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Red Sox's David Ortiz took basic way out of slump

Slugger says he took a simple approach at the plate after struggling through the first two months of the season and it paid off.

October 11, 2009|Kevin Baxter

BOSTON — Everything about David Ortiz is super-sized.

From his left-handed swing, which cuts through the air like a plane's propeller, to the majestic home runs it produces. From his megawatt smile to his muscular 230-pound (wink, wink) frame.

Clearly "Big Papi" didn't come by his nickname by accident.

So it seems only natural that the first prolonged slump of Ortiz's career should be gargantuan as well.

The former American League home run champion waited more than six weeks for his first long ball this spring. Two months into the season, he was batting .185 with only the one home run and 18 runs batted in.

"I tried everything," Ortiz said. "I was about to start hitting right-handed, just to see if things changed."

It never came to that, since the slump disappeared as mysteriously as it came. From June 6 to the end of the season, Ortiz hit .269 with 78 RBIs and 27 home runs, leading the Boston Red Sox to the playoffs for the fifth time in his six seasons with the team.

That streak hasn't carried into the postseason, though, with Ortiz being hitless with four strikeouts in eight at-bats in consecutive Boston losses to the Angels in a best-of-five American League division series, leaving the Red Sox one loss away from their winter vacation.

Yet, despite the high stakes, two bad games are no match for two bad months.

"I still don't know what happened the first two months," Ortiz said. "But . . . I figured things out at one point. I just went back to the basics. Just come to the field. Try to hit the ball and that's it.

"And that's when things starting clicking."

Before that, Ortiz had to turn off his cell phone to avoid calls from well-wishers offering advice. He stopped reading the papers after a columnist called for the Red Sox to cut him loose, eating the $25 million left on his contract. And Red Sox Manager Terry Francona, told him to stop looking at his anemic statistics -- something Ortiz says he couldn't do.

"It's on the board every day," he said, pointing toward the scoreboard. "No way you're going to stop looking at it."

Things got so bad in May that Ortiz's father, Enrique, came to Boston to offer his support. His advice?

"It's not going to get any worse than this," the slugger said.

Which was probably true, as far as the games went. Off the field, things were much more grim.

Although it hasn't received nearly as much attention as the leaked results of Ortiz's failed 2003 drug test, the Red Sox designated hitter and first baseman has spent much of the last year worrying about his 55-year-old father, who has been dealing with a serious illness.

But Ortiz, who learned of his father's undisclosed condition last winter, has never used that as an excuse.

"I was having some personal problems. Like everyone. Things that you have to deal with in life," said Ortiz, whose mother, Angela, was killed in a 2002 New Year's Day auto accident in the Dominican Republic. "That's something, as a human being, that you always have. There's not one human being that doesn't have to deal with any crap."

Maybe. But there is no doubt his father's condition weighed heavily on the 33-year-old Ortiz.

Although Ortiz lived with his mother after his parents divorced, he has a close relationship with his father. In fact, it was Enrique, once a talented right-handed pitcher who inspired Ortiz to play baseball, in part to fulfill his own aspirations since he had to give up the sport and sell auto parts to support his family after his son was born.

The two talk almost every day. And not only was Enrique at his son's side during his slump, but he was there, in August, when Ortiz held a nationally televised news conference to discuss his failed drug test.

And unwittingly, it may have been Enrique who helped Ortiz find his way out of the slump by seeking solace in childhood memories, when he and his friends would sneak out of school early to play, using broomsticks as bats and bottle caps as baseballs.

"One day I just went, 'Screw it. I'm going to turn off my phone and, you know, just go and play the game like you're playing Little League,' " Ortiz said. "You don't worry about stats or anything when you're playing Little League.

"You've got to keep it simple to be successful. In Little League it was just like, 'Oh we're here. Let's go. Let's play.' "

That turnaround has been greeted with quiet approval in opposing clubhouses, says the Angels' Torii Hunter, a teammate of Ortiz's in Minnesota.

"He's always caring about other people," Hunter said. "You talk to all the baseball players, they love him. He doesn't have an attitude. He doesn't act big time. He's just fun."

Comments such as that, not the two-month slump, are what Ortiz says he's going to remember most about a season he calls both the most difficult and educational of his career.

"Fans, to me, are the best. They were behind me the whole time. It's something I'll never forget," he said. "Friends you get to know when the tough times show up. My friends are my family and that's about it.

"[But] I've got my teammates coming to me at the end of the season and telling me, 'Hey you know what? The best thing about the whole year was you were the same guy. Bad times, good times, you always stuck with us. You always were there for us. And that's what I really care about."

In Big Papi's world, it seems, the perspective is oversized as well.

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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