Jun 05, 2009, 08:27AM

Exit Stage Left

Boston’s Big Papi is finished. His departure from the Red Sox must be dignified.

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It’s a ghoul’s game in Major League Baseball today, with nearly every commentator—whether it’s on ESPN, Fox or any local “Extra Innings” broadcast, not to mention all the daily newspaper columnists and blogs—getting in his slant on just why Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz has utterly lost it at the dish. Big Papi is no ordinary athlete who’s reached the end of the road. He’s an icon in New England, a charismatic man whose huge smile is etched in the face of Sox fans, as well as the recipients of all the charity work he’s done in Boston and his native Dominican Republic. Except for particularly misanthropic Yankees fans, who are delighted at Ortiz’s struggles, most men and women who follow the game closely find his astonishing feeble swings and misses at balls he used to crush plain sad. It’s not as if we’re talking about Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, just two players who are easy to root against.

The real question is how Boston’s normally sober and calculating general manager Theo Epstein is going to negotiate Ortiz’s exit from Fenway Park. He’s in a real bind: when Epstein dispatched onetime Sox legend Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs at the 2004 trading deadline, there was some grumbling, but the oft-injured shortstop had become, by that season, a malcontent who was hurting the team not only on the field but in the clubhouse as well. As a Sox fan, I applauded Epstein for having the guts to make that move; and when the team finally won a World Series a few months later, most of Boston agreed. But Big Papi? Man, Epstein will have elephant-sized balls to release the big lug, despite the inevitability. It’s my bet that Epstein will take action, but probably later rather than sooner, as sentiment will prevail over business.

My younger son and I watch Sox games almost every day they play, and although our sunroom is decorated in part by Sox Series banners from ’04 and ’07, as well as an Ortiz bobblehead, we’re in agreement that he’s got to vamoose. This was no easy conclusion: during the playoffs last year and the first month of this season, we joked about the man who bats third morphing into “The Big Popout,” and if runners were on base, hoped he’d whiff instead of hitting into a double play. Booker even included one of his Ortiz t-shirts in a time capsule at school, on the youthful presumption that would result in a sudden voodoo-like resurgence. As June progresses, however, and the Yanks look to be strong throughout the season, Papi’s new nickname is “The Dominican Hole,” a guy who inspires even less confidence that error-prone shortstop Julio Lugo (one of Epstein’s most serious goofs as GM) at the plate. It’s a dreadful situation.

The Boston Herald’s acerbic Gerry Callahan, who’s the sports equivalent of his colleague Howie Carr in that media-hothouse town (at least until The New York Times Co. shutters The Boston Globe) was matter of fact in his June 2 column on the subject. He wrote:
Sticking with Ortiz now serves no one’s best interests, except of course, the Yankees. On Sunday afternoon in Toronto, Ortiz came up in the fifth inning with no outs and runners on second and third. Right-handed nobody Scott Richmond was pitching for the Jays. First pitch was a 93 mph fastball down the middle. It was like asking the spelling bee champ to spell his name, but Ortiz couldn’t get the first letter. He hit it straight up in the air in front of the plate, a harmless popout. The Sox won the game, but their DH was still completely lost.
Some people would like to see Ortiz stay in the lineup, but some people watch horse racing for the broken legs. Enough already. Time to put Papi out of his misery.
It will be a sad day for Sox fans when Ortiz leaves the stage. It will be sadder still to watch this go on much longer.

Hard to argue with that. Theories abound, of course, about why Ortiz is doing an impeccable impersonation of the great Willie Mays’ last embarrassing days with the New York Mets. Was Papi juiced, and that’s why the wrist injuries occurred? Well, sure, he probably was, since every player is suspect now, especially after A-Rod and the asshole known as Manny Ramirez have had their comeuppances. Would it surprise anyone if Ken Griffey Jr. was exposed as a ‘roid user? So yes, I think it’s likely Ortiz was on the baseball grift, procuring some Dominican drugs during his heyday. And it’s probably also true, as others have speculated, that he’s not really 33, but several years older. And frankly, had Ortiz said no mas to more second helpings of mashed potatoes or Whoppers, he wouldn’t be so enormous.

My friend Tom Scocca, an Orioles fan who’s both cynical and sentimental about the team he grew up rooting for, and a fine writer whose hilarious stuff can be found at theawl.com, is blasé about Ortiz. He told me, “I don’t really have a guess as to what’s behind it. But it seems very old-fashioned to me—whether he was on and off PEDs himself or not, this reminds me of the days before steroids and growth hormones, when some guys would just fall apart from age all at once.”

I respect Tom’s opinion about a lot of things, especially baseball, and I guess his conclusion is the most palatable, that Ortiz has just hit the end of his spectacular run in Boston. But it doesn’t really matter what the cause is: Big Papi has to be shown the door, albeit with as much grace as can be mustered. He’s still under contract with the Sox, pulling down $12 million this year, so it’s not like he’ll starve. It’s time for Epstein to create a unique position for Ortiz, on or off the field; whether it’s in a coaching capacity, scout, roving cheerleader or judge of the team’s kangaroo court. Dragging on this charade is wrenching to watch—as well as detrimental to the Sox’s playoff chances—but once it’s over, Ortiz will become Big Papi again and retain the affection of millions of Sox, and baseball fans, for his lifetime and beyond. It’ll be an enormous pleasure as time passes by a new Sox bambino emerges and those of us so inclined can gush, “Jeez, that swing reminds of Big Papi!”

  • I bet he was on roids. Or you could be right, everything may just be going wrong at once and he's just falling apart from age. But it's really sad to see him like this. He's such a nice guy, unlike most players in the MLB. He'll be missed.

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  • I really doubt Ortiz roided. He really did seem like one of the few genuine nice guys and fair players left in Major League Baseball. I feel terrible watching him play like he has been, it's really like watching an old powerhorse break down. Very, very sad to see him like this.

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  • This was a funny article, especially the no mas part. I also don't know how to feel about Ortiz, I just can't imagine he was juiced. I never thought that he might be older than 33, but I can tell you one thing, Albert Puljos is no 29.

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  • Cards fan all my life, and I don't really care much one way or the other about Ortiz. But Feathers is right: Albert, my favorite player, looks closer to 35 than 29.

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  • I'm a long-time Yankee fan and have felt the blows of Big Papi's bat but I take no pleasure in his seemingly permanent power dive. He's given the Sox six ultra-prolific years and has always remained the happy warrior, his core seemingly unaffected by his success. How can can you not respect him? He has carried his team the way Mo Vaughn led the Sox in the 90's but without the distasteful attitudinal edge of Mo. Big Papi deserves a dignified, soft landing and (for the sake of his team) soon.

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  • Wow, I wasn't sure that "Yankee fans" and "nice guys" were synonymous. Back at you, re Mariano Rivera, a guy it's impossible even for this Sox fan to jeer. (Although needless to say, it's sweet when the Sox can get to him.)

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  • Wow, sportsmanship-like talk from Yankee and Red Sox fans. Nice. One sentence before you (Russ) mentioned Willie Mays, I thought of him. I saw him on TV at the end of his run with the Mets. He looked gray.

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  • Responding to Ruffy: The truly good guys in sports know no team boundaries. "Ortiz-type" players on the opposition are 1. Highly talented 2. Keep their egos in-check 3. Have an innate, full grasp that they are in the entertainment business and, by circumstance,are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to earn a ton of money over a relatively short time; they never lose sight of this. That being said, Wakefield and Lowell would be wonderful next door neighbors. With Youkilis and Papelbon, I'd move.

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  • I agree that if Paplebon was on another team, he'd really, really bug me with the fistpumps and histrionics as if he'd just liberated a prisoner of war camp. Sort of like Joba, the head-hunter, on the Yanks. But what's your beef with Youk? He's heavily involved in charity work in Boston, and although intense on the field, is supposedly a great guy in normal life.

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  • Coming back to Ruffy: You articulated well my problem with Papelbon. My issue with Ukelele is how he demonstrates his on-field intensity in such an obvious way:digging in at the plate with exaggerated movements; running to first on a walk; running around the bases after a homerun (almost as offensive as a slow stroll).Pete Rose had the same brash style and it was obnoxious. Youk is talented and, of course so was Rose, but Mariano in undeniably intense yet doesn't feel compelled to prove it with phsical mannerism. As for Youk's off-field Boy Scout activities, good for him. But I do wonder if he literally runs from one charity function to the next.

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  • The Yanks' Paul O'Neill was incredibly intense on the field and I'll bet you didn't mind his antics and water-cooler destruction. As for Youk's charity functions: at least he does them, which is more than can be said for St. Derek Jeter.

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  • One more time to Ruffy: O'Neill's behavior would be as obnoxious as Ukelele's if he were on a different team, particularly the Sox, but as a card-carrying Yankee fan I endured it because he produced for the team. Doesn't excuse obnoxious behavior but it's somehow less objectionable when your team is involved. I'm sure Papelbon's punk behavior is not as offensive to you and the rest of Red Sox fans. As for Saint Derek,revered by the media as an exemplar player and citizen and an inspiration to youth - even in Red Sox Nation- how do you know the extent of Jeter's charity involvement unless you see his tax return and tail him in his off-field life (which would be weird)? Some people choose to be more quiet and restrained in their donation of time and money for various causes.

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