David Ortiz stroked the tuft of coal black chin whiskers he cultivated this spring and then patted his hair up top.
“I’ll probably start getting gray once I’m done with this [expletive],” Ortiz said with a look of mock dismay toward the end of spring training. “I get them once in awhile. I’ve got a few grays, but I can camouflage. But Manny? I saw Manny [Ramirez] — damn, this guy needed ‘Just for Men’ yesterday.”
Ortiz jumped to his feet and shouted the “yesterday” with delight. For a big man who had just spent 20-some minutes reclining in front of his locker, he can pop out of his chair pretty quickly when he wants to. His face reached peak mirth as he let out a cackle and whoop loud enough to reach the back fields of JetBlue Park as he pictured his elder, goofy teammate and heart-of-the-order colleague Ramirez with his nest of white-and-gray dreadlocks.
Like the best stand-up, Ortiz knows how to leave them laughing. He had just finished indulging yet another request for his time this spring, his final spring as an active Big Papi. He is ending on an up beat. Strolling down memory lane at the same pleasurable, leisurely pace he applies to his home run trots is part of the job for the 40-year-old Ortiz, who chose this season, his 20th as a big leaguer, his 14th with the Red Sox, as his swansong.
That he’s on the verge of going gray clearly does not plague Ortiz. Clear-eyed faith in himself and what’s to come is part of his established track record, so it feels natural that he’s aging both gracefully and well.
Twenty years earlier, when he walked into a far shabbier Red Sox spring training clubhouse 10 miles up the road, he had foreseen a shape and heft to his career with an equally assured eye.
The fact that nobody shared his vision slowed him down some, but in the end, it did not stop him.
And now, so close to the end, the Red Sox have been infused with the spirit of Ortiz.
Twenty years later, Ortiz’ career is a master class in proving his own point.
When Ortiz threw his bats into the Red Sox’ former minor league clubhouse in February 2003, he dumped equal amounts of confidence and confusion with them. What the hell was he doing there instead of at his other Fort Myers spring home, Hammond Stadium, where he spent the previous six years with the Twins? With 20 home runs in only 412 at-bats as a 26-year-old the season before, what were they thinking when they released him? And if Pedro Martinez had not placed a call asking the Red Sox to give Ortiz a shot — he bumped into the bewildered and jobless slugger at a Santo Domingo restaurant during the winter — would any team have?
Too many hard questions.
Not enough easy answers.
Ortiz opted to shut out the mystery and focus on what he knew to be true.
“You never miss what you never had,” Ortiz said. “In my case, the only thing I knew at the time was the things I could control, which was playing baseball and try to do good. I knew I had the talent and ability to play the game.”
As frustrated as he was, Ortiz twisted his grim reality into a challenge.
“I was released from the Twins after not playing every day and still having a good season. My numbers were good for the period of time I played and I was only 26 years old, so I told myself that this probably was a message telling me that if I had worked a little harder, I would have flown higher,” Ortiz said.
No sense looking back, he figured.
“I got the positive side out of it, I never tried to focus on the negative side because then I would have been, ‘Wait a minute — I’m probably one of the best hitters they’ve had and they let me go? What is it you have to do in baseball to go out there every day?’?”
The power of positive thinking can only go so far.
“I could have either shut it down and not have the career I had or do what I did and get to the Red Sox, and then once I got here I wanted to do better,” Ortiz said. “And here we are.”
If only it were that easy.
The Red Sox were working on year No. 85 without a World Series title when Ortiz, who was hardly seen as a savior, arrived in 2003. He was a long shot, with the front office seduced by the sabermetric awesomeness of Jeremy Giambi, who was part of a high-priced clubhouse that included Martinez and Ramirez.
“I got to an organization that wasn’t successful but was trying,” Ortiz said. “When you have a guy with an [eight-year] $160 million contract like Manny, you are trying to win. I knew I had the talent, but I didn’t know if my career was going to turn out what it was. But I knew I had the ability to turn things around.”
That Ortiz nearly quit because he wasn’t playing enough in the first few weeks of the 2003 season is a big part of the Big Papi legend. Martinez insisted that Ortiz play when he pitched, but that wasn’t enough for the big guy.
“?‘You either release me or play me — I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m better than what you got,’?” Ortiz told Theo Epstein on the phone. “?‘So you better start playing me, period.’?”
The ultimatum worked out OK.
Ortiz blossomed into a legitimate thunder bat hitting right after Ramirez. The following year, he slid into the No. 3 spot just before Ramirez and the magic of 2004 happened. For the next three seasons, he was at his peak, averaging 45 home runs and 134 RBI, capping it off with a second title in 2007. Six seasons later, a third title.
Down to one last season, Ortiz has a legitimate Hall of Fame case, and everything about the Red Sox has changed from before he got here.
Fourteen years of sustained confidence and excellence have burnished a legend and propelled the franchise reached to its greatest glory.
Yet Ortiz, the baseball player, has stayed true to what has always worked. He looks the same, he talks the same, he hits almost the same.
Yeah, he’s aged well.
That’s why he’s the least surprised of anyone of how the Red Sox’ story unfolded and how his story is ending.
“I don’t look over my shoulder,” Ortiz said. “I keep it simple. I haven’t changed a thing. I don’t have to.”