It’s hot in D.C. And by hot I don’t mean “oh boy I could sure go for some ice cream right now before I walk to the pool” hot I mean hot in the sense that if someone were to trace the origins of the word back to its inception I would not be surprised to find out ancient Germanic peoples created it to describe a death by 1,000 tiny flames.
It’s even hotter on the astroturf a group of MLB All-Star Game attendees is standing on a few blocks from Nationals Park while watching David Ortiz take part in one of the brand-mandated appearances he is committed to doing during All-Star Week festivities.
As the air temperature hovers somewhere between 90 degrees and “pure uncut death,” and the humidity bounces between 65 percent and “human life can not survive on this planet any longer,” the turf is 30 degrees hotter or more than the air and the kids-sized baseball field inlaid into the sweltering green swath isn’t endearing enough to distract from the dizziness that no amount of water can battle, the sweat constantly dripping between your shoulder blades, and the glances between others standing in small clusters waiting for the moment we can once again experience the relief of shade.
Yet David Ortiz, Red Sox legend and could-be Hall of Famer, is barely breaking a sweat. His face, unmarred by droplets and with his massive signature smile splitting across it as always, makes it seem like he’s a weather-immune mirage in this turf desert. A beacon of hope and illogical image for the rest of us standing around.
Oritz is more than dealing with the heat ably: he is genuinely happy to be out on this turf playing with a small core of energetic children wearing branded shirts. He tosses pitches, poses for pictures, and cracks jokes with volunteers and parents scattered around the faux-field. He has mainly come to All-Star Week to serve as one of the managers for the annual Futures Game, but Ortiz is also excited to simply be near baseball. While he has professional commitments for brand partners and the league, and admits several times that his handlers are keeping him as busy as any of the players in the actual All-Star Game, he’s in D.C. mostly because in retirement David Ortiz is happy to be around baseball as much as he wants to be — he’s still a part of the MLB family after he left an active roster.
Crucially, he’s excited to be able to not be around baseball when he doesn’t want to be as well.
Over a lunch of world-class barbecue, which Ortiz savored while filling a folding chair with his 6’3” frame, the artist known as Big Papi explained that the balance he has found in retirement is refreshing but he never wants to leave the baseball “fraternity” in which he spent so much of his life enmeshed. Noting the variety of friendships he experienced in the league, he expressed excitement about the increasing frequency of international players becoming close — Asian, Dominican, or Venezuelan guys more quick to bond with players from other countries.
When it comes to reminiscing about his playing days and what baseball means to him, he makes sure we don’t mistake his fond memories for retirement regret. He told Boston reporters before the Futures Game that “managing is not on [his] bucket list” and in between bites of pulled pork (the slider looking coin-sized in his hands) confirmed that he’s more than happy spending time with his family before his children are all off to college.
Managing for a day clearly fulfilled him, though, and allowed him to be around baseball and influence the next generation alongside longtime friend Torii Hunter, who was on the opposite side of the diamond managing against him. They teamed up to pass advice on to the game’s future stars, even if it was advice about situations Ortiz and Hunter never really had to deal with personally.
The risks of social media being one of the newer risks that both one-day managers are concerned about, and Brewers pitcher Josh Hader’s old and offensive tweets surfacing only a day after this lunch took place made it starkly clear why.
“You have social media, which you really have to be careful with, the way you’re posting or the way you get caught in things.” Ortiz said of what young players have to watch out for as they prepare to be professionals. “After you post something there’s no turning back. So you don’t want to get caught doing something or put yourself in a situation where you can end your own career doing something.”
Mentoring younger players is something Ortiz made sure to do during his career in Boston and something he values now, despite the game changing before his eyes. While in the locker room of the Futures Game, the size of these teen players shocked him.
“Everybody’s 6’4” right now. Only Altuve is below 6’4” but he acts like he’s 6’4” anyway,” he chuckle. “But these guys’ bodies are unbelievable, I feel like I was in an NBA locker room yesterday basically because everybody is so tall, so built up.”
He credits the bulk of players now for the increase in home runs and the increased effectiveness of the shift and doesn’t think this is simply because of baseballs or a flash in the pan for baseball. He said of the recent home run spike, “when [players] are that big, [players] are that strong, [they’re] not thinking about getting base hits. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t matter what part of the lineup you’re hitting at.”
While he considers that one major factor, the time Ortiz has put into thinking about how changes in the game create waterfall effects all the way down to the developmental stage illuminates how fully he still embraces the game despite not being part of a front office or coaching staff. He sees young players in the Dominican being encouraged to only hit for power rather than with variety, which leads those players to be valued more highly and get available contracts, which in turn encourages other young guys to limit their own development in exchange for power and continue the cycle.
Meanwhile, in Ortiz’s eyes, managers on the mainland are then left with a more limited crop of player skills to use in games, curtailing the possibility of creativity and leading to power-oriented lineups. He sees managers willing to “do whatever it takes to win because otherwise their job will be in jeopardy” which is then limiting their willingness to take risks and not follow the crowd.
That’s not all Ortiz has thoughts on either. He joins much of the baseball community in ruminating on the fallout from the increase in teams’ use of the shift.
With his powerful bat he of course saw the shift “his whole life” but he now considers the frequency of its use “out of control.” Using the “struggling” Bryce Harper as an example (he still has 23 home runs on the season) Ortiz spelled it out.
“He’s going to be fine hitting home runs but batting average-wise you know how many times I’ve seen Harper hitting line drives between first and second or to the middle that is out? That is supposed to be a hit! I don’t know if you know what I’m saying but that is supposed to be a hit!”
While others in the media and on teams question Harper’s offense this year Ortiz lets him off the hook by saying that batting average almost doesn’t matter anymore for power hitters. He doesn’t commit one way or another on banning the shift, other then when talk turns to his former team it’s the most worked up he gets about any topic.
His former team is still his family as well, but the one part of the baseball world that Ortiz is careful not to be too involved in at the moment is the Red Sox. The team gave him a lifetime contract last fall so he can be as involved as he likes when he likes, and he does take advantage. He recently got in a spot of trouble with Alex Cora for promising he was coming to say hi and running late, missing his chance to mingle with his former teammate. But while he’s “very happy and proud” of his friend Cora, he’s acutely aware that too much of his presence in Fenway could backfire so soon after his retirement considering his legacy in Boston.
“I know I still can be a distraction so I don’t want to be around too much taking the attention away from the guys that are playing so I’m very careful with all of that,” Ortiz explains.
His bond with this team runs deep though, and he describes watching the 2018 team play like watching himself “because they’re doing everything the right way,” with some specific characteristics that Ortiz says he passed along while mentoring the young players who have grown into stars over the last few years.
He describes players like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts as “part of what I am” and that “when the Red Sox are doing good it’s like something good is happening in my life” a sentiment that does not come across as at all exaggerated. His face lights up like the LED bulbs that hang over a ballpark whenever the team comes up. He sees himself in Betts’ body language, his enjoyment of the game. He sees himself in the swagger of players like J.D. Martinez, despite he and Martinez never overlapping on the roster. His identity is still so woven into that dugout and organization, which is why he’ll keep his distance for now and watch them succeed at a slight remove.
But it’s apparent that he will eventually return to the team he values above all else when the time is right, when there’s been enough of a gap that his presence won’t trigger immediate comparisons for the current players or distract from their accomplishments.
By the time he’s ready to return to the Red Sox in a more full time capacity, when his kids are out of the house and he’s gotten all of this free time out of his system, Boston might very well have another World Series trophy in the case. If that happens, which he believes will be the case either this year or soon, it would be the first championship the franchise wins without him in more than one hundred years.
When reminded of that, he laughs. His legacy was built in Boston and the last brick has been laid on that chapter, his Hall of Fame candidacy still up in the air but his number 34 forever retired from those jerseys. With his on-field accomplishments behind him it doesn’t bother him to watch his former team succeed without him. He was ready to retire when he did and has stayed busy in the time since, and happily.
So he’s more than comfortable being a mentor when he can, making sure he always makes time for photos and autographs when asked, and getting to watch a potentially all-time Boston team win on television rather than from his seat in the dugout. That laugh captures an entire career worth of satisfying outcomes, with not a retirement frustration in sight.
Source: SB Nation | Whitney McIntosh | July 23, 2018