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Big Papi's sudden impact

An excerpt from Seth Mnookin’s book, Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top (Simon and Schuster).
By SETH MNOOKIN  |  July 20, 2006

BIG PAPI: Ortiz admires his clouts in a style Todd Walker once compared to “pimpin’. ” Ortiz makes no apologies. “If they don’t like it,” he said of opposing pitchers, “don’t let me hit it out.”
By midseason, it was clear the 2003 team was an offensive powerhouse on par with baseball’s all-time best. For the month of June, the Red Sox had four of the top 10 batting averages in the league: Garciaparra (.398), Millar (.373), Trot Nixon (.356), and Manny Ramirez (.351). The Sox led all of baseball that month with a team-wide .315 average. Combined with the team-wide .308 average in May, the entire roster had compiled one common benchmark for batting excellence over the course of two full months. In June, the team hit more home runs — 42 — than in any month since 1998 and scored more runs than in any month since 1961.

Perhaps most incredibly, they were doing this largely without the offensive firepower of David Ortiz. Ortiz began the year platooning at first base and designated hitter and hit only one home run in April, one more in May, and two in June. Halfway through the season, he had a total of only four home runs, half as many as Todd Walker, the team’s second baseman.

Still, the 6’4” slugger had already become one of the most popular people in the Red Sox clubhouse. He was, along with Millar, one of the team’s unrepentant cutups. His pendulous swagger and his ribald, needling sense of humor helped shift attention away from the increasingly sulky Garciaparra. When he arrived at the ballpark the afternoon of a game, Ortiz would stride into the Sox clubhouse wearing fluorescent polo shirts and wrap-around sunglasses and shout, to no one in particular, “What up, bitches!”* Even before he started playing every day and hitting for power, Ortiz was happier in Boston than he’d been in Minnesota. His six seasons with the Twins had been difficult ones. There had been the injuries, sure: the Minneapolis Metrodome’s artificial turf is punishing on players’ knees. But just as frustrating to Ortiz was the way the Twins coaching staff tried to turn a proud home-run hitter into a singles batter who slapped balls over infielders’ heads.

“When I first came to Minnesota, that’s when I was told, ‘Stay inside the ball . . . hit the ball the other way,’” Ortiz said after coming to Boston. “I was always a power hitter in the minor leagues. Everything changed when I went to Minnesota. Whenever I took a big swing, [the coaching staff would] say to me, ‘Hey, hey, what are you doing?’” Ortiz tried to go along with the Twins plan, but he wasn’t happy about it. “I said, ‘You want me to hit like a little bitch, then I will.’ But I knew I could hit for power. It was just a matter of getting the green light.”

Watching Ortiz, it’s hard to believe any coaching staff had ever asked him to cut down on his monstrous swings. As big and strong as Ortiz’s upper body is, it’s his lower body that is most impressive. As the ball approaches the plate, his back hip remains stationary, while his front hip closes slightly as he cocks his leg to time his swing. Then, using his flattened front foot as an anchor, he whips his bat through the strike zone in a motion one writer describes as “torquing like a motherfucker.” When Ortiz connects squarely, it is an inspiring sight, perhaps to no one more than the slugger himself: Ortiz admires his clouts in a style Todd Walker once compared to “pimpin’.” Ortiz makes no apologies. “If they don’t like it,” he said of opposing pitchers, “don’t let me hit it out.” The Red Sox didn’t want to see this power go to waste. During Ortiz’s first at-bat during spring training, he came to the plate with a man on first base. He tried to do what he had been taught in Minnesota: move the runner along to second. When he returned to the Red Sox dugout after his at-bat, Grady Little told him, “Hey, you’ve got to bring that guy in.”

“Okay,” Ortiz replied, a smile breaking out on his expansive face. “I guess I’ve got the green light to swing.”

With Jeremy Giambi ahead of Ortiz on the Sox’ depth chart and the emergence of Kevin Millar as Boston’s clutch-hitting mascot, Ortiz didn’t get a chance to build up momentum during the season’s first half. In April and May, he rarely played two full games in a row. Even in June, he only played sporadically.

That pattern was about to change. When Giambi — who, much to everyone’s disappointment, was batting only .173 — landed on the disabled list, Ortiz got his chance. He’d soon emerge as one of the game’s premier power hitters, and one of the best clutch performers in all of sports. Even before becoming a starter, he’d shown a penchant for coming up big when the game was on the line: his first home run of the season was a game-winning blast in the 14th inning of an April 27 game against the Anaheim Angels in which Ortiz had been sent in as a pinch-hitter for Giambi.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Baseball , Sports , AL East Division ,  More more >
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