Monday, May 4, 2009

The curious case of David Ortiz

The Yankees will look to get on the board against the Red Sox tonight in the Bronx, the stench of an ugly three-game sweep at Fenway still lingering. Phil Hughes is attempting to follow up on his fine debut last week, squaring off against Jon Lester. The unbalanced schedule has sapped a little of the juice from these matchups during the regular season, but the vitriol between the fanbases still makes this thing special ... even if Jeter and Pedroia are now (ugh) best friends forever. Where's Chad Curtis when you need him?

Unfortunately, like the last series, the showdown this week will be missing two of the rivalry's marquee names of the past decade. Alex Rodriguez is obviously one, parked on the DL and a week away from reclaiming his job at third base. The other? Well, David Ortiz.

You remember David Ortiz, right? They called him Big Papi, and with good reason. Listed at 6-foot-4 and an insanely generous 230 pounds, he was the most feared left-handed slugger of the 2000s not named Bonds. He was famously cast away by the Twins in 2002, an overweight DH-type who never hit quite enough to warrant anything more than platoon duties. Enter the Red Sox, who, with their then-newfound love of all things OPS, seized on a player they believed had not been given the opportunity to reach his his full potential.

Boston, of course, was absolutely correct. Ortiz broke out with 31 homers and 101 RBIs in just 448 at-bats in '03 and then put together a four-year run that rivaled any slugger in the modern era. From 2004 to 2007 -- a period that included two Boston World Series titles -- Papi averaged 44 homers, 135 RBIs, 111 runs, a .305 batting average, and a 1.025 OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage). It was nothing less than remarkable -- a guy goes from being benched against lefties to having one of the greatest offensive stretches in baseball history. It seemed almost too good to be true.

And now, as the same David Ortiz enters play on May 4 with exactly zero home runs and a .208 batting average, you have to wonder, was it too good to be true?

Ortiz's career follows the perfect arc of a performance-enhancing drug user: Middling player during formative playing years, followed by a sudden and dramatic spike in production, followed by rash of injuries that begins premature demise.

Ortiz battled wrist and knee issues as a 32-year-old in 2008, posting his worst statistical numbers since joining Boston. And while stories in spring training spoke glowingly of a healthy Papi returning to prominence in 2009, Ortiz has been nothing less than a disaster through 25 games, posting more strikeouts (23) than hits (20). Scouts have spoken of bat speed that is suddenly non-existent as whispers have begun that the Red Sox could soon drop him from his customary No. 3 spot in the lineup.

After the A-Rod steroid bombshell dropped in February, Ortiz went on record saying that any player caught using should be banned for a year. Days later, it was confirmed that Ortiz worked out with controversial trainer Angel Presinal in the Dominican Republic, a man who had been close with A-Rod and is banned from Major League clubhouses for his suspected steroid ties. In an era of suspicion, you couldn't help but raise an eyebrow.

The Mitchell Report was released in December 2007, helmed by Senator George Mitchell, who was also happened to be a director with the Boston Red Sox. Coincidentally or not, no notable Red Sox were named in the findings. So while the Roger Clemens and Andy Pettittes of the world drowned in a flood of their own doing, life went on for the seemingly clean Red Sox Nation.

That's not to say that Ortiz is or was a PED user. It's all purely conjecture at this point. However, if there was ever a player who fit the bill, it's Ortiz. He may very well bounce back and post respectable numbers for the Sox this season, but there's also the chance that it's all over for the man they once called Big Papi. The fall will be as sudden as the rise.

Consider this a warning to all the Red Sox fans who will holding up their clever signs and waving their toy syringes the next time A-Rod steps into the box at Fenway. When you're living in a glass house, maybe it's time to put down those stones.

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