When brilliance hits a slump

In his five years with the Minnesota Twins, David “Big Papi” Ortiz struck me as a player with awesome potential who persistently underperformed, partly as a result of injuries. Regardless of his level of performance with the Twins, Ortiz’s behavior was that of a gentle giant.

At one game I attended with my two youngest daughters, we arrived early to watch batting practice from great seats in the first row. We said hello to Ortiz, waiting his turn on the field immediately below us. He casually went over to the dugout and returned with a pail of bubble gum to hand up to my kids through the railing.

The Twins let Ortiz get away in 2002 after his best season with the team. We were sorry to see him move on to the Red Sox. In Boston, however, Ortiz caught fire, helping the Sox to overcome the curse of the Bambino in 2004 with their first World Series championship since the Ruth trade.

This season has been another story. Ortiz is mired in a horrendous slump. Nicholas Dawidoff writes about the slump in a way that brings it to life and virtually puts the reader in Ortiz’s shoes. Dawidoff captures Ortiz’s appearance:

Many talented hitters, from DiMaggio to Bonds, are difficult, self-impressed men.

Not so Big Papi whose style of hitting, likewise, has always seemed lush, confident, charismatic–an expression of self. Mr. Ortiz in the on-deck circle is a study in amplitude, from the batting helmet crammed over his head like a bucket all the way down to his well-barbered muttonchops, to the extra helping of plantains at the belt, the black battlement padding one arm from errant fastballs, the bright red batting gloves–10 gallon potholders!–so many intriguing features that he looks custom-detailed, like a friendly truck.

Dawidoff is an eloquent writer and he concludes on a redemptive note: “[A]ll but the most spiteful among us hope that the only revelation lurking in Big Papi’s future is that his glory days are not yet gone. A slump without redemption is something too painful to contemplate, especially now, a time when Americans can really use a display of character overcoming a long ordeal, the sort of happy ending that has always resided deep in the grain of baseball.”

UPDATE by John: For many years the Twins were haunted by the ghost of Charlie Lau. As a result they ruined many potential sluggers. They almost ruined Ortiz, but fortunately for him they gave up on him and he escaped in time. After he became an established power hitter with the Red Sox, he said of the Twins, “They tried to make me hit like a girl!”

The real tragedy of Ortiz’s career, however, is that I’ve never had him on my fantasy baseball team until this year.

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