Dustin Pedroia(notes) struts around the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, 5-foot-nothing with a balding head and a sharp tongue that's his answer to Napoleon's gun. From afar, David Ortiz(notes) steals a look at his teammate, one of the wonders of the modern baseball world, and marvels.
"You see this guy right here?" Ortiz says. "He's one of the three best players in the whole game, and look at his size. But you know what he's got? Right here, bro."
Ortiz points to his head. He wields an unusual amount of respect for the brain: for its brilliance, its resilience, its ability to turn on the right and shunt the wrong – more than anything, for its gift to him.
"I'm not a five-tool player," he says. "I may be a two-tool player. But one of them tools is this one right here."
Ortiz points to his head again. Boston's designated hitter and, more than that, the conscience of Red Sox Nation, talks with his hands. His fingers reveal his mood. They dance when he's excited. They stagger at disappointment. They swirl at confusion. When Ortiz wants to emphasize a point, he moves them slowly – sometimes touching another person's shoulder or leg or, in this case, his own left temple.
"What I hear people talking about on TV – it doesn't walk into my house," he says. "My house is a powerhouse. I only allow people to come in when I want. I don't care about what anybody say; I care about what I can do."
The enemy is never far behind in sports. It can be the media. The fans. The manager. More often than not, it doesn't exist, a MacGuffin for accomplishment. Competitors need something to fight beyond the game itself, even if it's made up. David Ortiz never had to search far for his. It came in the boos. The doubts. The write-offs. Opponents did it. Scouts did it. You did it. I did it. Big Papi, king of Boston's two championships after 86 years of futility, was done.
So to see him now, doing things only a handful of men in the game's history have done, reminding every doubter that a big, bat-only player can last past his 35th birthday, surviving, succeeding, winning – it's why Pedroia's swag pales to only one other person in a Red Sox uniform.
"I'll tell you one thing, man, about myself," Ortiz says, and he laughs because what he's about to say may encapsulate him better than anything he's ever said.
"I like to tell people to shut the [expletive] up."
This offseason, D'Angelo Ortiz told his dad he wanted to go to the MLB All-Star game for his birthday this year.
"I'm not a player," the 7-year-old said, "so you'd better pull yourself together."
If only he understood what he was asking. Success is mutually exclusive with Ortiz's type, the thick, aging power hitter. Only three other players in their age-34-or-older season, standing at least 6-foot-3 and weighing at least 220 pounds, did what Ortiz did last season: hit at least .270, get on base 37-plus percent of the time and slug better than .529. If Ortiz can keep up his numbers this season – a .300 batting average, a .388 on-base percentage and a .557 slugging percentage that satisfied D'Angelo's wish – he'll be just the second big man to reach such plateaus at 35 or older, joining Andres Galarraga, who matched his staggering Coors Field-aided 1996 with an even more impressive 1997 with Atlanta.
All of Big Papi's accomplishments came in Boston, where he landed after the Minnesota Twins declined to offer him a contract before the 2003 season. Since then, he has hit 315 home runs, driven in more than 1,000 runs and joined Albert Pujols(notes), Manny Ramirez(notes), Lance Berkman(notes), Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Alex Rodriguez(notes) as the only players with an OPS more than 45 percent better than league average. These are numbers he knows. He likes to point them out, much like he enjoys talking about Mike Mussina.
"He was a guy who used to make my life miserable," Ortiz says. "My first 20 at-bats against Mike Mussina, I was like 0-for-20 with 13 punchouts. And you know what? I was like, wait a minute. This guy is throwing baseballs over the plate just like everyone else. I've got to figure my [expletive] out. If I want to be a superstar – if I want to take [expletive] to another level – I had to figure the guy out."
Over his next 34 at-bats against Mussina, Ortiz banged 14 hits – including three home runs – and struck out just six times.
And he brings up these stories again and again, time after time, not out of insecurity as much as accomplishment. Ortiz is constantly telling people to shut the [expletive] up.
"If I'm in a cave, I'm not going to die down there," he says. "I claw my way out."
These feelings are mostly residual, leftovers from the trying 2009 and 2010. A hand injury rendered Ortiz near-worthless for the first few months of 2009. He remembers joining the Dominican Republic's team in the World Baseball Classic that spring and taking batting practice with a group that included Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez(notes) and Wily Mo Pena(notes). They launched balls into orbit. Ortiz couldn't hit a batting-practice pitch out of the infield. He was, for the first time, his own enemy.
A brutal two months that season gave way to four productive ones. Ortiz returned in 2010 and looked awful again. Manager Terry Francona moved him down the lineup and pinch hit for him, an unconscionable maneuver in years past but a long-overdue one, Red Sox zealots yelped. By May, Ortiz cured himself. The fastballs he was seeing in April disappeared. Not only was his swing back, he resembled the destructive middle-of-the-order hitter who paired with Ramirez to help win a pair of World Series. Today, he's seeing his lowest percentage of fastballs ever; his strikeout rate has plummeted to a career best; and his 24 home runs lead the Red Sox.
"I don't even know what people want me to do," Ortiz says. "They want me to jump off a bridge or something. Seriously. I don't know why. You can't do no better than I'm doing. I'm 35 years old, bro."
Ortiz's age, and perhaps his fallibility therein, are best embodied by his partner in crime, his running buddy, the id to his ego. Manny Ramirez is gone from baseball now, run out this spring after his second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.
"I don't care what anybody say: This game miss Manny Ramirez," Ortiz says.
Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Boston's new first baseman and occupant of Ortiz's old No. 3 hole in the lineup, was taking in video with Ortiz last week when they started studying some of Manny's at-bats. His technical perfection awed them.
"Wow," Gonzalez said.
The swing, with a bat that stayed in the strike zone long enough to do a tour of duty, was a masterwork, baseball's answer to Barry Sanders' ballet and Ray Allen's jump shot and Bobby Orr's skating.
"I have never asked him about what he did," Ortiz says. "I probably never will. The reason I get along with everybody is I love you the way you are. I want you to be yourself. We all come from different families, lifestyles, situations.
"But one thing I always ask myself is why somebody that had such a beautiful career bought into that [expletive]. That's something that's always going to be a question mark in my head. You know what, dude? Even through my struggles, never did using that [expletive] cross into my mind."
Two years after The New York Times reported he tested positive for steroids in the 2003 survey testing, Ortiz continues to proclaim innocence. He says he never took performance-enhancing drugs and "I still don't know where that came from. I asked a whole bunch of questions. Nobody gave me an answer."
He wasn't inclined to go on a futile chase for one, either. Of all the players accused of taking steroids, Ortiz has gotten off among the lightest publicly. No "ste-roids" chants. PED use won't lead his obituary. He took a blowtorch to Boston baseball's dead pilot light. Some things just aren't as important as winning.
And yet Ortiz tries to divert attention from the physical toward the mental, toward his steel trap of a brain that he says he dares not corrupt. It's this, he says, that stimulates him to work out at Dominican gyms early offseason mornings. And it's this, he says, that helps him preach a mantra that he picked up on a tour of Japan.
"Practice," Ortiz says, "makes possible the impossible."
No. It's beyond practice. It's so much more than that. Plenty of guys practice, practice perfectly even, and come nowhere close to the major leagues – let alone Ortiz's level.
"You know what the owner of this ballclub said?" Ortiz says. "I am the only player he has seen that loves playing in Boston."
He's proud of John Henry's proclamation.
"You know why?" he asks. "Because I like challenge. That's the reason why I'm still here. That's the reason. This baby right here" – he glances at his Marucci bat, model DO34, the most popular version from the most popular bat manufacturer in the game – "God gave me the ability to use it. But He gave me a better ability: my mind. Once you let anybody get into your head, that's game over."
That, David Ortiz believes, is his legacy. It's not steroids, not World Series rings, not home runs, not clutch hitting – nothing tangible to anybody but him. He told the Seattle Mariners to shut the [expletive] up after they gave him $7,500 to sign and dumped him in a waiver trade for Dave Hollins. He told the Twins to shut the [expletive] up after they dumped him. And he's telling all of us – players, scouts, you, me – to shut the [expletive] up for thinking that he'd be one of those sad souls who limps into retirement. These wins satisfy him more than any staid accomplishment can, and the older he gets, the more inconceivable they become.
"I want to play three more years," says Ortiz, who hits free agency this offseason and wants to remain with Boston. "I think I can do what I'm doing right now for the next three years. I know my body. I know what I need to do to keep my body at that level. The day I feel like I can't hit the damn ball no more, I'm not going to wait for somebody to tell me. I'll do it myself."
For now, he'll take posting the best OPS for the best lineup in baseball until Gonzalez mashed two homers Tuesday and passed him. At .945, it still beats Pedroia's and Jacoby Ellsbury's.(notes) They're both MVP candidates, as is Gonzalez. Ortiz remains on the periphery because he's a designated hitter, a snub with which he's content.
Because he's producing, and that's enough. Ortiz could be back in the Red Sox lineup Wednesday after spending the past 10 days in a walking boot to ease the pain of bursitis in his right heel. Back in the thick of a race against the Yankees to see which team will travel to Texas and who will host Detroit come the first playoff round in October. Back in his powerhouse, the gated community that is Ortiz's head.
The enemy is always there, lurking. Outside and in.
- David Ortiz