David OrtizThe West Coast road trip immediately after the All-Star break was not a happy time for the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
It was becoming clear the Sox would not catch the Yankees in the AL East pennant race. In six days on the road, soon to be traded Nomar Garciaparra didn't speak. Not to the media, to anyone. In a start against the Angels, Derek Lowe got hammered off the mound and then got hammered in the visiting clubhouse as the game went on before doing the most ill-advised press availability imaginable.
The next night, David Ortiz, popular but not quite the beloved Big Papi of today, did a very foolish thing.
It is one of the lesser recognized parts of Ortiz's career, but a man not wrongly perceived as amiable is one of the most constant and aggressive complainers about ball and strike calls I've seen in over 50 years of watching.the big leagues. Ortiz gets genuinely angry on borderline calls. In this game, a called strike three by an ump whose name I can't remember set him berserk. Face-to-face screaming led to an immediate ejection, more screaming, and when Ortiz stomped back to the dugout, he didn't leave it, but began tossing bats onto the field.
It was a jolly good show, right up to the moment one of the bats took a bad bounce and came within millimeters of hitting that ump. That's an instant mandatory 10-game suspension. As it was, he got three games. It wasn't as if the Sox didn't need his bat. Ortiz risked his team's season to indulge in a childish display of temper.
Every reporter on the road with the Sox was at Ortiz's locker when the game ended. He was going to be Exhibit A in my early column for the Herald the next day on that ever-popular topic, "What's Wrong With the Red Sox." All I needed were a few defensive quotes from the miscreant slugger himself.
Didn't get 'em. Ortiz was the last Sox to go to his locker. He turned and faced his inquisitors with a sheepish but broad grin. "Gang, what can I say," he said. "I fucked up."
Ortiz was not Exhibit A in my column the next day. How could he be? Honest admission of error is rare in public figures in any walk of life, let alone a star ballplayer of a team in trouble.
In the event, of course, that unhappy team in trouble in July became the happiest, most astonishing story in Boston sports history, which would not have happened without Ortiz. Good thing that bat missed.
I don't want to overstate what I am about to write. Performance determines how the public views athletes, the rest is window dressing. San Franciscans adored sociopath Barry Bonds, and they should have. Big hits and plenty of 'em are why New Englanders made Ortiz Big Papi, why they resolutely overlooked his link to PEDs (again, as they should have). But window dressing is an important part of the sales process, even if it's the product that makes or breaks it.
David Ortiz is an emotionally candid man. He wears his heart on his sleeve right near his batting glove. As almost all of us do, he liked being adored, and fans could see his delight in their delight, just as umps could see he really was mad about that called strike.
That sort of openness is getting rare among elite athletes. They can't afford it. Look what it's gotten Colin Kaepernick. Safer to have one's agent craft sweet nothings for the Player's Tribune.
Ortiz hid from no one. It never crossed his mind he ought to. As a result, he never had to.
I don't know if Ortiz will make the Hall of Fame. Probably yes, but one never knows with the Hall electorate. If he does, I do know this. His acceptance speech will be of considerable interest.