Home runs and hangups: Big Papi story

Friday, July 07, 2017

Good morning!

The Fourth of July, 2003, was a coming out party for David Ortiz. The 27-year-old Dominican was on a one-year, $1.25 million contract and had notched only five home runs. Batting sixth behind Kevin Millar, he belted two of Boston’s seven home runs to help set a visiting team record and rout the Yankees, 10-3, before 55,000 fans in the Bronx.

Ortiz finished the season with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs. He hit 41 the following season and 47 in 2006. He became King of the Walk-offs with back-to-back extra inning hits in the 2004 ALCS, and his eighth-inning grand slam off Joaquin Benoit prevented Boston from going to Detroit down 0-2 in the 2013 ALCS.

He retired in 2016 with 483 home runs in a Boston uniform — second only to Ted Williams (521). His career total of 541 long balls puts him 17th on the all-time HR list. Albert Pujols has 603 but the closest active player to catching Ortiz is 34-year-old Miguel Cabrera, who has a chance with 457.

“Papi, My Story,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $28) hit the bookstores on May 16, a few weeks before Ortiz’s No. 34 was retired at Fenway Park. Written with Michael Holley, the 242-page memoir begins in the slums of the Caribbean and ends last October at Fenway Park, where Ortiz waves his cap to the fans one last time after the Red Sox were swept by Cleveland in the playoffs.

Ortiz grew up in Haina, DR., “a city famous for only its pollution” says ipsnews.net. The water was polluted by acid from a recycling plant and crime was commonplace. Ortiz witnessed a murder on his way to the bodega and calls himself “… a ghetto boy who made it out. I shouldn’t be here.”

Ortiz was first noticed by a bird dog named Hector Alvarez, who saw his quick wrists and good hand-eye coordination. “Alvarez was known as a buscon, someone who finds young baseball players … they are constantly mining for athletic gold on the islands,” Ortiz wrote. “You can sign a dozen Domincans cheaper than a third-round pick born in the United States.”

He signed with Seattle for $10,000, bought a stereo and gave the rest to his parents. He made $59 in the low minors and lived with five other Dominicans, but was thrilled to have reached America. “McDonald’s was like America’s top steakhouse to us. We cleaned out the Chinese all-you-can-eat places.”

He met his wife in Wisconsin, was traded to Minnesota and played six years for Twins manager Tom Kelly. “I know he’s recognized as a good baseball man, but he struck me as a guy who believed his players were dumb f—s,” Ortiz observed.

In Boston he marked his upward progress by moving from Garrison Square to Charles River Apartments, where “Tiffany was excited to purchase our ‘we made it’ items like a mattress (we had rented one) and some pots and pans.”

He never mentions Fernando Cuza by name, calling him simply “my agent” but a Google search revealed Cuza was largely responsible for Big Papi’s career earnings of $160 million (according to baseball-reference.com). No stranger to big league front offices, Cuza’s Latin American clients have included Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Cabrera.

SI.com lauded Cuza’s effort after the 2012 season when Ortiz missed 72 games: “Cuza told the Red Sox it would take a two-year, $30 million contract to re-sign him, a steep demand even though Ortiz was of no interest to National League teams and no American League team would give up a first-round pick to sign him. Cuza convinced the Red Sox to re-sign its fan favorite to a two-year, $26 million deal.”

Ommitting Cuza’s name was typical of the book’s failure to provide specific details. When Ortiz writes, “Our advance scouts were confident,” I want to know who the scouts were, and why they were confident.

He does dole out a few timely stories. After a playoff game against Tampa Bay, Ortiz was on the team bus when David Price — then with the Rays — called and asked, “Man, why did you embarass me like that?”

Price felt that Ortiz had shown him up by standing at home plate admiring a home run, but Ortiz said he was simply trying to tell if the ball was fair or foul. “Stop showing that this stuff bothers you,” he told Price. “It makes you look soft.”

Ortiz uses his platform to deliver blistering remarks about managers, reporters and front office types. Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was “a real mother— … Sometimes I just wanted to shout, ‘Yo! Wake the f—- up!”

He accuses Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy of being “disrespectful and a racist” and regards the media as a nuisance: “Not every player wants a mother—— in his face every day.”

Bobby Valentine was “distant, clueless and a bad human being” and Terry Francona betrayed him after Ortiz had “helped put him on the map.”

That was in 2010 when Francona pinch hit for Ortiz with the bases loaded late in a tie game. “I was at home plate digging in already, and he makes the last-second decision to bring in Mikey (Mike Lowell) to replace me. Man, was it ever embarrassing. Everybody was expecting me to go crazy, and I did, but it was behind the scenes. What Tito had just done was disrespectful. … Our relationship lost its core of trust that night.”

The incident was also recalled in “Francona: The Red Sox Years” by Francona and Dan Shaughnessy (published in 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Shaugnessy set the stage: Ortiz was batting .154 and Red Sox owner John Henry was breathing down Francona’s neck for batting him against southpaws. Before he left the dugout for the on-deck circle, Francona told him to check with the dugout before going to home plate.

“When J.D. Drew walked,” wrote Shaughnessy, “Ortiz strode toward the plate. He never looked back. (Mike) Lowell called to Ortiz and proud Papi trudged back to the dugout and disappeared into the tunnel that leads to the clubhouse. Then he took his bat to a water cooler and any other inanimate objects.”

Francona said that although Lowell walked to force in the winning run, in retrospect it wasn’t worth ruining the relationship. “Looking back, I probably wish I didn’t do it.”

Red Sox fans felt that Big Papi’s outbursts were all part of his bigger-than-life persona. A YouTube clip with 3.2 million views shows him demolishing a telephone in the visitors’ dugout in Baltimore. The Orioles kept the phone and presented it to him as a going-away gift during last year’s farewell tour. Ortiz wasn’t amused and claimed it had “Buck Showalter written all over it.”

No, Big Papi, it had you written all over it.

Ortiz hit a home run every 25 at-bats in Minnesota, but one every 15 at-bats in Boston, where Manny Ramirez took him under his wing. Both were on the list of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.

The list was supposed to be kept anonymous, but names were leaked and it destroyed the reputations of players like Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens.

Ortiz denied everything. “It was a nightmare,” he wrote. “It was worse than that. It was a horror movie.”

He was condemned by columnists Bob Ryan (“Big Papi was on the juice”); Dan Shaughnessy (“His entire Red Sox career is a lie”), and Tony Massarotti, “his legacy is a myth.”

Red Sox fans forgave and forgot.

As a co-author, Holley strives to get the pages to book length by using meaningless cliches: “Baseball matters to Boston and all of New England. It’s more than just a game there. … Fenway, the oldest park in the A.L. They’ve been playing baseball there forever.”

Similarly, he writes nothing revelatory about Dustin Pedroia: “He was incredible. Everything that was good and true about baseball was in Dustin Pedroia. He breathed it. He lived it.”

A good sports book is more about what happened behind the scenes than what happened between the lines. “Just charge me with the usual,” Chicago Blackhawks forward Bob Probert told the cops after he wrecked his motorcycle driving drunk. (Probert died of before his book “Tough Guy” was published.)

Dave Meggyesy’s “Out of Their League” ranted against the cold, cutthroat world of the NFL, and Gary Shaw’s bitter memoir “Meat on the Hoof” was a 1972 best seller about playing big-time college football for University of Texas coach Darrell Royal.

Great sports books aren’t written by athletes but by authors who craft their narratives into substantive plotlines, wordsmiths like George Plimpton (“Paper Tiger”), Roger Angell (“The Summer Game”), Roger Kahn (“The Boys of Summer”), and Robert Creamer (“Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.”)

For all the fame and adulation, Ortiz was a stranger in a strange land. He infers he would have preferred playing in New York where 675,000 Dominicans reside, and where he could be with “my boys” at Cafe Rubio in Queens. “I enjoyed everything about playing in New York. It was abnormal but in a good way.”

Holley fails to add depth and backgroud to the Ortiz story. More important, he could’ve eliminated the vulgarity that Ortiz used to express his emotions by writing the book in the third person: “PAPI, His Story.”

Good writing takes time. Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Ted Williams (“The Kid”) was a seven-year effort. Holley had only months if not weeks to make deadline, and consequently “PAPI” is an infield hit by a home run hitter.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.