Red Sox uniform since, what, Yaz? – handing a pouch of Red Man to a fan whose friends never will believe the dip was once Big Papi's and signing autographs for others who don't know whether to call him Papi or David or Mr. Ortiz or, in the case of one tongue-tied man, a grunt of acknowledgement thanking him for giving Boston what 86 years of players couldn't.
"I want those days again," Big Papi says, with a mixture of fondness and resignation, aware they're not here anymore. Following their worst season since the 1960s, a year Ortiz calls "a disaster," the Red Sox are "trying to rebuild and go back to those days." And it may take some time, the fallout of Bobby Valentine's nuclear one-year stewardship of the Red Sox still on Ortiz's mind even as new manager John Farrell does his best to undo the damage.
This is a new spot for Ortiz. Tim Wakefield retired, leaving Ortiz as the last connection to '04. Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek are back – as special assistants to Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and, ostensibly, a reminder that the organizational compass isn't entirely broken.
Always in the middle of the action is Papi, the bridge between the championship Red Sox and this newest incarnation, until his new two-year contract and body in all likelihood conspire to end it. "Probably," he says, retirement not on his mind, per se, but never far from it for a 37-year-old with a bum Achilles' and a career's worth of wear.
"The day is going to come where you're not able to do what you do," he says. "And once that day shows up, you've got to take it to the house. You train yourself to get used to it. It happens to everybody. I don't want to be the guy who waits too long.
"Here's my philosophy: I'm gonna keep helicoptering the ball. If I helicopter the ball and it don't go nowhere, it's enough."
Since it's still going places, and Boston is the site of all his professional successes, Papi wanted back for his final hurrah, unlike so many who leave the Red Sox embittered and shunted aside. The love in Boston for him is unremitting, even if he and others on that team allegedly used steroids. With Manny Ramirez, it was always a fleeting sort, visceral and passionate. Ortiz engorges hearts atrophied by years of being broken, his outsize personality the perfect antidote to the idea that Boston never could love anybody but the scrappy white hope.
Ortiz went through the chicken-and-beer debacle of 2011 unscathed and escaped similarly last year, when Valentine represented the depths to which the Red Sox, at one point baseball's model organization, had sunk. The best place to play now was the worst. The interpersonal toxicity oozed through the clubhouse. And the hallmark of those 2004 Idiots, so named by Johnny Damon, as well as the 2007 World Series championship Red Sox – a great collection of players made all the better by how damn likeable they were – had disappeared. Left was something Ortiz couldn't recognize.
"Every year, the group changed, and I don't think management knew the effect it had," he says. "You had new people coming in, old ones coming out. Everybody had their different cultures. From 2003, when I first got here, my first year here, I saw the good chemistry coming in. We kept the same group for 2004, and the chemistry got us the World Series."
Ortiz is a big believer in chemistry. A lot of baseball players are. Even if he acknowledges chemistry may be as much a function of winning as it is some organic development – "It's very much the chicken and egg," he says, "you don't know which was born first" – Ortiz yearns to have it again in Boston.
"When you have issues with players and coaches, or between players, that can wreck a season," he says. "Last year was a disaster. You saw that. We had a good group of guys, but a lot of them had issues with the manager. It's hard to perform like that."
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Ortiz stops and points at Jonny Gomes, one of seven free agents the Red Sox signed in their offseason overhaul.
"It's why he almost got to the World Series," he says.
Gomes nods. The 2012 Oakland A's, with young pitching and unlikely home run power, outlasted the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels to become one of the unlikeliest division winners in decades.
"We won the AL West and went to the playoffs without a good team," Gomes says. "It wasn't."
Not in the traditional sense, not with its platoons and breakout seasons and thriving despite injuries. The A's happened to like each other, though, and it's impossible to convince Gomes or Ortiz that in this case the chicken and the egg was Oakland's clubhouse dynamic.
It's what Cherington tried to replicate this offseason. The locker next to Ortiz's? Shane Victorino, another signee. Next to his? Gomes'. The Red Sox, so long sabermetric slaves, shook off the objective analysis that said $39 million is too much for an aging Victorino, and a multiyear deal for Gomes is wrongheaded considering never before had the 32-year-old warranted more than one-year contracts. This is no narrative created for them. The Red Sox made it themselves: The happy-go-lucky Sox, taking a sledgehammer to the past, even if the past isn't all that far away.
"You know, I think the computer is [expletive] up this game a lot," Ortiz says.
It is pointed out that the computers actually love Ortiz as a player, that the computers sustained his career when the Minnesota Twins gave up on him and the Red Sox picked him up, convinced full-time at-bats would unleash his potential, which, more than 400 career home runs later, they certainly did. None of this seems to change Ortiz's mind. The fun of 2004 – shots of Jack Daniel's before the game, Manny Being Manny, "Dirty Water" blaring, Kevin Millar braying to "cowboy up" – embedded itself so deeply into his consciousness, he cannot fathom any other way for a team to win. He was able to slink along in the background with all the other big personalities, a secondary joke cracker, a third-string troll. By no means the center of everything.
Which, nine years later, he is, often to his discomfort. He hates the idea that he could've salvaged the '11 meltdown or the '12 catastrophe with some sort of leadership. It's funny: Ortiz fully embraces the trope of chemistry while pooh-poohing the idea of leadership, which makes him enlightened, confused or likelier somewhere in between.
"My responsibility, I think, is this," he says. "We're in spring training. We have a lot of new guys. OK. Papi is the face of the Red Sox. Let's see how Papi roll. I'm not too much of a talker when it comes down to talks, but I go about my business. I get here early. I get my work in early. And I get prepared to play games.
"When Shane first came in, he told me, 'I'm going to follow your lead.' I don't need to sit Shane down and tell him what to do. He's a pro baller. What got him here is what he does. And all we need is everybody to do what they do, and we win."
In a division with so much talent – one general manager thinks all five AL East teams will finish above .500 – wins won't be easy to come by. It's why Ortiz is so glad Pedro and Varitek are around. They provide a connection beyond one man and a reel of highlights on the big screen in center field at Fenway Park. While the fans can't forget '04, the next generation of Red Sox – Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Matt Barnes and others – can't be bothered to know the details of it. Middlebrooks, the oldest of the bunch, was all of 16.
Ortiz tries to tell stories, though sometimes they sound like the old man recounting the glory days long past, and he doesn't want to be that guy. He's too cool for that, and he doesn't want such talk dragging him toward the end.
"If I think about retiring, I'll start slowing down," Papi says. "I know I got two more years on my contract, and I want to match the best years. That's my goal. Match numbers, win a World Series. And leave this place like it should be."
Tongue-tied, grunting, acknowledging one of the best and most beloved to wear a Red Sox uniform. Big Papi, the last of the Idiots, forever Boston's to cherish.
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