Ortiz the best of a dying breed

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Bobby Valentine's idea of a perfect world would not include a designated hitter, which has nothing to do with David Ortiz.

The Red Sox manager just isn't a fan of the DH.

But while the DH model that Ortiz represents -- the everyday slugger in the middle of a lineup -- appears to be hurtling toward extinction with many teams preferring to cycle other position players through the DH spot, Valentine asserts that if you're going to have a DH, it's a bonus to have one as productive as Ortiz.

"They told me it'd be loud and Merengue -- they were right -- when David showed up,'' Valentine said Wednesday, when Ortiz joined the rest of his teammates in beating the reporting date of Thursday for position players. "The clubhouse is full of David right now, and I expect him to have that smile as often as possible so he can light up our clubhouse, our dugout.

"And hopefully he'll swing the bat the way he did last year. I don't know if he can hit left-handers equally well, but hopefully he can provide some leadership, provide some experience, and put some fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers."

Last season, Ortiz was one of just five DHs with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. With a .309 average, 29 home runs, 95 RBIs and a .953 OPS (on-base plus slugging), Ortiz easily eclipsed anyone else at the position. No other DH hit .300. No other DH had more than 17 home runs (Edwin Encarnacion), more than 73 RBIs (Johnny Damon) or a higher OPS than .787 (Encarnacion).
Of those five regular DHs last season -- Ortiz, Encarnacion, Damon, Vladimir Guerrero and Hideki Matsui -- only Ortiz and Encarnacion have a job.

That as much as anything explains why the Sox lowballed Ortiz (two years, $18 million) with a multiyear contract this winter, and why the only way Ortiz was going to score the kind of contract he did was to submit to the arbitration process.

Ortiz said there was a point during the winter that he didn't think he'd be back this season. That's puzzling since once the Sox offered him arbitration he was assured of a roster spot, and in the absence of any other offers he had no way of knowing whether anyone would step up and pay him the way the Red Sox will.

But nonetheless, there he was Wednesday, saying, "I'm not going to lie to you, at one point I thought I was done here."

That may have been more a reflection of his own insecurity than any real danger of the Red Sox parting ways with him. Even at 36, the Red Sox need Ortiz's bat in the lineup, especially since there was no comparable replacement for that bat. Ryan Lavarnway might one day be that guy, but the Sox prefer to see him develop as a catcher.

The question then becomes: At age 36, what is the likelihood Ortiz can still put up similar numbers -- which is the same question Ortiz heard at 34 and 35, too.

In the previous five seasons, only six players age 36 or older hit 30 or more home runs in a season, and none have since Raul Ibanez did it in 2009. No one that age since 2008 has knocked in as many as 100 runs.

So Ortiz knows he's competing against the calendar, too. "I guess I'm like the wine," Ortiz said with a laugh when asked about his age.

Ortiz fielded (if you can say that about a DH) lots of questions concerning leadership and the clubhouse environment in 2011. He tried to launch a preemptive strike, joking, "I'm not talking about fried chicken and beer, I had enough in the offseason," but was peppered with questions anyway.

He insisted that the issue of clubhouse conduct was nowhere as big as it has been made out to be, though he said he did talk to at least a couple of pitchers about what was taking place. But his responsibility in that vein only goes so far, he insisted.

"It's not my job to go off on anyone," he said. "I'm just an employee, just like everyone else. I'm not a babysitter or anything like that. I'm talking to another man just like me.

"There's a difference between being a team leader and being a babysitter. Everybody has an idea what they're here for. This is your home, right here. You got to defend it, you got to take care of it, but it's not like you have to have somebody telling you what to do every day."

By now, it should have become apparent that while Ortiz is an invaluable presence in the Sox clubhouse, especially when he is happy, he has never been one to embrace concerns beyond his own purview. That should have been obvious when Manny Ramirez was here. Ortiz never wanted to be a part of all the Manny melodramas, and most of the time he wasn't.

"My job, when it comes to being a leader, is first of all to look at myself and make sure I'm doing the right thing," he said.

It was said here at the time and will be said here again: This team bears few of the character flaws that have been heaped upon it. Ortiz might have offered a greater clue of what brought this team down more than its supposed aberrant behavior when he made this admission.

"During the season I was like, 'Man, this is the best ballclub I've ever been part of,' because we were playing so good," he said. "Me, personally, I already made up my mind we're in the playoffs."

That mindset is ripe for a little complacency to set in, a diminishment of urgency, and then when adversity strikes, confidence gives way to something bordering on panic.

"Having the drop we had and moving toward the end of the season and you're running out of chances, that wears you out," Ortiz said. "Having all that stress and that pressure you have to win to go to the playoffs, that's extra you have to bring to the table."

Did the Red Sox succumb to that pressure? No one can say with certainty, but succumb they did.

But Ortiz joined the chorus of voices that have made "turn the page" the prevailing theme of this camp.

"My teammates, they are a group of hard-working guys," he said. "I believe in them, and when I was listening to everything people had to say, it got me a little bit upset because it ain't like that.

"I say, 'Turn the page, man. This is a new year. We don't need no negativity. We don't need no confrontation.' I think we've got to come together and work as a group.

"Everything has changed, even our complex has changed. So why we got to stay still on the same page? I think we need to move on."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.