Big Papi's decline? Not this fall

BOSTON -- The walls are closing in on David Ortiz. He can feel it, the cold breeze of doubt whistling through each swing and miss, vexing and constant, a pebble scratching hard on the bottom of his foot: a .224 batting average and, even more glaring, no home runs in 116 at-bats from the most feared left-handed power hitter this town has seen since Mo Vaughn and, before that, Carl Yastrzemski. The 1960s Yaz, that is.

There was a day not too long ago when Ortiz used to make excitement as a mother makes popcorn -- quickly, effortlessly, each new pop coming on cue, loud, distinct, expected. No player in the team's history had arrived so anonymously -- he became an everyday player with the Red Sox midway through 2003 -- nor wrote for himself such a legend by becoming the definitive pressure player of his time.

Ortiz was so proficient at producing big-boom, big-moment offense that it did not seem possible that one day it could ever stop, that one day he would come to the plate and be anything but a hero. Each year, the Red Sox's media guide has listed his greatest hits, the number of foes he has vanquished when all appeared lost.

But that day -- at least during this dark start of a season when his thunder has been dormant -- seems to have arrived, and Ortiz is fighting back with pride.

"I got something for you," he told me sternly last Wednesday before Cleveland's Carl Pavano beat the Red Sox 9-2 at Fenway Park. "I've got five months left. I guarantee I am not going to finish like this. You think this is the first bad time I've had in my career? In 2003, I had no homers in 55 at-bats. I finished with 31. And you could look that up."

(Ortiz, in fact, hit his first home run that year on April 27, 2003, at Anaheim. But he is correct about his slow start and fast finish. On May 13, 2003, he was hitting .208. By June 26, he had hit just three home runs. Yet when the season ended, he had a batting average of .288 with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs.)

The thousand-watt gregariousness, once a constant in Boston, now appears only sparingly, for he is not used to being the one who needs the hug. Nor does he feel that the immense reserve of memories -- the ones he created when Big Papi was turning games and seasons around with one swing -- make him immune from the sharp edge of the game's business realities.

Ortiz is big-hearted and hilarious, but he refuses to be stereotyped, and he understands immediately the inherent danger of appearances. He is not the Happy Latin caricature, a representation that can be good for business but can undermine the serious manner in which he approaches his craft.

"Everybody is saying, 'How come you don't smile so much anymore? How come you don't joke so much with us?'" he said. "Because I'm hitting [expletive] .200! What am I, Ronald McDonald? A [expletive] clown? This [expletive] isn't fun. It doesn't matter how much you did. You don't produce and sooner or later, you're gone. Done. Vámonos. This is entertainment for them. This is my [expletive] job!"

In a two-game sweep of the Yankees last week, Ortiz showed a spark of power -- 3-for-6, two doubles in the first game -- that he hoped was a signal. Against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night, his double to deep left-center started the winning rally in the eighth inning.

Ortiz, who is 33 years old, does not talk about his baseball mortality. He does not believe he or the public is witnessing an inevitable decline, and he is adamant that his perspective is not one of denial. In batting practice, the patented Ortiz sizzle is muted, but he does not believe his body is finally betraying him, even though he knows that the injuries to his left knee and wrist last season -- and the left-shoulder tendinitis he is fighting through now -- can finish even the best power hitter.

"My knee," he said without mentioning the wrist, "is fine."

Nevertheless, the day when time robs him of his ability to play the game at the highest level will arrive, and Ortiz won't be the only entity that requires watching. It is during that time when everyone -- the fans, the media and especially the Red Sox -- will be on trial. The sports teams of Boston, most notably the Red Sox, have been historically notorious for ugly, bitter breaks with their heroes when the end was near. Whether it was Drew Bledsoe or Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez or Manny Ramirez, Mo Vaughn or Nomar Garciaparra, Phil Esposito or (until very recently) Bill Russell, no city has eaten its A-list beautiful like Boston.

Only one -- Bobby Orr -- ever left well, as legendary today as he was when he played. Ted Williams, cantankerous while he played, grew in stature as he aged; but it should not be forgotten that only 10,463 fans showed up for his final home game. Even Larry Bird, who never broke with the public, did so with the organization when it chose Rick Pitino to lead the club instead of him. In terms of visibility, Bird did not stay. He flew back home to Indiana, and he hasn't returned.

And after engineering his way out of town last summer, it was Ramirez who predicted that despite all the standing ovations and the thousands of fans who wear No. 34 on their backs, Ortiz will be next when his skills decline.

But before one of the games in New York last week, Red Sox manager Terry Francona met with Ortiz and did perhaps the nicest thing a manager could do for a player in the throes of a struggle. In the process, Francona showed why he has been as successful in Boston as he has. He didn't bench him, didn't drop him down in the order even though Mike Lowell, Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis have been producing beyond Ortiz.

"I told him, 'I've been patting you on the back for six years now. Now, it's time for me to show you some respect,'" Francona said. "I wanted him to know he's going to be OK. I wanted to give him that knowledge.

"And I know how hard it is to play with what he's had. When I hurt one knee, I was OK. When I hurt the second, I had nowhere to go. I had no base."

Larry Lucchino, one of the Red Sox's owners who has displayed a willingness to make an unpopular move on a popular player, said, "I love David Ortiz. I cannot say enough what he means to us, what he has meant to us, what he has done for the fans of this team. He's going to come around. I express nothing but loyalty to him."

Cat and mouse. Cat and mouse! Farley Granger said in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Rope." Only who is the cat, and who is the mouse?

In 2003, Ortiz definitely was the cat. He knew something the rest of the league was slow in learning: That a letter-high fastball, in and menacing on the hands … well, he could hit it now. In Minnesota, that pitch was kryptonite to him; but in Boston, it became as fat and juicy as a rib eye. Righty or lefty … it didn't matter. Martinez noticed it first, yelling in the dugout after Ortiz turned around a pitch that used to send him to the dugout.

"You can't get in there anymore," Martinez said, placing his hand level against his jersey, suggesting high-and-tight.

And on it went. Ortiz was a top-five MVP candidate five straight years from 2003 to 2007, and he hit 41, 47, and 54 home runs from 2004 to 2006. Perhaps more significant than his individual numbers was his uncanny ability to create high-stakes drama, the last great moment coming in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Rays this past October, when the Red Sox faced elimination and trailed 7-0 with two outs in the seventh inning. Ortiz's three-run home run off Grant Balfour sent Boston on the way to an 8-7 comeback win that helped extend the series to seven games.

That home run, ironically, was the last one Ortiz has hit.

Today, the opposition has taken on the role of the cat.

It isn't the slow start, but the notion that time is trying to get Ortiz's attention. Between 2002 and 2007, his OPS had increased six straight seasons before dropping last year from 1.066 to .877. (It is currently .666.) His on-base percentage climbed each year of the span, too, before dropping from a league-leading .445 in 2007 to .369 -- still nearly 100 points higher than his batting average. His .264 batting average last season was his lowest since 2001. Ortiz says he has blocked it all, concentrating on his game.

"The fans have been the fans. There have been a few cats trying to start some B.S., but they're fine. No problems," Ortiz said. "They want to see you do the things you do, but you can't just look at the numbers. Don't just look at the numbers -- analyze the game."

Managers still try to play with Ortiz's head by shifting fielders to the right side to take away base hits and live with his power, as they always have. But now, Ortiz is noticing more daring strategies -- more challenges up and in where pitchers never dared go during the good times, and more breaking balls away even at Fenway, pitches that Ortiz would be unafraid to batter to the opposite field over the wall.

That the shift is still employed is proof to Ortiz that he is still feared, that the power and respect still remain. Not that the league hasn't caught on yet that he is an injured, wounded lion.

"You see, if they thought I didn't have the bat speed anymore, they wouldn't be shifting," Ortiz said. "They would take the shift off because they think I couldn't get around. But they don't do that. They still try to take everything away. What does that tell you?"

Still, Ortiz has a .338 on-base percentage. That's down from recent seasons, too, but a good on-base percentage should be 70 percentage points or so better than the batting average. He far exceeds that range.

"He's been behind some fastballs, ahead of some breaking balls," Francona said. "But what I like is that he's still taking his walks. He's still slowing the game down and letting it come to him."

The pitchers try to bait him, force him to be so impatient that he'll try to hit 10 home runs in one at-bat.

"I'm not getting pitches to drive," he said. "Two balls, no strikes, fastball on the corner? That's not a pitch you want to swing at. You watch them. The pitcher and catcher, when I come up, they are still having conversations. They still know."

Although Ortiz will admit that Ramirez did everything he could to sabotage his tenure in Boston last year, the loss of Manny's protection from the lineup might be taking a toll on him -- even if Francona does not believe it's a factor. Youkilis, after all, is hitting.

"Nope. Not at all," Francona said. "'Youk' has proven himself to be a legitimate presence."

Said Ortiz, "Now, I have missed some pitches, no excuses. Trust me. I'm gonna be fine. Come see me later this year. We'll be talking about something different. If you make excuses, they'll bury you in this town."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.