"Little by little," said a guy with a thick accent behind me at Saturday's game as the aftermath of Papi's wall-ball double in the second inning died down. "Little by little, slowly but surely, he's gettin' theyah."
Yesterday, against wind and a steady drizzle, Papi hit a no-doubt shot to the opposite field to put the Red Sox on top 3-2, this time in the bottom of the first. This wasn't any half-assed homer. This was the real deal.
It started with the shot he hit June 10 against the Yankees, and then a steady simmer of doubles off the left-field wall, a sign of his power slowly returning. In at-bat after at-bat in the month of June, it's as if he's suddenly snapped into focus, standing back at the plate in that regal way he has when he knows he's gone yard, or motoring into second base with that trademark grin lighting up his face. So far this month, he's batting a cool .400, slugging .654, and his OPS is a 2007-like 1.054.
Suddenly, he's there.
I think the wrist has had something to do with these troubles of his. I also think the fact that his father is ill goes a long way toward explaining the slump. In fact, the most notorious slumps among Sox hitters over the last five years have eventually been linked to something terrible and personal going on off the field--divorce, the illness of a child or parent. A few people in the blogosphere have jumped immediately to steroids with Ortiz, because the revelations over the last few years have left behind a general paranoia about power hitters, which I hope will be temporary.
Lest you doubt the impact a serious threat to his father's health (which is how the Boston Herald report makes it out, though it doesn't specify the illness) can have on Papi's season, he lays it out in the interview:
“It was devastating,” said Ortiz. “I lost my Mom (Angela) eight years ago and she was the love of my life; still is. They couldn’t do anything. She died in a car accident and that was it. That hurt. (When I learned about my father) I was in shock. I felt exactly the same way I felt when my Mom passed away - that cold feeling, where you don’t know what to do? I had exactly the same feeling. It hit me pretty bad.
“Sometimes there are things you see coming and you can kind of get ready for it. This wasn’t like that. But we’re dealing with the situation and things are getting better. But it’s a tough situation, because one day you’re feeling great and the next you’re not. When I see him struggle like that, it hurts me. I haven’t learned how to deal with it.”
His father’s condition weighed on him throughout the winter and into spring training and the start of the season.
“My Dad is only 55,” said Ortiz. “I know him very well. It hurts me to watch him acting like he’s OK, knowing that he’s not. I think about him all the time.
“I never like to talk about it. I’m not a guy who likes to make excuses or anything like that and I’m not saying that this might be the reason why I struggled in the beginning. But sometimes, things get in your head and it’s hard to get them out.”
Barry Bonds Derangement Syndrome has clearly gotten to some of us out here on the Interwebs. But sometimes there's a simpler explanation; if your head's not in the game at this level, it'll eat you alive.
Yet even as he slumped, Big Papi has done what I've never seen another Red Sox star be able to do: he tamed the Boston audience completely. Not once have I heard a boo out of the crowd at Fenway, even on his most atrocious night. "Let's go Papi," remains the customary chant when he's at bat.
We're clearly in a sunnier mood these days - just ask Derek Lowe. Couple of World Series will do that for you. But it's also true that Papi has also proven himself untouchable in this town, and I also believe that the crowd has given him space to work in these difficult months as an overt gesture of respect.
Still, it's not our love for him that's in doubt here. It's whether he'll completely escape the early season's mire that remains unclear, just as it's unclear from the Herald report whether his father is on his road to recovery or has just settled into a more livable routine for now.
All this mashing Papi's done over the last three weeks brings his season batting average up to, gulp, .213. His season slugging is .370, and his season OPS is now up to .680, which is the lowest it's been since 2002, when he played 10 games and it was .200. He still has a long way to go.
On Saturday, after that double, there was a groundout to first, which may have cracked the handle of his bat to get this started, or maybe Papi just broke it right then and there, walking back from the plate, but either way I watched him arrive at the dugout steps with its splinters in each hand:
Later on, after a flyout, he tore off his batting helmet as he hit the dugout, and kicked it in frustration:
That was Saturday. Then came Sunday, and that moon shot against the rain. For most of Saturday night, he'd seemed looser than ever, joking and laughing with teammates and a few of the Braves here and there. Most signs, and the numbers, seem to be trending upward. But every so often I see these lingering signs of tension, and I worry.
A couple more thoughts on the past week or so of Red Sox baseball:
- Elsewhere on the roster, a more familiar dynamic between fans and players is taking place at Friendly Fenway: Boston has officially turned on Daisuke. Full-on Eckersley froth in the booth, the million-dollar DL trip, talk of starting him over from scratch, WBC conspiracy theories, and oh, the booing. Just in case anyone was thinking we'd gone completely soft around here, as a fan base we showed we still have it in us to collectively deride one of our own as Daisuke left the field on Friday.
UPDATE: JoS picked up on some analysis today about Daisuke, the WBC and the shoulder program which Matsuzaka has apparently elected not to participate in. "If Matsuzaka failed to follow the team's conditioning program and did not, in anticipation of the WBC, begin his spring training earlier, he deserves to catch a lot of the anger currently being directed at the WBC," Allan writes, and I agree. So boo away, Sox fans!
- Speaking of Eckersley in the booth, if Rem-Dawg's not careful, he could be looking over his shoulder when he gets back. Now that the Eck has relaxed into a little routine with Orsillo, he's been quite enjoyable.
- While Papi remains worshipped and Daisuke despised, opinions are divided on Nick Green. I received a comment that Green "will never inspire confidence" mere hours before Green hit the very first pitch of the bottom of the ninth out around the Pesky Pole for a walkoff win since dubbed the Father's Day Miracle. I maintain that he may not be the best shortstop in the world, but remain firm in the opinion that I would rather watch him than Julio Lugo.
- On my way out of the game Saturday, I almost tripped over Don Orsillo, who was trying to slip inconspicuously out the door on Yawkey Way and, uh, failed. He was quick, though, and moved off with noncommittal waves, crisis smile and deer-in-the-headlights eyes before I could get my act together with the camera. Sigh.