ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.-- On the night Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz claimed a piece of baseball history, he covered it in shiny wrapping paper, tied it with a bow and offered it as a wedding present to Kenyatta Gomez, a Brookline, Massachusetts, fireman who doubles as a clubhouse attendant in Fenway Park.
While Ortiz was here in Tropicana Field, hitting the long balls off Tampa Bay left-hander Matt Moore that lifted him into the special company of the 27 players who have hit 500 home runs in their career, Gomez was back home in Wilmington, Massachusetts, where friends and family had gathered for his backyard wedding Saturday to Julie Cordeiro, a professional photographer.
Under other circumstances, Ortiz might have been there with the other guests, offering a toast to the happy couple. But given that he was otherwise engaged Saturday night, Ortiz went one better, saluting the bridegroom as the person who set him straight when he was struggling earlier this season.
The slugger and the clubhouse attendant. Unlikely friends? Not in the world inhabited by Ortiz, who insists he doesn’t allow his own oversized persona to color the way he views others.
“The people that know me, the people who are around me a lot, know that I am a guy who is simple," he said. “I don’t ask for much. I like to have people being comfortable around me. That’s my nature.
“I don’t judge no one. I don’t expect anyone to judge me. That’s how I lead my life. I have a lot of things that matter a lot to me. I know fame and money change a lot of people’s minds, but in my case I don’t see it that way."
It seems so long ago now, but only three months ago, Ortiz had just six home runs, was batting .219 and hearing a drumbeat of speculation that his career was hurtling toward an untimely end. He wasn’t dealing with it well at all, and Gomez, who had befriended Ortiz over the years he had been serving the slugger’s needs in the clubhouse, took notice.
“One time I just walked into the clubhouse and he basically told me I was bitching and complaining too much about things," Ortiz said. “I’m not like that. I kind of went home thinking about it, and he was right. He was right.
“The following day I started doing things differently. People put a lot of bad thoughts in your head. I’m not going to lie to you. At one point I was kind of believing in that. That’s why, realizing what my friend was trying to tell me, I kind of went back to work, and I went back to what I normally do.
“Thinking what people were telling me, this and that, I wasn’t doing what I normally do. Thinking what people were telling me, this and that, I wasn’t putting in the effort. I blame myself for that. The thinking [kept] me from realizing that I had to be honest with myself and go at it the way I know how."
In the swirl of voices filling Ortiz’s head, the words of a clubhouse attendant -- and more importantly, his friend -- had cut through the noise.
“Sometimes we start listening to everyone, what people have to say, and you get kind of confused, and then you stop doing what you’re supposed to do, and that’s basically what was happening to me," Ortiz said. “And I really want to thank my boy Kenyatta for being honest with me. Because everybody around you sometimes just wants to go and kiss your ass."
Once his head was right, it became much easier to address the changes Ortiz had to make at the plate.
“Guys like that, they find their hands, basically," said hitting coach Chili Davis, a man who hit 350 home runs in the course of a 19-year big league career.
“He’s got great hands, for a big man. He found his hands, and once he found his hands, he didn’t care what you threw anymore. He knew where they were going. Hope he says the same thing, but that’s what I think."
David Dombrowski, who intercepted Ortiz as he was coming out of the shower to offer congratulations, has been the Red Sox's president of baseball operations for less than a month. All the years he saw Ortiz from the other side of the diamond, he admired his talent, but the word “mean” also came to mind. No more.
“He’s a tremendous competitor," Dombrowski said. “He will do anything he can to win. You can tell he’s passionate. He’s all what you want in a baseball player for a franchise.
“You know it, but until you’re coming over here, and [see] the respect for him that oozes from people is unbelievable. He’s just so passionate about what he does.
“You know, we’ve talked so much about the young guys, but to have a couple of veteran players like David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, two guys like that, that’s amazing to me. They’re the Red Sox. You don’t find too many situations like that."
And after the dire forecasts predicted it was all coming to an end, the doubts a clubhouse attendant named Kenyatta Gomez helped chase away, Ortiz on Saturday night sounded like a man who isn’t ready to cease and desist any time soon.
“I keep on working," he said. “I dream baseball, I eat baseball. I do everything based on baseball And I keep going at it.
“I haven’t stopped doing what I do. I know my game is power, so I chase power. I know my game is bat speed. I chase that. I don’t stop. Even on my worst day, I don’t stop. I’m still going at it, the way I used to.
“I know that if I stopped [working], everything would stop. So I don’t stop, man. I keep on working, bro. That’s all I can tell you. I keep on working."