FORT MYERS, FLA. – David Ortiz was having lunch at a table outside the Boston Red Sox spring training clubhouse. It was a paper plate dominated by avocado, with white rice and a few small pieces of chicken.
“One year, when I was 34 or so, I was 20 [pounds] over, and I got on this diet,” Ortiz said. “I take care of myself. I have to do it.
“Look at this plate. Do you think this is what I want to eat?”
He poked some avocado with his fork and said: “Eat good to hit good.”
Ortiz turned 40 last Nov. 18. He has declared this to be his final season as the superstar slugger of the Red Sox.
He was asked about his former teammate and friend with the Twins, Torii Hunter, going out as a 40-year-old with a strong final season in Minnesota in 2015. Does Ortiz see that and also want to go out while still producing numbers, rather than perhaps staying too long?
“That’s not it,” he said. “I’m going to retire because I never realized how hard it was to play baseball at 40. Your body, every day you’re just beat up. You have to listen to your body. For the last couple of years, my body has been telling me that it was almost time.”
There were epitaphs being written for Ortiz’s career when he had a long slump in 2014, and then he finished with 35 home runs, 104 RBI and a .263 average. There was skepticism for a time again in 2015 and he finished with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and a .273 average.
“I’m pretty confident that he has another good year in him,” said Jerry Remy, Boston’s longtime TV analyst. “He has been amazing, because if you look back through history, the home run production of sluggers usually falls off sharply after 35.
“One thing unique is that even the best hitters, as they get older, will speed themselves up to make sure they don’t get beat by a fastball. That makes them vulnerable to off-speed pitches.
“That happened to Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski] late in his career. He had a lot of trouble with the breaking ball.
“Papi … he still can get to the fastball and yet he punishes the off-speed pitches.”
It will be a year of raucous greetings for Ortiz as he gets his final send-offs in Fenway Park. Remy rates him as No. 3 in popularity among all-time Red Sox legends, behind only Ted Williams and Yastrzemski.
Ortiz has been “Big Papi” in Boston since early in 2004, the season in which his heroics were huge in bringing the Red Sox a World Series victory for the first time in 86 years. Two more championships have followed with Ortiz in the middle of the lineup and the drama.
“I’m proud to say that I gave him the Big Papi nickname,” Remy said. “He would greet everyone with ‘Hey, Papi.’ And one day I asked him, ‘David, is it OK if I start calling you ‘Big Papi’ on the telecast?’ ”
It was more than OK.
As Ortiz picked through his lunch of healthy eating, the Minnesota reporter said: “Big Papi might be the greatest nickname in baseball in the past 25 years.”
He smiled widely and said: “Not bad, right?”
David Dorsey from the Fort Myers News-Press was in on this lunchtime conversation with Ortiz. Obviously, we drifted back to the days before he was Big Papi, to those strange days in Minnesota when he hit 20 home runs and drove in 75 in 414 at-bats for the 2002 Twins … and then was released on Dec. 16.
“I had dinner with Doug Mientkiewicz last week,” Ortiz said. “He said Johan [Santana] stopped in the Twins clubhouse the other day, and they started talking about how much talent we had on that Twins team in 2002.”
Those were the last Twins to win a playoff series. They upset Oakland in the Division Series, then lost the ALCS to the Angels. And a couple of months later, Ortiz’s teammates heard the shocking news that a hitter they considered to be a top middle-of-the-order threat was going to be released.
What would have happened if Ortiz had stayed a few more years in Minnesota?
“The Twins would’ve won another World Series,” he said.
Terry Ryan, the Twins general manager in 2002 and now, has been asked the Ortiz question by any number of reporters this spring — and it figures to continue through Big Papi’s final season.
“Anyone who says it was a financial decision is dead wrong,” Ryan said. “It was a very bad baseball decision. We thought we had better options. We were wrong in a big way.
“It’s on me, nobody else. I’m the general manager. We don’t release big-league players without the general manager’s approval.”
Thirteen seasons later, with 445 home runs and 1,053 RBI in his Boston regular seasons, and with all of his postseason heroics, there’s still considerable hurt with Ortiz when he starts talking about his years going up and down in the Twins organization.
“Baseball is a tough game,” Ortiz said. “When it’s, ‘He can’t do this, he can’t do that, I’m not going to talk to him for a week, he has to change his game’ ... it’s a lot tougher.
“And I still had 20 [home runs] and 75 [RBI] in 400 at-bats in my last year. When I got 550 or 600 at-bats, what was it going to be? Thirty and 100, for sure.”
Ortiz paused and shook his head over another bad Twins memory from 1999: “I was in Triple-A in Salt Lake, hammerin’, and every team that we played, some player who had been in the big leagues would say, ‘David, what are you doing here? The Twins can’t score runs, they don’t have power, you’re exactly what they need.’
“Nobody could understand.”
Especially Ortiz, then 23 and hitting 30 home runs and driving in 110 in Salt Lake City, and waiting until mid-September to play in 10 games for the feeble Twins.
“Terry Ryan doesn’t feel bad just because he let me go,” Ortiz said. “He feels bad because he also knows the Twins treated me bad.”
He looked at the reporters and said: “Because I was a good kid.”
And then Big Papi, now 40 and headed into his final season of roaring cheers from an adoring Fenway faithful, repeated it with more feeling: “I was a good kid.’’
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org