Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A special moment for Ortiz -- and us

We get cynical sometimes when it comes to baseball. We get cynical and objective and removed and even a little bit bitter when it comes to baseball. We look at the salaries and and the egos and the expectations, and we forget what it is we love about baseball.

We sometimes need a reminder.

On Wednesday night at Fenway Park, David Ortiz provided us with that reminder. David Ortiz provided us with as special a moment as you'll ever see -- and that includes any one of the walk-off hits that have made him a legend in Boston for the rest of his life and beyond.

Ortiz is a home-run hitter. He always has been, and he always will be. He's walked 100 times and doubled 50 times and has legged out a triple every year for the last 10 years. He's driven in 100 runs five times. He's hit .300 three times.

Despite all that, Ortiz is a home-run hitter. And the fact that he'd gone 163 plate appearances without hitting a single baseball over a single fence -- be it at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium or Tropicana Field -- was the most talked-about run of futility this side of Wall Street.

Every time he set foot into the Red Sox locker room, reporters demanded to know what was happening and what he was thinking and when things were going to turn around. Every time anyone else in a white uniform set foot into the Red Sox uniform, reporters demanded to know what was happening and what Ortiz was thinking and when things were going to turn around.

"They're talking about him like he's dead," WalkOffWalk's Kris Liakos whispered after a session in which reporters repeatedly asked Kevin Youkilis about the repeated failures of Ortiz this season.

Ortiz had fanned weakly twice on Tuesday in his first game back at Fenway Park, his first game in front of his home fans since he'd stranded 12 runners against the Angels and then been given an entire weekend in Seattle off to clear his head. The fans cheered enthusiastically when Ortiz came to the plate in the first inning. The fans went crazy, standing and cheering and chanting "Papi! Papi!", when Ortiz came to the plate in the eighth inning.

It was a display of support almost unthinkable in a ballpark that has booed so many other fading stars, almost delighting in the misery of the players they once worshipped. Teddy was booed. Yaz was booed. Mo was booed. Nomar was booed. Manny was booed.

Ortiz, though, is different.

Ortiz is Big Papi. Ortiz is 2004. Ortiz is The Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History.

That's why fans went wild for Ortiz on Tuesday, cheering him louder and louder every time he came to the plate. That's why fans went wild for Ortiz on Wednesday before his first at-bat (a weak groundout) and before his second at-bat (a strikeout on an eminently hittable fastball over the middle of the plate).

And that's why it was so special when Ortiz went deep.

It already was shaping up to be a nice inning. Jason Varitek had homered off Brett Cecil, a top prospect who earlier had almost left the game after bouncing his face off the Fenway Park infield trying to catch a popped-up bunt. Jacoby Ellsbury had walked and then almost scored on a Dustin Pedroia double. Pedroia still was standing on third with two outs -- and he represented a chance for Ortiz to drive in just his fourth run in the month of May.

A home run, honestly, was probably the last thing on the minds of just about everyone in the ballpark. A slap single to left-center field would have done just fine.

But Cecil left a fastball up and out over the plate, and Ortiz clobbered it. All 38,000-plus fans in the building rose and roared at once -- and those roars turned into delirium when the ball settled into the camera well in dead center field, 380 feet from home plate.

Ortiz might have been tempted to act casual when he stepped on home plate, to act as though he'd never heard the multitudes who believed his career was over. But even he couldn't fake that. He pointed to the sky with both index fingers -- something he does after every home run -- and clapped his hands together -- something he never does after any home run. He then allowed Kevin Youkilis to wrap him up in the sort of celebratory hug that's normally reserved for a ninth-inning walk-off and not a relatively routine two-run shot in the fifth inning.

When Ortiz got to the dugout, he found no one there to acknowledge him -- but that's only because the Red Sox were giving him the silent treatment. After a few seconds had passed, every white uniform in the dugout converged on him in a mosh pit -- sense a theme here? -- normally only seen in the aftermath of a home run that ends a game.

All the while, the fans kept roaring -- helped, in part, by Cito Gaston's decision to go visit the mound and have a chat with his young pitcher. Ortiz, after extricating himself from the dogpile in the dugout, took two quick steps up the stairs and jabbed a fist into the air as a celebratory salute. It was a curtain call much deserved by Ortiz; it was a salute much deserved by a fan base that refused to give up on him.

We get cynical sometimes. We get bitter sometimes. We forget sometimes what baseball is supposed to be about.

Moments like David Ortiz's curtain call on Wednesday -- that's what baseball is supposed to be about.

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