Minnesotans remember David Ortiz as a Twin, limping around the Metrodome, looking older than his advertised age, a hitter who couldn’t quite get around on a fastball or stay healthy enough to build a career. As a Twin, Ortiz was more likely to lift his teammates’ spirits than carry the team.
Tuesday, Ortiz made his first appearance of the 2009 season at the Metrodome and reminded us more of the guy the Twins ditched than the player Boston embraced. Stuck in a slump that could threaten his career, Ortiz carried a .195 average and one home run into the game and for the first time this year found his name somewhere other than third in the lineup, as Boston manager Terry Francona batted him sixth.
Francona said he hoped to alleviate pressure on the player who helped transform Red Sox Nation from a Third-World country to a superpower, but Francona can’t shield Ortiz from the perceptions of the era in which he plays.
Ortiz was an underachieving, brittle slugger who enjoyed a meteoric rise and now is suffering through a precipitous fall. I spoke with a wide variety of baseball people at all levels of the game, most of whom offered one of three explanations:
1. Steroids helped Ortiz become the player who helped the Red Sox to two World Series titles, and the increased effectiveness of steroid testing has scared him off the stuff.
2. He is much older than his listed age of 33.
3. He has become a latter-day Mo Vaughn, the bulky lefthanded slugger who went from 36 to 26 to three home runs in his last three years in the big leagues, leaving the game at the age of 35.
Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer played with Ortiz in Minnesota and is aware of the implications of his struggles.
“There is so much that is unknown in this game,” Cuddyer said. “It’s funny, players are always nervous on Opening Day, because you don’t know what’s going to happen the next 162 games. So, yeah, when you struggle like he has, there might be a certain amount of doubt that creeps in, saying, ’Do I still have it?’ But with him, he has such a good outlook on life in general that he’s going to be fine.”
Cuddyer knows, though, that a player experiencing Ortiz’s statistical fluctuations will face questions about steroids.
“I think it’s always going to be fair to jump to that conclusion now,” Cuddyer said. “Which is sad to say. Do I jump to that conclusion about David? No, I’m not saying that at all. But is anybody fair game in this day and age? Of course. That’s what everybody means when they say that those guys are giving a black eye to baseball.
Ortiz did not speak before the game Tuesday. Cuddyer said what Ortiz probably is thinking: That Ortiz’s stretch of stardom in Boston is more than most players could dream of, no matter how or when his career ends.
“He hits 50 home runs, he became the liaison between Manny Ramirez and the city of Boston, he was Mr. Everything, he had his own cooking show, he had that infectious personality to go along with that ridiculous production. He’s an amazing person,” Cuddyer said.
In his first at-bat Tuesday, Ortiz turned on a fastball and doubled to right. He rumbled into second base with his old verve and for at least a moment, the end didn’t seem so near.