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November 05. 2012 10:44PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Paying the man, the hitter, David Ortiz


Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz watches a game between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half at TD Garden. (Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE)

THERE is no question that a portion of what the Red Sox will pay David Ortiz over the course of his new two-year contract is money essentially spent on public relations. If there was a question, it was answered in the Monday press release announcing the deal, which quoted General Manager Ben Cherington as first saying the man known as Big Papi was "an historic figure" and "a beloved hero" before eventually acknowledging that he's also "an important player."

After four straight seasons without a playoff victory, and the franchise's worst year in the past 47, however, it has to be the players who are of primary importance if the putrid performance of their 93-loss summer is truly to be the punctuation of this dark period. History, heroes and the pursuit of headlines - all partially to blame for this predicament - must be secondary.

But fortunately for the Sox, the re-signing Ortiz gives them both.

As popular as it is sure to be with the pink hats, the $26 million pact is good for Boston in the baseball sense, too, with the game's best designated hitter returning to a lineup that sorely missed him when he was lost to injury in July, and the presence of a Fenway-tested veteran returning to a clubhouse that sorely needs his leadership.

"We identified a number of things we wanted to do this winter, but the most important one was to work to get David re-signed," said Cherington, a Meriden native. "This is a very important first step in our offseason."

That was a conclusion the GM and his bosses apparently reached before the end of the season, expressing to Ortiz their desire to retain his services when they met with him in New York. Though he played only one game after July 16 because of an injured Achilles, and will turn 37 later this month, Sox brass didn't even bother to haggle.

After picking up his one-year option in 2010, and signing him to a one-year deal in 2011, they made clear from the start that they were willing to meet Ortiz's desire for a two-year commitment - and after negotiations the player described as "easier than ever," and without much back-and-forth, they struck a deal before the DH even made it to the open market.

"I know I'm a force in this organization and this ballclub, and Ben talked to me through the season, and a couple of my teammates," Ortiz said. "He let us know he wants to build this organization around us, and that's something I told Ben straight up - I'm up to the challenge."

Ortiz was preening with such confidence throughout Monday's press conference - and his self-belief comes supported by the numbers that justify his sizable salary.

When he was injured while circling the bases on July 16, he was Boston's leader in runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, walks (he had more than any two teammates combined), batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging and total bases. Furthermore, he was the American League leader in runs scored, times on base, OPS, and he joined Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano as the only two hitters ranked among the AL's top 10 in all three Triple Crown categories.

Eventually the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, of course, finishing with a 165 in the OPS-plus calculation that accounts for ballparks and rates players against the league average. Ortiz finished his season with an OPS-plus of 171 - equaling his career-best season of 2007, and bringing him to 151 when the previous three seasons are combined.

That production was badly missed, too. After the final game Ortiz played, the Sox were 46-44 and had scored more runs than any team in the majors, averaging an even 5 runs per tilt. Thereafter, including the one game for which he returned, they went 23-49, and scored 3.9 runs per contest. They plated three runs or fewer in 41 of those final 72 games, including 18 of the 35 before Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford were traded away.

That trade changed the complexion of the club, of course, but Cherington said it had no bearing on whether or not he wanted Ortiz back.

"David was a true leader on the team, helping all sorts of different people in that clubhouse - players, staff - get through some difficult times," said the GM. "I knew he was doing everything he could to make things better, not worse. It's a comfort to know we have players on this team who care and want to be here for the right reasons."

That idea of building around Ortiz is undoubtedly a prime reason the club was comfortable with adding a second year to his contract. It kept him away from free agency, where it would've only taken one team's multiyear interest to muddy negotiations - and Texas was reportedly interested - and it also adds credibility to his clubhouse presence.

Stability is a commodity, and while it comes at a cost, the Sox hardly paid an exorbitant price. Ortiz will reportedly receive $14 million this coming season; last year that would've made him the 38th-highest paid player in the game. In 2014, he'll get $11 million; 65 players made more in 2012.

The Sox will pay that for a hitter who was last year - and for much of the last 10 years - among baseball's elite. Whose numbers against left-handed pitchers suggest he's getting smarter with age. And who insists he'll do the work necessary to make sure his body can still deliver in these late stages of his career.

"There's one thing I'm going to make clear right here - I get prepared to play," he said. "I like to see the pain in the opposition. I like to win. The season is never over for me. I'm still working, still putting myself together right now, when everybody's vacationing. I love winning. I love performing well."

It's for those same reasons that Red Sox fans have come to love him as a historic hero. And why they can now continue to do so.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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