How do you tell a sporting legend to take a seat? Great athletes want to end their careers on their own terms. Determination, stubbornness, and sheer force of personality keep them plowing on long after their skills erode. Often times, coaches and team management face a tough business decision. They recognize the aging star now hurts the team more than that player contributes. But how do you acknowledge this and act on it? Stars exist for a reason. They perform under the bright lights and have delivered time and time again in the past. But, now they’re washed up. How do you push the star aside without creating friction and animosity? The Boston Red Sox face this dilemma in April 2010. David Ortiz, the affable Red Sox designated hitter who played a pivotal part in both World Series championships (2004 and 2007), has aged drastically overnight and appears to be a shell of his former self. He wants to play every day and believes he can still contribute. He can’t. The Red Sox must use him only in situations where he can thrive. The performer still wants to dominate the stage. The Red Sox must keep him from on a tight leash and use him only against right handed pitching. It is the only thing to do to preserve the legacy of this Boston icon and allow the Auld Town team to have a viable offensive production from the designated hitter this season
The truth hurts. The man known by fans as Big Papi (because he appears like a gentle giant) no longer hits left handed pitching with any consistency. Last year, he hit a woeful .212 against south paws and his OPS (on-base-plus-slugging-percentage) was a mediocre .716. To put that in context, the 2010 MLB average OPS was .750. He only knocked 5 of his 29 homers off lefties. This paltry performance got additional attention, and was a source of personal shame, because Ortiz is the team designated hitter. His job is to hit and to get on base. He failed to deliver against lefties. Manager Terry Francona recognized this and sat Ortiz Thursday in Minnesota, when Twin southpaw Francisco Liriano took the mound against Boston. A message was sent. Get better.
Ortiz has struggled coming out of the gates this season. Through Thursday, he struck out in thirteen of his twenty-six official plate appearances. This comes on top of a woeful start to the 2009 season when Ortiz hit only .208 through the first month of the season. It took him six weeks and 149 at bats before he walloped his first ball out of the park (against Brett Cecil of the Toronto Blue Jays). His first two months were the worst of his career. He hit only 1 hr and knocked in 18 rbi’s (runs batted in) through the first forty-six games. Big Papi picked up his performance in June and had his best month of the year. He hit .320 for the month, doubled his rbi total, and collected 11 extra base hits. His average dipped in July (to .247) but he hit another 7 long balls and drove in 24 runs.
Then Ortiz’s world turned upside down. On July 30th, the New York Times reported that Big Papi was one of a hundred players who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs back in 2003—when MLB began testing players to see how widespread steroid use was in baseball. All of a sudden, it appeared that Ortiz’s exploits and post-season heroics, which lifted him from anonymity in Minnesota to cult status in Boston, were tainted.
From 2003-2007, Ortiz was Mr. Clutch. He delivered under pressure and became a beloved Red Sox figure. During his first season in Boston (2003), he developed into an offensive star. He hit 31 homers and knocked in 101 runs. The next year, he took his game to another level. He went from a one hit wonder to a bona fide star with 41 long balls and an astounding 139 rbi’s. That fall, he became a Boston legend. In the division series, he hit a walk off home run off Jarrod Washburn to finish a series sweep of the Anaheim Angels. The Red Sox managed to lose the first three games of the next round against the rival New York Yankees. In game four at home in Fenway Park, Ortiz delivered a walk off home run to keep the Red Sox post-season hopes alive. The next night, he swatted a walk off single to win a second straight game and to send the series back to New York. The Red Sox captured the next two games to take the series and win the pennant. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals on the way to the championship. Ortiz’s heroics made him sporting royalty in Boston.
He continued his marvelous play the next three seasons. In 2005, his magnificent offensive exploits continued. He had a banner year with 47 homers, 148 rbi’s, and an OPS of 1.001. He showed plate discipline and collected 100 walks and scored 119 runs. It seemed like he his performance had peaked, but 2006 was even better. That summer, his production included 54 homers, 137 rbi’s, and an OPS of 1.049. His power dipped a bit in 2007—-he only hit 35 homers but his average jumped to .332. That autumn, he went on a tear and led the Sox to their second championship in four years with a stout .370 post-season average. He power continued and he hit 3 homers and drove in 10 runs.
Age and a series of injuries began taking their toll on Ortiz in 2008. He had a rotten year—hitting only .264 with 23 homers. For the first time since joining Boston, he failed to drive in a hundred runs (he collected 89). Many thought this was an aberration and felt that Ortiz would bounce back in 2009. That didn’t happen. A miserable first two months, the revelations of steroid use, and continued difficulties hitting elite pitching, left many wondering if Big Papi was through.
He is. The 2010 start shows that Ortiz is no longer the player he once was. At thirty-four, the end is near. The bat speed has dropped considerably. Left handed pitchers make him look foolish at the plate. His average tanked last year and has shown no signs of rebounding this spring. It is the sad end to a once fine career.
Everyone wants to finish on top. All great athletes believe they can turn back the clock and go out on their terms. They point to Ted Williams homering in his final at bat or John Elway winning back-to-back Super Bowls as examples of how to ride off into the sunset. Unfortunately, those feats are the exception and not the rule. Great athletes often go out with a whimper. Muhammad Ali got pummeled in several bouts during the twilight of his career. Willie Mays fell down and looked foolish in an outfield he once roamed with total control. All too often, a great athlete sticks around longer than they should. Their lasting images are of failure and frustration instead of glory and jubilation. The Red Sox would be wise to heed the advice of hall of fame general manager Branch Rickey. The man who invented the farm system, who built two organizations from the ground up and made them World Series winners (St. Louis and Brooklyn) once asserted: “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year late.” The Red Sox under the Theo Epstein regime have followed this unemotional philosophy. The club let several members of the 2004 championship team walk away—notably Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe left via free agency. Now the team must make another tough decision. They must play David Ortiz sparingly and force him to sit the bench. He cannot perform anymore. It is time to thank Ortiz for his contributions, bid him adieu, and move on. Baseball is a zero-sum game. For every winner there’s a loser. Winning requires offensive fire power. Ortiz no longer provides this. The team must not live in the past. They cannot allow nostalgia to dictate their actions. The Ortiz of 2003-2007 has faded away. He no longer exists. The decision to take the Papi of 2010 out of the lineup and put in fresh hitters who produce is a sign that the team recognizes his offensive liabilities. This tough love treatment must continue. It is time to live in reality instead of fantasy.