In the academy award-winning classic Cocktail, Coughlin tells young Flanagan, "Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end." It's the single greatest yearbook quote ever. Hell, it may be the greatest movie quote ever. Either Coughlin was the Thoreau of bartending, or Thoreau the Coughlin of writing. One or the other.
We reached the "ending badly" point with David Ortiz five weeks ago. Remember in Superman II when Clark Kent gave up his superpowers so he could be with Lois Lane -- lesson No. 184 on how women ruin everything -- and then a bully beat the crap out of the suddenly mortal superhero in a diner? That's been Big Papi since Opening Day. What makes it stranger is that he still looks like Big Papi. Same bulky build. Same goofy beard. Same happy smile. Same batting stance. This isn't like the Ultimate Warrior returning after the then-WWF's first steroids scandal with a jarringly smaller physique. Everything looks the same with Ortiz, only Mario Mendoza has switched brains with him.
At first, we Sox fans thought we were just watching an early-season slump. Then three weeks passed and we started worrying. The guy couldn't hit the ball out of the infield. His bat was so slow he had to cheat on fastballs; even then, he couldn't catch up. One swing a night made him look like the drunkest batter in a beer league softball game. Look, I've seen slumps. This was different. This was the collapse of a career.
The steroid whispers started quickly. By late April, every conversation I had with a Sox fan seemed to include a "We need to mail Papi some HGH" joke. It was an easy leap for a couple of reasons: First, his power numbers leapt like Obama's Q rating from 2003 to 2007. Second, he's Dominican, and more than a few of his brethren -- Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Guillermo Mota -- have been in the center of PED controversies. Third, they sell steroids over the counter in the DR like they're Bubblicious. And fourth, baseball has reached a depressing point in which power hitters are presumed guilty until proven innocent.
When Manny Ramírez was suspended for trying to jump-start ovaries he didn't have, many Sox fans (including me) assumed we had our unhappy answer for Papi's demise. We braced for Ortiz to be linked to a bombshell headline that began with the words "Former Sox Clubhouse Attendant … " But one thing nagged at me: He wasn't belting bombs that were dying at the warning track like so many other former 'roiders. He just looked old. It reminded me of watching Jim Rice fall apart in the late '80s, when he lost bat speed overnight the way you and I lose a BlackBerry. That was painful too.
By mid-May, I was pondering another theory: Maybe Papi was older than he claimed. In Seth Mnookin's book Feeding the Monster, he recounts the story of how Boston nearly blew the chance to acquire Ortiz because they were concerned that he was much older than the media guide said. GM Theo Epstein asked Bill James to study Papi's numbers, and when James concluded the peaks and valleys were consistent with a man of Ortiz's stated age, they rolled the dice. The rest is history.
Well, what if James was wrong? How many Latin players have been exposed for lying about their ages in the past few years? Hell, one of Papi's best friends -- Tejada -- was found to have cut two years off his birth certificate when he was 17, er, 19 … you get the point. Watching Papi flounder now, I'd believe he's really 36 or 37 (not 33) before I'd believe PEDs are responsible. In a recent game in Minnesota, he couldn't catch up to an 89 mph fastball. Repeat: 89 mph!
That's what happens to beefy sluggers on their way out: Their knees go, they stiffen up, bat speed slows and, in the blink of an eye, they're done. Beefy sluggers are like porn stars, wrestlers, NBA centers and trophy wives: When it goes, it goes. You know right away.
So that's my theory. I think he's old(er). You may think something else. Whatever the case, it's clear that David Ortiz no longer excels at baseball. This has been banged home over and over again for two solid months. It's ruined the season for me thus far. The best way I can describe Fenway during any Papi at-bat is this: It's filled with 35,000 parents of the same worst kid in Little League who dread every pitch thrown in the kid's direction. There is constant fear and sadness and helplessness. Nobody knows what to do.
It's been a sports experience unlike anything I can remember. Red Sox fans refuse to turn against Ortiz. They just can't. They owe him too much for 2004 and 2007. It's like turning on Santa Claus or happy hour. Every Ortiz appearance is greeted with supportive cheers, every Ortiz failure is greeted with awkward silence. The fans are suffering just like he is. Only when he left 12 men on base against Anaheim on May 14 did I receive a slew of angry e-mails from back home, but even those tirades centered more around Terry Francona's steadfast refusal to drop Ortiz in the order. I cannot remember another Boston athlete stinking this long, and this fragrantly, without getting dumped on.
Really, that's a tribute to what he means to his fans and how delightful it was to watch him play. His career might be over (notice I left the door open; I'm such a sap), but Ortiz has reached the highest level an athlete can reach: unequivocal devotion. Sox fans love him the same way you love an ailing family member. In the end, at his bleakest point, he's brought out the best of an entire fan base. He has inspired dignity and emotion and loyalty. The fans could have sped his demise (and saved a few games) by booing until Francona benched him. They didn't. How often does that happen?
We live in a world in which all entertainment is chewed up and spat out. We milk public figures like cows, and when they're out of milk, we tip them over and move on. Quickly. It's not just that we need to see everything "jump the shark" that bothers me. It's also that so many of us are gleeful about pointing out that something or someone we once loved has outlived his usefulness. The demise of Big Papi played out in an old-school way: real devotion, and in the end, people refusing to let go.
Including me. I still watch every Ortiz at-bat thinking, This is the one. When he belted his first bomb of the season, I clapped like everyone else and pumped my fist. Yes! He's back! The Fenway crowd cheered as if it were Game 7, demanded a curtain call and showered him with love. This was the single strangest sports moment I've ever seen: Fans going absolutely bonkers for something that once was a routine act. Turned out, it was Papi's only homer of the first eight weeks. So it really was a curtain call. By May's end, Francona had dropped him to sixth in the order. Barring a miraculous return of bat speed, he'll be benched or released soon. It'll hurt, and I'm going to feel bad. I already do. Coughlin was right.
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