FORT MYERS, FLA. – When David Ortiz saw Kennys Vargas on a baseball field for the first time, he noticed a lot of similarities. The enormous body. The infectious smile. The exaggerated mannerisms. But once Ortiz watched the Twins’ power-hitting prospect at the plate, he realized they weren’t as similar as he thought.
C’mon — even Big Papi can’t hammer the ball that far.
“I heard he hit a light pole the other day,” Ortiz said in disbelief of his young admirer, pupil and friend. “Nobody’s hit a ball out there — ever.”
Actually, Vargas’ rocket clanged off the highest bulb of the Hammond Stadium light tower in right-center field, then bounced back 50 feet onto the field. It was just batting practice, but it quickly became a camp legend, just the latest for the Puerto Rican slugger. And it became interesting dinner conversation for Vargas and Ortiz, who have become close friends over the past couple of springs, with both the Twins and Red Sox training in Fort Myers.
“He’s a very talented kid, a good kid. Works really hard. I give him some advice,” said Ortiz, beginning his 12th season with the Red Sox after six with the Twins. “I like to help the young kids coming up, and talk about baseball, and teach them to do the right thing.”
The pair met about three years ago when Vargas told another Twins prospect, Miguel Sano, that he wanted to meet his boyhood hero, and Sano, like Ortiz a native of the Dominican Republic, arranged it. Then last spring, Ortiz remained in Fort Myers to rehab an Achilles injury, and he happened upon a Class A Miracle game that included Vargas.
“I watched this kid that basically kind of looked like me playing out there. And I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Ortiz said. “It gave me some flashbacks from when I played at this level in the Florida State League.”
Ortiz invited Vargas to his home and informally began tutoring the younger player in becoming a ballplayer. This spring, Ortiz has continued the friendship; they exchange text messages almost daily, and Vargas dines a Ortiz’s house — “He’s got a mansion, really,” Vargas said, wide-eyed — twice a week.
Their dinner topics? Hitting. Baseball. And hitting a baseball.
“He talks to me a lot about my career and what I have to do. Like take care of myself. How I can try to make the team,” said Vargas, who taught himself to switch hit five years ago. “He tells me if I want to stay with the Twins, I have to watch my weight.”
One other frequent topic? “He talks a lot about Manny Ramirez. He say he’s the greatest hitter he’s ever seen,” said Vargas, who like Ortiz is a first baseman/designated hitter. “He talks to me about Manny, Manny, Manny, Manny. I say, ‘I want to hear about you, not Manny.’ He say, ‘I can’t explain what I do. To know what to do, I watched Manny.’ ”
And Vargas watches Ortiz hoping to have a similar career, complete with championships. He got off to a good start in January, when he emulated Ortiz’s flair for the dramatic postseason home run. Vargas launched an eighth-inning grand slam in Game 6 of the Puerto Rican Winter League championship series last January to clinch the title for Mayaguez. “The most fun home run ever,” he said, smiling.
Hitting the light pole wasn’t bad, either, the sort of shot that causes the 6-6, 268-pound Vargas to say matter-of-factly: “I have more power, because I’m taller than Big Papi. He’s a big guy. When he wears the uniform, he looks big. BIG. But I can hit it farther, I think.”
Was that his farthest ever? “I’ve hit it two times now,” he said. “Is it my longest? Maybe I haven’t hit my longest yet.”
The Twins think so, too, which is why Vargas, 23, was added to the 40-man roster last November, and figures to start the season at Class AA New Britain, where Ortiz played in 1997. His power stroke is getting better by the day, and after hitting 19 homers and 33 doubles for Fort Myers last year, the Twins believe they might have a new Papi on the way.
“He’s just like Papi when we had him way back — you didn’t want to walk to the bathroom when he walked up to the plate because he might hit the ball 8,000 miles,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s going to be a special talent.”
Ortiz takes it a step further, pointing out his swing, his bat speed, his strength, his work ethic.
“I think he’s going to be a superstar,” Boston’s superstar said.