May 22, 2010

With Ortiz, It Cannot End Well

David Ortiz's bat has come alive in May. We often use months as arbitrary markers, but Ortiz actually started hitting right on May 1:
April .143/.238/.286/ .524
May .352/.390/.759/1.149
His slash stats for the year are .245/.311/.518, which gives him a 116 OPS+ - the third-highest mark on the Red Sox. His batting average on balls in play has skyrocketed from .206 in April to .387 in May. Overall, it is .292. It was .262 last year and .270 in 2008.

Maybe Ortiz is not yet toast. Still, he turns 35 in November and it is far from certain that the Red Sox will grab his $12.5 million option for 2011.

Two days ago, Ortiz criticized the media for declaring him dead and buried.
It's not the fans. It's not the fans that come out with that. It's the media. It's the media that's the one that thinks they've got everything figured out. You've got guys sitting down out there that have never played the game ever before, talking about how they think I'm supposed to leave, that you are done, that you can't hit any more, that you can do this or you can do that. You never hit before in your life ever. You know nothing about that. ... I'm going to be done when I've decided that I'm done, not when the media says that I'm done. I'm nobody to tell you when you're going to be done. I don't know anything about your job.
He's right, to a point, though the ability to hit a major league fastball is much more of an age-dependent skill than writing a magazine article. You can do only the latter at a top professional level when you are 65 years old, for example.

Howard Bryant has a must-read article on Ortiz at ESPN.
For the first time in the eight years in Boston that turned Ortiz into a star, doubt and mortality consume him. It is mortality ... that Ortiz is painfully discovering happens to be the real price of the ticket, the actual cost of a professional athlete's golden youth. On a particularly dark day in May, Ortiz stares not only into his eventual career abyss ("I'm 34 years old, and people treat me like I'm 80," he says) ...
In April, Ortiz told Bryant:
Do you understand that this is killing me? Do you know when I'm going good I cannot sleep because I'm trying to remember everything that I did right so I can repeat it the next day and the next? And that's when I'm going good. When I'm going bad, it's even worse because everybody looks to me to be the guy who comes through for this ballclub. It's like I never sleep anymore.
On Thursday, Ortiz said Terry Francona lacked confidence in him earlier in the year, such as when he pinch-hit for Ortiz on April 27 at Toronto: "I was mad. I was mad. I was totally, absolutely mad. ... You have to believe in your players. Period. You chose to have me on your roster since day one. You've got to ride with me."

Bryant reports that
according to sources within the organization, [Ortiz] left the ballpark during [that] game in Toronto after Red Sox manager Terry Francona called him back for a pinch hitter, the day those sources say that Ortiz temporarily ignored Francona's order and kept walking to the plate. (Francona had no comment when asked about the incident.)
It must be crushing for an athlete to realize that the end of the line is near. After decades of identifying yourself as X, suddenly you are not X. And it's never pretty to see an athlete struggle to do the things that once seemed second nature -- especially with someone as beloved and important to Red Sox history as Ortiz.

Red Sox fans bemoan the drama that surrounded various star players as their time in Boston ended -- Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn, and Pedro Martinez, to name three that left for more lucrative free agent offers.

Why does there always have to be so much drama? I have wondered that myself, but I also have been thinking that there is almost no way Ortiz's time in Boston can come to end without getting ugly. The only exception would be if he chooses to retire while he is still a good hitter. And that seems very unlikely. Baseball players in good health do not retire after productive seasons.

Francona met with Ortiz privately before Friday night's game. Afterwards, he insisted that Ortiz did not leave Skydome early on April 27:
Somebody is reporting something that's not true. ...

My job is to believe in our players. Not one, but 25, and try to do that as consistently as I can. ... Just like I ask the players: Try to do your job the best you can. It doesn't mean you're perfect, but try to do the best you can ...

I think with any time you're in my position, you have to tell people things sometimes they don't want to hear. ... We've sat and talked and he hasn't always liked what I've told him. I think he knows that I care about him, and every player is supposed to feel that way. That's the idea.
It's too early to say what the Red Sox will do this winter. Three weeks ago, I figured the team would decline Ortiz's option no matter what he did for the rest of the year. If he keeps hitting like he has this month, who knows? His return is also dependent on things beyond his actual on-field performance, like the progress of various minor leaguers and possible trades/signings.

What I do know is that the odds are very slim that the Ortiz/Boston relationship ends as smoothly as I would like. A rough break-up seems almost inevitable.


Amy said...

It is so sad to see Papi decline, but also inevitable. We watch our parents age, ours pets age, our friends age, and ourselves age. It is never pretty. It is so much worse with athletes, however, because they get old long before the rest of us get old. At 34 most of us are still young and feel young, even feel that our best years professionally and personally are still ahead of us. For an athlete, that's often the beginning of the end. How much harder that must be to swallow than for someone in his or her 60s or 70s to recognize that the time has come to retire.

There must be many, many examples of players who left without it getting ugly. Off the top of my head, I can think of two: Yaz, for one. He got older, less effective, but I don't recall anger or drama. Tek also seems to be taking the inevitable end of his active career in stride. Why is it so different for Papi? Yaz was certainly as big a star and as much beloved in his heyday. And Tek, although never the big star like Papi, certainly as the captain has been well loved by fans and the front office. What makes this seem so different? Is Papi being treated differently? Is he just more emotional outwardly about this? Is he in denial? Or is he really correct and not yet as over the hill as the media (and some fans) think he is?

Great post, Allan. Thanks!

allan said...

I'm not so sure Tek took it very well before this year (and even now who knows how he feels inside?).

I can't search or link to anything now but I think he was highly frustrated at being PH for and his displeasure was well-known.

Flo has added to the coverage by his various angry outbursts to the media. I don't blame him, but that's not something Tek has done.

At the end of Yaz's career, I was not in tune with the Boston media or necessarily very critical, so I don't know how that went.

I do know that players like Ortiz can now retire with plenty of $ and not worry about trying to get one more year of baseball salary int he bank before getting a job in the real world.

laura k said...

the ability to hit a major league fastball is much more of an age-dependent skill than writing a magazine article. You can do only the latter at a top professional level when you are 65 years old, for example.

In fact, most skills that are not dependent on physical prowess get better with age. But for athletes and dancers, maybe some other professions, the peak comes early and the decline is long. And public!

It is sad. As you say, it can't end well. Very, very few athletes are ever going to quit while they're ahead - separate themselves from what has been their pride and identity since they were kids.

Why does there have to be so much drama? Because the big man was our hero, and we are all watching him, and he is not the shy type, and the media are sharks. And some other stuff, too.

allan said...

I mean Tek's frustration was known to teammates and media, though it was rarely expounded upon.

laura k said...

Re Tek and Yaz, it may not have gotten ugly in the media, but it almost always gets ugly on the field. Why else would the man be called Cactus?

Sandy Koufax is a notable exception.

Amy said...

Well, I guess I haven't seen much media coverage of Tek's frustration, except to the extent he was frustrated with himself, not being replaced by VMart or pinch hit for. But then I don't read as much as you do in the MSM.

And does anyone but US (well, not me) call him Cactus??

As for Yaz, yes, it was a different world, and the media wasn't as invasive and pervasive as it is now. I am sure that all good athletes are frustrated, sad, depressed, when their skills begin to decline. Who wouldn't be? My point is more how they deal with those feelings publicly. Ortiz seems to be having a much more public reckoning with his decline.

It should be interesting to see how someone like Mariano Rivera deals with this. Will he just leave gracefully, or will he insist on being the closer until he is yanked from the mound?

allan said...

Koufax retired at age 30 because he was in such pain. He was warned if he kept pitching he would probably lose full use of his left arm.

allan said...

Rivera is not human, so he may not be a good example. I fear he may still be closing when Jeter's grandson makes his MLB debut.

allan said...

Then you have someone like Pedro who would like to pitch some more, but no one is calling. So it's like he simply disappeared.

Amy said...

Yeah, disappearing may be even sadder....

laura k said...

Yes, I knew that was Koufax's reason. But regardless of motivation, his fans never saw him decline, AFAIK. It's rare.

laura k said...

Several years ago, probably 10 years or more by now, Rivera announced he would pitch 4 more years, then retire to become a preacher. He said he was called.

But I guess baseball called louder.

I confess: I love him, still. I never, ever cheer against him, and I never take pleasure when he gives it up. What kind of person would I be, after all he gave me.

laura k said...

Amy, are you asking where the Cactus nickname came from? I wasn't sure if that was a real question or a rhetorical.

allan said...

I was very surprised to see Tiz has the 3rd best OPS+ on the team.


Cactus: Jason Varitek - On August 15, 2009, as the Rangers stole eight bases in eight tries on Varitek, Kevin asked: "Can we just sit a cactus behind home plate? I think it would have more luck throwing out runners..."

Amy said...

Hi, sorry I disappeared from the conversation. We had a family wedding last night, and so I missed DiceK's almost no-hitter. I seem to miss all his good performances. Maybe I should stop watching him pitch.

Anyway, yes, I knew how those at JOS started calling Tek Cactus. But Laura said, "Re Tek and Yaz, it may not have gotten ugly in the media, but it almost always gets ugly on the field. Why else would the man be called Cactus?" Since it's only JOS that refers to him that way, I was not sure how that related to things getting ugly on the field for Tek. Or by "ugly," did you mean ugly to watch the decline in play, rather than unpleasantness between the players? I thought the latter.

Anyway, I hope to be around for at least some of today's game. But with family around, it's hard to know and harder to thread even if I am watching.

Zenslinger said...

But I guess baseball called louder.

And paid better, I'm sure.

I had the impression that Yaz's pride was hurt by being moved to first base. But that was the dawn of my baseball memory at a very young age, so I have no idea how much that was based on reality.

laura k said...

I meant that ugliness happens in various ways - on the field, in the media, from fans, within teams, any combination of those. It's a painful transition all around, no matter how the player handles it. Some are just more demonstrative than others, as in anything else.