BOSTON – David Ortiz strolled into the press conference that announced his $50 million contract extension earlier this week wearing the Gross National Product of a small country in diamonds. Fat ones weighted down each ear, about 25 smaller ones hung in a necklace, petite ones encrusted his watch and an uncountable number shone from a bracelet.
"You can get diamonds like that, too," Ortiz said Friday. "You've got to make $50 million first."
Ortiz laughed, and it was no ordinary laugh. It echoed around the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, loud and cacophonous and addicting. It was as coy as wearing half a million bucks or so in jewelry, and it was vintage Big Papi.
Subtlety doesn't exist in David Ortiz's world. Everything is big. His laugh and his bling. His car (a $280,000 Mercedes) and his swing (a looping uppercut into which he thrusts all of his weight, listed at a kindly 230 pounds). His life is one big carnival, and he's the kid walking around with the biggest stuffed animal.
"I'm a happy person," Ortiz said. "Everything about life. If I started telling you, I couldn't finish."
So we'll start where Ortiz would: On the field at Fenway Park before Friday's victory against Seattle, rekindling an old handshake with Matt Lawton – a two-kick, one-hand slap, no-pretense jig that sent them both into convulsions. Of all the things Ortiz enjoys, bantering with friends might come in third to hitting home runs and spending time with his family.
Ortiz spent so much time commiserating with Lawton and Eddie Guardado, his former teammates at Minnesota, he missed a round of batting practice. When Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell pointed out that Ortiz was about to miss a second turn, he scurried into the cage and walloped two balls over the Green Monster.
"He does enjoy what he's doing, and he should," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "If you were David, you would have fun, too. He's making a boatload of money, he's one of the best hitters in the game and he's a good guy."
All of those factors have conspired to take the 30-year-old Ortiz from a practical no-name at the beginning of the 2003 season to the lynchpin of the Red Sox franchise in 2006. Ortiz led the American League in RBIs last season, finished second in home runs and got jobbed in MVP voting. In a matter of three seasons, he went from being not offered a contract by the Twins to such ubiquity in the New England area that women parade around in T-shirts reading:
Were Ortiz simply a great player, he would not inspire the idolatry he does. It is his joie de vivre that makes him a hero in his native Dominican Republic and Boston, two places that couldn't be any more different. It's also the egregious bat flip when he hit home runs in the World Baseball Classic against Cuba, and the smile that glows like his teeth were made of ivory, and the ability to wear sunglasses indoors and not look like a moron.
The demand for Ortiz has grown commensurate to his numbers. During a photo shoot this spring, Sports Illustrated wanted to play off outfielder Coco Crisp's name with a pitcher of milk.
Ortiz was in charge of figuring out what to do with it.
"It was scripted for a little bit," Crisp said. "And it all fell out the window when I felt how cold the milk was. It was a warm day, and the milk was ice cold. When you get shocked, you're like, Ohhh.' I'm trying to smile, keep my eyes open, and Papi's like, Take two!' and poured the rest of it over me.
"He's just always happy. You know, if you're flipping hamburgers, you're going to flip them the best if you enjoy it."
During his time in Minnesota, Ortiz tried to have a good time. In his six years with the Twins, Ortiz never secured a full-time job. He hit 20 home runs in 412 at-bats in 2002 and was due for a raise when the Twins cut him. Boston took a flier on him for $1.25 million, figuring he could split time at first base with Jeremy Giambi.
That idea ended quickly. Ortiz became Papi. He saved the Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALCS with a 12th-inning home run against the Yankees. He smashed one in Game 1 of the World Series. He got his $50 million over four years. And now he has the run of the clubhouse, if not Boston.
Ortiz waddled around Thursday in flip-flops wearing a T-shirt that says "Got Manny?" A bottle of blue Powerade bulged from his back pocket. He high-fived Red Sox starter Josh Beckett, walked over to his locker with a sticker that reads "Big & Rich," pulled out an iPod and plugged it into the speaker system that spit out reggaeton.
"He's got the personality and exuberance about him to do that," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. "It makes him a special human being to be around.
"I'm just glad he's on my team, because the boy can hit."
In the Red Sox's first 10 games, Ortiz is batting .342 with four homers and nine RBIs, carrying the load for Manny Ramirez, who is off to a dismal start. He wants to improve his batting average, which hovered around .300 the past two seasons.
"It's a matter," Ortiz said, "of not settling."
No, settling isn't the Ortiz way.
Years ago, Ortiz bought his first diamond. He doesn't remember when he got it or how brightly it shone or where it is. The only detail he recalls is that it wasn't very big. And in David Ortiz's world, that just doesn't fly.
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