BOSTON – In a little more than a month, David Ortiz will celebrate his 38th birthday. Or, more accurate, he won't celebrate it. He stopped doing that in recent years. Birthdays signify aging, and Ortiz's job is to put that number in amber and keep it there as long as his body will allow. Because soon-to-be-38-year-olds are not supposed to whack a pair of fastballs from the reigning Cy Young winner over the fence in a playoff game, even if that soon-to-be-38-year-old declares himself a man half his age.
"Thirty-eight my ass," Ortiz said after the first two-homer playoff game of his career, in which he sandwiched a pair of solo shots around more Boston Red Sox offensive excellence in a 7-4 victory that gave them a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five division series against the Tampa Bay Rays. "I feel like I'm 20. You see me turn on that mother-[expletive]?"
Yes. Yes we did. The 38,705 people at Fenway Park saw a tiny orb fly into the darkness of the eighth inning and try to scream it fair. Ortiz saw the ball from the time he yanked his hands in to when it curled high and around the Pesky Pole down the right-field line. And David Price, one of the major leagues' best pitchers but on this night just another target for the machine-gun Red Sox, saw Ortiz stand there at home plate and admire his handiwork.
"Run," Price later said.
He was mad. Of course he was. He was mad because a baseball geriatric abused him for a home run to right-center field in the first inning and madder still that Ortiz didn't do on his second homer what baseball code says, which is at least make an effort to run toward first base instead of staring at it like a pretty girl. While Sheriff McCann may disapprove, that image, of a great slugger showing great adoration toward a great piece of hitting, is good for baseball, not some off-putting maneuver that should cause people to dust off their unwritten-rule books and make sure the crumpled parchment agreed that it's bad form.
Screw form. Ortiz is not an android, and asking him to play one is like asking Tropicana Field not to be a complete dump. Ortiz may be naïve – seriously, a guy who has been popped for steroids saying he feels 20 when he's doing things no late-30s designated hitter ever has done is a curious look – and he may be cocky, but after coming into the game without a home run against Price in 36 at-bats, he popped a pair in one night, the first multi-homer playoff game of his career.
Even if he didn't mean it – Ortiz later said he didn't know if the ball was fair or foul, and replays show it was close enough to legitimize his point – he earned that look. Newsflash: It's not a crime to pimp a home run a little. One of these days, hopefully, the unwritten-rule police will realize their game already struggles with looking old-fashioned, and that the greatest way to avoid such indignities as players watching their home runs is, you know, to not give them up.
Price's frustration was understandable. He is the Rays' ace, and after a 12-2 shellacking in Game 1, Tampa Bay needed him to shove it to avoid heading home with a two-game hole. Instead, he tossed off his worst start since returning from the disabled list early in the season, and the Rays were left staring at another potential playoff failure.
Ortiz, meanwhile, continues to pile up numbers when he oughtn't. Of the 140 players to qualify for the batting title this season, 10 were 35 or older. Only Ichiro Suzuki, Marco Scutaro and Torii Hunter were more wizened than Big Papi. Just one Red Sox player hit more home runs at this age than Ortiz's 30: Ted Williams, who walloped 38 in his age-38 season.
The numbers keep piling up for Ortiz, who could muster a pretty good argument for being the greatest DH in history. His 431 home runs rank 45th all-time. His 1,429 RBIs are 65th. His 139 OPS+, a catch-all number that takes into account era and park, is tied for 80th. In 2009, Ortiz looked like age was indeed catching up to him. Since then, his OPS+ is 154. Of those with 1,000 plate appearances, only Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Joey Votto and Jose Bautista's are higher.
"What is often underappreciated is how good of an all-around hitter he is," Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow said. "If you think that you can go down and away because he has pull power, he will wear out that wall or hit the ball over the wall. If you think you can shift him, he'll hit a ball down the third-base line. If you think you can beat him in, he's going to hit a ball 400 feet down the line.
"He's as knowledgeable a hitter as I've ever played with in addition to just being obviously an immensely talented slugger. If you hear him talk about hitting, you appreciate just how well-studied and prepared he is."
The duality of Ortiz balances that knowledge (his accomplishments are amazing) with the incongruity of what he's doing (old guys don't hit like this). Because it is baseball – hell, because it is professional sports – skepticism is warranted, even merited. And yet it should do nothing to minimize what actually happened: David Ortiz took David Price out in a playoff game twice, something nobody had done before. Price hadn't allowed a two-homer game in more than two years. Ortiz was happy to oblige otherwise.
"When he's cooking he's very difficult," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's very difficult to play against."
Nobody in baseball cuts the figure of a star quite like Ortiz, backing his substance with a style altogether his own. Among the beards in his clubhouse that look flea-ridden, his is like a piece of architecture, clean lines above all. He walks with a verve and dresses with even more. As he stepped toward the exit, one couldn't help but notice his shoes: bright red, suede, the kind Don "Magic" Juan might wear.
Perfect for a guy who likes to pimp a little.