Commentary

Papi to Pujols: Not to worry

Career advice from a (formerly slumping) slugger to another still mired in one

Originally Published: May 17, 2012
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz always pays attention to Albert Pujols -- they're friends and fellow Dominican Republic natives, after all. But he's watching Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels particularly closely these days.

Pujols is in a nasty slump, perhaps the worst of his career, and under severe scrutiny because of the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed as a free agent during the offseason. And if anyone in the world of baseball can relate to what he's battling through, it's Ortiz.

So it's worth listening to Ortiz when he says he isn't worried about the Angels' new first baseman.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonFor David Ortiz in the early part of the 2009 season, life was a pop-up in the rain.

"Albert Pujols? Let me tell you something about Albert Pujols," Ortiz says. "Albert Pujols is a bad mother f---er. The baseball world needs Albert Pujols."

Ortiz then settles back in his chair in front of his locker stall in the home clubhouse at Fenway Park and begins to recount his experience with very public slumps.

Boston's designated hitter began back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010 in awful fashion. Both starts were challenging for him, but he snapped out of his slumps even as many people thought the aging Ortiz's career was kaput.

Ask him which slump was worse, and he easily describes what he went through in 2009. The mere thought of his struggles in April and May of that season still causes him to shake his head in disbelief.

He didn't hit a home run until May 20 and batted only .218 in his first 106 games. He was frustrated. He was nervous.

"I spent two months with one home run, and I got exhausted mentally and physically," he says. "But it was more mental because it was too much of me trying different things and trying to figure out why I wasn't hitting homers."

He spoke with a lot of people -- probably too many people -- about his struggles and heard a lot of different ideas, but nothing seemed to help. He spent countless hours watching video. He worked with Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice would occasionally stop by his locker for a chat. Teammates tried to lend some support.

Ortiz was surrounded by caring people and state-of-the-art technology, but nothing was working.

Finally, as he explains it, he woke up one morning and realized the one person who might be able to break him out of the slump was a younger version of himself. He thought back to his preteen years growing up in the Dominican Republic and how much he loved to play the game.

"So I started thinking about little league," he says. "One day I just thought, 'Wait a minute. When I used to play little league, there was nobody telling me what to do, so let me go back to those days. I'm going to the field with a fresh mind and watch no video, no nothing, and I'm not going to listen to nobody. I'm just going to go see the ball and hit it.' That was it. That's all it takes. That's all it took me."

Despite a lowly .238 average, he finished the 2009 season with 28 home runs and 99 RBIs -- very productive numbers.

Then, in 2010, his start was nearly as bad: only one home run and four RBIs in April. But beginning May 1, he found his groove again, and finished the season with 32 home runs, 102 RBIs and a .270 average.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesAnother at-bat, another groundout for Albert Pujols.

So Ortiz looks at Pujols' current struggles -- through Wednesday night's game, he's hitting .213 with two home runs and only 17 RBIs -- and doesn't flinch. He understands.

"Of course, you want to prove people wrong," Ortiz says. "We always have to prove somebody wrong -- always. Not everyone is happy with what you do. There's always somebody who has something to say about what we do. Right now, there are people against [Pujols] because he's not hitting well and because of the money he got, which people need to get over because you would never get that kind of money by just sitting at home. You have to have done something to get paid like that, so people need to get that out of their head.

"On the other hand, there are guys making good comments about the things he needs to do to go back to the way he was. Tito [Terry Francona] put a lot of emphasis on what [Pujols] used to do and what he's doing right now -- that was perfect. That's the way people should approach baseball's superstar who is struggling like he is right now, because you need this guy in the game. You want this guy to go back to who he is so people believe in reality."

Ortiz watched Pujols and the Angels this past weekend on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," when the Angels played the Rangers in Texas. Pujols went 1-for-5, and the Angels lost 13-6.

Ortiz studied everything about Pujols' at-bats. He observed his friend's preparation and approaches, and tried to determine why there has been a major lack of execution. Suddenly, it seemed like he was watching his own video from '09 and '10.

"He's going through the same thing I was going through," Ortiz says. "At the same time, they are pitching him tough. I don't know what it is about baseball that when you're struggling, pitchers work extremely well against you. I watched the game on ESPN, and they barely gave him pitches to hit. It was either soft away or hard in. It wasn't anything in the middle of the plate."

Ortiz compares Pujols' struggles to what the Rangers' Josh Hamilton has been doing at the plate all season. (Hamilton went 2-for-5 with three RBIs in the game Ortiz watched.) They're at opposite ends of the offensive spectrum right now.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz and Albert Pujols
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBetter days for Ortiz and Pujols -- the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco.

"Hamilton is hitting .400, and he's going to find a way to get his hits," Ortiz says. "When you're struggling and they're pitching you tough, it's different than when you're hitting good and they're pitching you tough because [pitchers] are going to make mistakes. When you're swinging the bat good, you're not chasing bad pitches, so that's going to make pitchers throw the ball over the plate. When you're struggling, you're swinging at bad pitches and they're hitting their spots."

The way Hamilton is swinging the bat right now, he goes to the opposite field when a pitcher challenges him away. If the pitcher busts him in, he's able to turn on it.

As Ortiz sees it, Pujols, on the other hand, is pressing at the plate.

"Hopefully, at some point, he starts seeing better pitches, stops chasing bad pitches and that's going to get him to where he wants to be," Ortiz says.

Slumps, Ortiz knows all too well, are the nature of the baseball business. There is no avoiding them. And even as well as he's seeing the ball at the plate right now -- he's hitting .345 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs -- he knows how quickly it can go south.

"Let me tell you, Albert is a great friend of mine and sometimes it's good that [slumps] like that happen, so people understand that it's not as easy as it looks," Ortiz says. "Even the best players in the game struggle. He'll be out of it. I know Pujols so much, and I know that he's not taking anything for granted right now that things are really bad. He's working hard. He's trying his best. He's trying not to show any emotion. He's a good teammate and he's not blaming nobody but himself about the way things are going right now. He's taking it like a man.

"People at some point need to understand that as good as it goes for us, and we try to maintain that at that level, the same way it can go really bad. As a player, you develop and you show you have the talent to stay consistent at this game, and if you can do it, great."

There's a reason the Angels spent all that money to sign Pujols, of course. He posted a .328 career average with 445 home runs and 1,329 RBIs in 1,705 games during his time with the Cardinals. Oh, and two World Series titles, too.

"What he did his first 11 years in the majors didn't happen by accident," Ortiz says. "This might be the first player that with only 11 years in the league is a Hall of Famer. Seriously, think about it. He has Hall of Fame numbers."

That's the reason he was the most sought-after free agent on the market this past winter.

[+] EnlargeOrtiz
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmAll bad things (including slumps) will come to an end. By the end of 2009, Ortiz had celebrated 28 home runs.

"They found a guy who consistently through the years can come and provide good numbers, and that's hard to get," Ortiz says. "Where Albert Pujols is right now, he's not going to stay there forever."

When Ortiz was in those slumps during the early part of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, his ears rang with all the information he was trying to absorb from so many people. Based on that experience, he rarely talks baseball with Pujols during the frequent conversations he has with his friend.

"When we talk on the phone, I don't want to be telling him too many things as a hitter," Ortiz says. "We don't even talk about baseball. I tried to get him distracted with other things when we talk. Then, when we're about to say 'goodbye,' I'll tell him to let his mind relax."

The Red Sox and Angels don't meet until late August. Until then, Ortiz will keep his discussions with Pujols to subjects about everything except baseball.

"Of course, when I see my boy, we'll have a long conversation and I'll try to let him know the things that I have learned," Ortiz says. "Baseball needs Albert Pujols -- I don't care what anybody has to say."

By that time, Ortiz truly believes Pujols will be back to normal.

When asked whether he thinks Pujols is currently the best active player in the game, Ortiz says: "Yes. No question. He'll get back -- no question about it."

Slumps don't last forever, especially when you're considered one of the best professional hitters in the game.

Ortiz should know.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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